On Finding Time To Create

Within the first week of moving back to campus, I’ve been spending almost all my time with my friends, going to events, settling into my new dorm, doing work for student orgs, or just getting caught up in the day-to-day functions of sleeping, showering, working out, etc. I had forgotten how all-consuming my life in college is compared to the slow, steady work habits I’d developed over the summer at home. More than anything, I was stunned and frustrated when I realized that, after spending two hours tweaking and perfecting my semester’s Google calendar, I would have very little time for my own personal endeavors: for my writing, reading, and all the creative work I love and need to do.

In years past, I’ve completely relinquished my own creative passions and pursued my schooling with a crazed fervor. During the academic year, nothing mattered to me except class, work, and deadlines. I remember waking up at 2 am in high school to study for AP Chemistry (the class bulldozed me, to say the least) and spent my free time creating lessons plans for the Islamic Studies program I worked at. If I did create or consume, it was just either therapeutic or for a class– not real, substantial work that tested the limits of my imagination. But coming to Michigan has made me realize that though this academic religiousness is certainly well-intentioned, it cannot possibly be an end in itself. I have to take what I’ve learned and do something with it, to create, to live– for various people, this can mean different things, but for me, it means to write.

But there’s a problem. I have no time to write. Between classes and evening e-board meetings and hitting the gym and hanging out with friends and studying, there is very little left in my schedule that I can truly say belongs to me. How do I find time to create in this busy, big, bustling world? I am reading Aristotle, Dickinson, the earliest greatest novels and the works of contemporary geniuses, scouring textbooks and poetry alike– but where do I find myself? Where am I in this cosmic narrative? How do I write myself in?

I’ve been obsessing over this question. How do I write myself in. Surely, I can’t do this year what I’ve always done, which was to sell myself away during the school year and win myself back for creative pursuits in the summer. I can’t expect to be a good writer and write only three out of twelve months in the year. More than anything, I don’t want to mindlessly drift through my life, desperately trying to find my last bit of control and individuality that has been buried beneath my other commitments.

So I looked at my calendar. Then I looked at it again. And again (I’m still looking at it now, in fact). I think I’ll try to sneak an hour or two of work before I leave for class in the morning, and maybe thirty minutes of reading before I go to bed at night. It’s not the perfect plan, but I think that it’s possible.

Passions, I think, are not possessed by rare and ingenious people. People are not born with passion. We create it. We nurture it, like a small child, or a plant, or any other living, breathing thing; it needs care, it needs to be protected, and it needs to be given space and time. We all care about things. But how much? That’s what separates a creator from a consumer. It’s not our talent or our passions that matter. It was never about that. It’s how much we’re willing to fight for them.

And if fighting means making a little bit more time on my Google calendar before and after bed, then so be it. I guess I’m on the battlefield. Bring it on.

When My Religion Censors My Art

There has never been a part of my life in which my religion has not held some central role. It is the governing feature of my existence: It owns a pulpit throne in the very middle of my consciousness, the King of my decisions, the Queen of my temptations and desires, the angel and the devil of all my human actions. With the swiftness of an iron-heavy gavel, it crushes those fleeting impulses of my heart and tells me: No, or sometimes, Yes, or sometimes reminds me, You are human, you are human, you are so, so, so human.

And so when I make art and write my carefully crafted stories, I am censored by this King within my brain, telling that there are some things that I cannot say… some things are ugly to be exposed in literature, some things are blasphemous and immodest. Like when you see rape scenes in movies, or the murders of black men, or the abuse of children– yes, of course, these are realities for many people, but you must tread gently, for you have given these sentiments power. So if the scenes of rape that are not honest enough, you have reduced reality to entertainment rather than elevating to the level of art.

The moment a story is crafted, I believe there is some process of glorification happening. The moment something in captured in words, you have given a level of attention that nothing else has earned, and in that way, you have given it power. And so that King in my brain, that overawing dominant religious force inside of me tells me that I must be careful what I give power to… that there are things not worth saying. There are stories that are too dangerous and too ugly to be glorified in a form of art.

As someone with a particularly Muslim background and upbringing, most of my characters tend to reflect me in that way. And recently I’ve written short story where the main Muslim makes a quite blasphemous decision and it’s been torturing me for while now. The King in my brain has been pulling all sorts of levers and pushing buttons madly to make it all stop, but something inside of me has broken loose, and I have looked at thing that I’ve created, this art that I’ve made and given power to– And there is one conclusion that keeps thrumming in that painfully vigilant heart of mine: I believe that we must not always indulge that King. Sometimes art is not moral– sometimes it is only true. And perhaps the only good thing is not always goodness itself, but the world told in truth, fully and beautifully. That is enough.

