6 MIN READ
Writing can be wrenchingly difficult, but also fun. In this weekly series, I asked well-known Nepali authors such as Manjushree Thapa, Sarita Pariyar, Niranjan Kunwar, and Kunda Dixit to reflect on how they learned to write, who taught them, and what practical tips and suggestions they have for fellow Nepali non-fiction writers.
I asked them to tell us about favorite authors, favorite forms of punctuation, and favorite times of the day to write. I asked about researching, interviewing, writing, and publishing. Some authors responded with short essays, others preferred a question and answer style.
I found their answers interesting, inspiring, reassuring, and useful. I hope you do, too.
Shradha Ghale starts us off this week. Shradha has written about Nepali society and politics for various Nepali and Indian media outlets. Her three-part series on the consequences of the 2015 earthquakes on the Tamang community is among the most-read pieces on The Record. Her first novel, The Wayward Daughter: A Kathmandu story, was published in 2018.
Thanks to her and our other authors for sharing. Coming next week: Kunda Dixit.
Who taught you to write and how? How did you learn?
I learned basic grammar and vocabulary in school but the teachers didn’t teach me to write as such. I’d say I learned to write by reading. Magazines, newspapers, books outside the school curriculum. I’m still learning to write, I guess the process never ends.
How do you choose the topics you write about? How do you carry out your research? Are there any steps?
I don’t consciously choose or look for a topic to write about. I write when I encounter an idea or an incident that moves me in some way (though I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good approach). Once I come across an idea or incident that arouses my curiosity or anger or surprise, I try to read up on the subject and talk to relevant people before writing about it. For example, a few years ago I wrote about national parks because I had been hiking through various protected areas in Nepal and realized that the sacred cow called conservation is not that sacred after all.
What tips or realizations or activities helped you improve?
One thing I learned during my travels in Nepal is not to fall for eloquent talkers. In my experience, often the best talker in a village discussion group is a high-caste man. He knows the language, he knows the system, he knows what this Kathmandu journalist is looking for. It is tempting to fill my notebooks with his clear and well-put-together responses. But confidence and eloquence are not the preserve of historically marginalized groups, many of whom cannot even speak Nepali. So if I want to know what the women, Dalits, or Janajati in the room are thinking, I have to put in extra effort to draw them out, listen, or have a separate conversation with them.
Who are your favorite writers or books/articles?
There are so many. Among living Nepali writers (those who write academic or popular nonfiction in English) – Manjushree Thapa, Pratyoush Onta, Seira Tamang, Deepak Thapa, Amish Mulmi. Among Nepali language columnists, Sabitri Gautam, Sarita Tiwari, Sarita Pariyar, CK Lal, Aahuti, Khagendra Sangroula, Yug Pathak, Ujjwal Prasai, among others.
Why is writing so hard? Have you ever been really discouraged? What do you do when your writing energy flags?
For me, the most difficult thing is to get started and come up with a first draft. As soon as my energy flags, I get distracted by things that have nothing to do with writing. Often I take refuge in reading. Reading is so much easier and way more fun!
Where do you write and at what time? Do you have writing rituals?
I like to write in the morning but that’s not always possible. On good days I wake up early and try to write or at least stare at the computer for a few hours before talking to anyone or checking my phone.
Any favorite technological tools?
I only know how to use MS Word.
Any favorite books about writing?
I thought ‘Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White was a useful book when I read it in my early college days. William Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’ is another famous book that offers practical advice on nonfiction writing. (More literary-minded people may find these books a little too practical.) George Orwell has two great essays on writing – ‘Politics and the English Language’, which dissects some of the “bad habits” in English writing, and ‘Why I Write’, where he lists out his reasons for writing. These days I’ve also gravitated towards books that deal with the social aspects of technology, not because they offer advice on how to write, but because they remind me of the dangers of spending too much time online. These include writers like Shoshana Zuboff, Carl Newport, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, and others.
What are the secrets of being productive?
If productivity means the ability to do a great amount of rigorous work, I think it requires a combination of discipline, stamina, inner drive, and a degree of talent. Of course, I say this based on observation, not experience!
What are the biggest mistakes young writers make?
When I was young, I saw money, fame, and fulfillment as essential rewards of writing. Later I realized writing is a path paved with uncertainty, self-doubt, and a constant reckoning with your own limitations. Often it brings little or no money. If, despite all this, one still wants to write, it’s a wonderful thing and by all means one should.
What do you like about writing? What part gives you satisfaction and why?
Everything I want to say about writing has been said by far greater minds in much more compelling language. So in response to your question, I can’t help quoting the American writer Marilynne Robinson: “The difficulty of it [writing] cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling.” Ultimately, I suppose this meditative aspect of writing is what I value most about writing.
You mentioned writing is a poorly paid job, how do you or writers in general manage?
I depend on freelance work for money. And it helps that I don’t have to support a family.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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