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Magical chair of nails
Becoming a writer in a second language

November 29, 2002
The Iranian

Less than a year ago, I made one of the most important decisions of my life: I quit a prestigious job in the world's hub --the coveted New York City-- for the quiet of the country. I chose a writer's life. Happily I emptied my desk, neatly leaving sharpened pencils and boxes of paper-clips for that unknown successor, with what I hoped to convey the sentiments of my happy departure. The place had been good to me and I wanted to leave good behind.

The employee directory and several office handbooks stood on the shelves, as I filled my boxes with novels and note pads, and my mind with the certainty of the ease with which the words were to flow through my fingers and onto my keyboard. I left the skyscraper into which I had walked so anxiously every Monday morning for years and drove away with the thrilled speed of the car of a Just Married couple, except that I was Just Unemployed.

And thus began the hermetic life I had always believed to be my destiny. Day after day I awoke, went down to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of tea and expected ideas to flood my head as I ascended the stairs to my study. Why wouldn't I have such an expectation? I come from a culture in which writing is a metaphysical act.

In Persian, a poet doesn't write poetry, she "tells" it. That subtle shift from writing to telling had long defined my expectations of how writing should feel. Telling seems as natural and effortless as casual speech. Picking up a pen -- or typing as I do -- becomes the same as opening one's mouth and humming a tune.

Telling has no trace of sweating. It goes against the swelling feeling of an exhausted head that has wrestled to fine-tune a thought. Telling has a hint of a biblical miracle: an ordinary shepherd finds himself on the mountaintop to discover the flame of divine inspiration or illiterate man suddenly realizes that he can indeed read.

Persian lexicon aside, there was the example of all those formidable role models who never spoke of writing as anything less than magical. Shamlou has always been portrayed as a possessed man. He was alleged to be struck with inspiration in the middle of parties, where he would simply abandon all company to be alone in a corner, jotting down notes. His urge would have such immediacy that he would find himself unable to postpone it by waiting for a more appropriate time or locating a notebook or piece of paper. He wrote on the flap of matchbooks and on cigarettes wrappings.

Forough Farrokhzad referred to her own creative bouts as "happy sicknesses," thus doing her part in mystifying the act. In a collegial tête-à-tête, the poet Mani, whispered the question in my ear, "So, Roya, when does it come to you?" and quickly proceeded, "It kills me when it doesn't come." He too talked about writing like some unstoppable human urge, like desire or hunger.

With the wisdom of such literary predecessors, I sat to write my tome some nine months ago. Day after day, no muse leapt before my eyes, but only a solitary cursor on a blank monitor screen in a most ordinary landscape of File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Window and Help. In that lineup, Help was the only word that stirred my imagination. I wrote an uninspired line and then stared at it. I bolded it, italicized it, underlined it and it still remained as uninspired as ever.

One by one, I pulled down the menus, like a lone woman in a bar, hoping for an uplifting song to come out of a broken jukebox. And when weeks went by and my lines did not shed their flatness, I could do little but think about my predicament. Nights went by without a wink. And still, I descended the stairs day after day, poured myself a cup of tea and reported to my desk. Some days, I had the same anxious feeling of my New York Mondays.

Lightening finally struck, but not in the way that I had expected. It was not among a party crowd that I first sighted the muse. Nor did my sickness, my insomnia, feel happy at all. And the natural "coming" that Mani spoke of, alas never blessed me. But I made a wholly new discovery. I learned that the push to write is against human nature. The process I underwent on a daily basis was best captured by a professional athlete, who likened her daily running routine as exposing herself to getting hit by a hundred nails. To subject my mind to the rigors of true writing is to choose to sit on a chair of nails from nine to five, every day.

Physicists described it best by saying that the inclination of all objects is to be in a state of chaos. That goes for writing too. The mind prefers not to examine every word, write a sentence and examine the relationship of the new sentence to the one before and ask itself, at every period, whether the latest sentence tells with utmost clarity what the writer meant. The mind would rather not have to inspect whether one paragraph follows the logic of another. If forced, it would much rather spew a few metaphors here and there and leave it to pretty ambiguities to finish the job of an unrefined idea.

To do the kind of writing that I needed to do, I had to first unlearn most of my Iranian education. Writing is not telling. I stopped looking for inspiration to come from some superhuman heaven. The seat of writing is in the human mind. Its manifestation not only expresses the passion of that mind but also its fashion -- how a mind sees and deciphers the world and how it presents that learning with clarity and simplicity.

Though they never articulated it, masters such as Forough and Shamlou must have known this truth. They knew that only the artisan can give birth to the artist. And yes, writing can be both magical and miraculous, once that unmentionable part reconciles with the daily touch of a chair of nails.

Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell me to fix it.

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