Whenever I accompany my husband to a work dinner, someone invariably asks me, “And what do you do? Are you also a physician?”
Like many writers, I struggle with claiming that title, so I rarely mention it. I almost always quip that I’m employed by our three kids, or simply state that I’m a stay-at-home mom.
The reply is often, “That’s the most important job in the world,” or “Sounds like you have your hands full,” as if I’ve just confessed something that begs for affirmation. I’ve often wondered what it is about mothering that calls out the inner cheerleader in people. I’ve never once regarded one of my husband’s colleagues with wide eyes and said, “I bet that keeps you busy!”
I didn’t write this summer. Not only were my children home from school all day, but it was Ramadan and we were finally moving into the house we’d been rebuilding from the foundation up for close to two years. It was too much to juggle, the boxes, the hunger, the thirst, the late night iftars, and I thought it would help to declare an official break. Maybe then I could stave off the frustration of trying to write and not getting anything done.
Even when I took a short break for a writing fellowship in Aspen, I came home and got right back to not writing. I unpacked boxes, made arrangements for our unfinished deck, and refinanced our construction loan. At night, I revised my long lists of to dos, filled with subcontractors to call, items to order, items to buy, items to return. During the day, I went from room to room, organizing closets, washing linens that had been in storage for two years and putting them away, asking myself about every mismatched towel, table cloth, and drape, “Why? Why did we bring this?” I waited for the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter, the painter. And still I didn’t write anything. I didn’t look at my manuscript, only rarely scribbled in my journal, and hardly ever read. “This so much better,” I reminded myself. “Get everything done now and then you can focus in the fall.”
But that frustration I thought I was avoiding by lowering my expectations never relented. It chased me down daily if not hourly. Coursing in the back of mind was always this loop of accusations: “You’ve lost your way this time;” “You can’t be a serious writer if you can take such long breaks from your work;” “There must be a minimum word count a week that distinguishes the real writers from fakers like you.”
Two and a half years ago, I left my financially comfortable global marriage for an expired passport and economic uncertainty. It was the saddest and bravest decision I’ve ever made. The US economy teetered in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There was no alimony, and I had not worked in twelve years.
The fear of “what ifs” loomed in monstrous proportions. I had no soft spots to land and no deep-pocketed family members to help me start over. Leaving meant leaping into a terrifying yet potentially poetic abyss.
Marriage had furled me tight. I couldn’t celebrate my complexities, and I longed for a different rapport with my spirituality. I felt like a fat and undesirable failure, and how I experienced my identity within the relationship wasn’t what I wanted to be out in the world.
When you find that you can’t locate yourself in a significant part of your known world, you have a spiritual obligation to make a new map. I jumped wide and fierce into the unseen with no compass.
I started an anonymous, now defunct blog. I had one published book and an anthology essay out in the world, but this secret writing felt unusually invigorating. My hands shook with unspoken truths so badly that I had find release. The words dribbled from my fingers as their own life forms. The writing was raunchy, irreverent, and always deeply personal.
I wrote about everything and everyone, although identities were kept secret. I admitted how I felt undesirable and then documented with questionable discretion the men who proved otherwise. But in those debilitating moments of post-divorce trauma, when nothing seemed to exist except fear and self-loathing, writing offered sanity and empowerment.
Sometimes, the best survival kit is one that includes only hope, prayer, and writing.
The things you learn when writing your first novel:
- Novel-writing is a lonely process.
- Your first novel relies heavily on a blend of things you’ve actually experienced, people you’ve actually known, and your wild imagination.
- God help you, you have no idea what a second novel looks like once you’ve run out of experiences to mine.
- Having imaginary conversations with yourself and with people you know helps with plot breakthroughs.
- Having imaginary conversations with yourself and with people you know will make you look like a crazy person.
- The right triggers will elicit the right memories so vividly, it’s like being in Sherlock Holmes’ Mind Palace.
- Sometimes you will spend hours down a rabbit hole of researching types of farmhouses for sale in Connecticut and their realistic distance to Manhattan in order to get the details right in a scene.
- Sometimes you will spend days on one chapter and it will be complete and utter crap.
- Sometimes, you will spend fifteen minutes on a chapter and it will feel as Minerva emerging fully formed from the head of Jupiter: brilliant and beautiful and powerful.
The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Souls are like crowds, which gather together. The ones who met before get along well. The ones who did not meet before, cannot get along very well and separate.” (Bukhari, Anbiya, 2; Muslim, Birr, 159; Abu Dawud, Adab, 19).
I believe soulmates exist. Believing in soulmates is equivalent to believing in the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy- people scoff and laugh at me. Some even sit me down and try to reason with me. They explain how there is no way that human relationships go beyond the realm of what we know.
But I know otherwise.
She wrote, “The repeated use of [the word normal] haunts me. The repeated use of that word inspires me. I believe that stories matter, that who gets to tell a story has real, tangible consequences for people’s lives, that knowing means at least a shot at not hating. It is my hope that if we tell our stories often enough and well enough, we can achieve something even better than tolerance.”
Because stories do matter, Jennifer decided to develop a site focusing on non-majority narratives with an emphasis on the Muslim story, but one that also provided insightful advice on the writing process.
She launched storyandchai.com in February 2014. The site has already featured several non-majority Young Adult writers coupled with timely publishing advice from agents. Storyandchai has also featured columns and posts from Salaam, Love’s Mohammed Shamma, LoveInshallah.com’s Aisha Saeed and Deonna Kelli Sayed.
Storyandchai is enlarging the space for narratives from the margin. In the name in all that is loved on a Friday, go visit this site. Tell your friends about it. Follow storyandchai on Twitter. Consider submitting your own narrative.
I was on a conference call one evening last week when my call waiting beeped at me. It took me a few seconds to recognize the number since I only see that area code a couple times a year. It was my dad. I let it go to voicemail.
I waited until the next day to check the message. His voice came amicably through the receiver and he chided me jokingly about turning 40 a few weeks earlier. My dad doesn’t celebrate birthdays, so I thought it was odd that he was calling me about it until I realized the real reason for his call: an annual religious celebration that is part of his church is coming up soon. He wanted to remind me about that.
I left my dad’s church for good in my early twenties, after a long struggle between the teachings I grew up with and my own personal beliefs that had gradually evolved from age, experience and study. My father’s church instructs that members should not associate with people who leave the faith, and that includes family. When I left, I did so with the knowledge that my dad would no longer be an active part of my life.
Having been through the process of losing the religion of my youth and choosing a new path (Islam), I firmly believe that there is no more fundamental or sacred right that each human being has than to explore their spirituality on their own terms. And yet, as I have experienced, it is often the people closest to us that want to control that sacred right and who feel justified in punishing us if our seeking leads us in a direction different from their own.