Discovering Dickinson

Recently, I have been reading a lot of Dickinson poetry for a class I’m in. It was like stumbling upon something I never knew I needed– this sharp intake of intense and almost painful breath, but which somehow expanded my chest and helped me feel with more clarity. I am so incredibly taken by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I like poetry– I knew that coming into this class– though I didn’t do it for simple pleasure. I liked it the way one likes a nice sunset with no one to share it, a starry sky without a map of the constellations, a lovely glass of wine amidst chatter– the slight recognition of something one cannot know, the offering of a few intrepid interpretations, and a pleasurable indifference to the God-given beauties of the world. Isn’t that such a horrible way to go about living? To feel only the things that affects one’s life and ignore everything else… or to brush aside those deep, dark, unexplored but richly felt emotions… to pursue just that flighty, ugly happiness that comes and goes… to be half-human…

Emily Dickinson is not half-human. She is so human that it hurts. She is so human that it makes those sunset-star- watching, wine-drinking detached fools say things like “I am glad to not live near her”, or that her poems did not rhyme or flow well enough, or that she wrote small garden poems… she felt things so deeply and purely and her poetry is nothing but emotion manifested in language, arguments given form, death breathed to life.

Needless to say, she has inspired me so. It is fascinated to find myself in her poetry. She agonizes over her lack of faith, over death, over fame, over God– and these things torment her, I think. I think they kind of torment me, too. And it is beautiful– I would argue maybe sacred– to realize this in words. It has been the greatest pleasure to read her work.

Passion to Profession

I asked my Creative Writing professor a question that I think about so often– “How has the act of writing changed for you now that you it as a job?” One of the things I fear most about the future is the translation of my passions into my profession. My professor responded with an honest and real answer: He said reading had changed so that he was constantly scouting for techniques and strengths in the text as assets to replicate in his own… that the act of reading had become, more or less, a refined practice of study, and the act of writing a regimented and structured act upon which the framework of the rest of the day was built. “The awed and raw fascination of it all, of reading a new short story, or gawking at characters for the very first time…” he explains, “I suppose it is not gone, but it is different.”

This terrifies me. I didn’t have to even ask him for this answer– I knew it would be the reality. I cannot imagine looking at the world as a writer through the eyes of a mathematician or a scientist, constantly trying to pin down the variables and processes that will perfect my writing. Joy and passion are the chemicals of the artist, and once that is jaded… what have you? Just work, is all. Just another thing to do. Just another monotonous action to defy time, to defy death, to fill the voids of existence.

As an individualistic society, we are taught to pursue those things which satisfy us internally, but the problem with passion is its flightiness, its restless reincarnation from person to person, until we are halfway through our lives sitting behind a cubicle at some editing firm squeezing in time between coffee breaks for our latest novel, telling ourselves that this is it, this is the one, the same thing we’ve told ourselves for thirty years– or we’re giving another speech in front of a crowd of college students who are rapidly firing questions about our latest best-seller, and repeat the same twenty answers that we’ve given for years now, and head home to fulfill the rest of our day’s writing quota.

Maybe this is all a grossly amateur way of looking at things, but I know one thing for certain– I cannot possibly allow myself to lose that wonder and awe for everything that I love. No matter my success and my relationship to my work, the act of creating has intrinsic value, the strong declaration into the universe that I was here. I existed. And I suppose that it is work– it must be– but so long as I never lose that rose-colored lens, so long as I never look at a work of art as anything less than divine, I suppose it will be okay. And we don’t do it because we get attention or compensation… we do it because, as my professor said, “It is central to our self-concept. It is who we are.”

English Elitism

We live in a culture and a world in which English is seen as the tentpole to the entire universe. It dominates spheres of social media, film, and internet interactions– if you don’t know at least a little bit of English, a whole world of knowledge and privilege are completely inaccessible to you. This Western leverage has manifested itself not in more diverse education, but the ugly opposite: A kind of linguistic elitism and exclusionism.

I recently watched an Indian film called English Vinglish where this idea plays out. The main character Shashi is a homemaker in India and runs a small sweet-making home business. She is constantly backhandedly belittled for not understanding English by her white-collar husband and academically accomplished high school daughter. She cycles between emotions of inferiority and inadequacy. Shashi gets the chance to visit New York City when her niece, who grew up in the US, is getting married here; and, in a fit of exasperation and impulse, Shashi secretly enrolls in an English class in the city before the wedding. She gains confidence and pride in herself, not just by learning English, but by defining herself apart from as well as with her family. This is a woman’s self-discovery of her worth, independence, and intelligence– but it is also a profound social commentary on the toxic way linguistic elitism has negatively affected non-Western countries.

There is a heartbreaking scene in which Shashi is trying to order some food when she first arrives at New York City. She is tripping over her words, unable to understand the pace of the words, and made to feel worthless and stupid. The impatience and maltreatment of the store clerk is explosively unjust– and why, because she cannot speak a language that is not her own? A language that she truly has no need to know? It would be an outrage to any American to even think of being disrespected in that way if we were in a foreign country.

(You can watch the clip of the scene below from YouTube)

Imagine a white man visiting a rural village in India, trying to order a coffee without speaking the local language. I’d assure you that it is highly unlikely that the store clerk would even think to treat him the way Shashi had been treated for being an influent foreigner in the movie.

It is important to realize the privilege with which we stand in this country, and to strip it down when we see ourselves misconstruing our undeserved advantages. Knowing English is not a mark of intelligence. Speaking English fluently is not a mark of education. Living in an English-speaking country does not make us better. And if we want to make all people feel welcome and included in our nation– people like Shashi, who have so much wisdom, culture, and art to offer us– then we must eradicate any notion of linguistic elitism.

If anything, I’m sure we can spare a few seconds while punching in someone’s order for coffee.