Mariam Pirbhai is the author of a debut short story collection titled Outside People and Other Stories (Inanna 2017), praised by award-winning novelist Shani Mootoo for its “clear-eyed compassion, generosity and literary brilliance.” Her short fiction has also appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Her Mother’s Ashes, Vol III (Mawenzi), and Pakistani Creative Writing in English, jaggerylit and the Dalhousie Review. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, and the President of CACLALS (the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies), which is one of Canada’s largest literary associations. She lives and works in Waterloo, Ontario.
My Two Writing Selves: A Heady Affair
Now that my first book of short fiction, Outside People and Other Stories, is out there in the universe alongside my academic works, I am increasingly asked (and asking myself) how these two aspects of my writing life—the creative and academic—get along. Can they find enough common ground to stay the course? Or will they be each other’s undoing? Is this going to be a perpetual war of the words, so-to-speak, or can each of these distinct writing selves come together, not just as flirtatious one-night stands but as an enduring and meaningful partnership? For now, I can only offer some reflections on a few of the ways in which my two writing selves co-exist like paramours entangled in a heady affair:
Research: Their ‘Happy Place’
We are often guided by the platitude “to write what we know,” but even when writing about what we know we realize there is always something more to be learned. For instance, we may have lived on a street or in a town all our lives but it is only when we start writing that we realize we have more unanswered questions than knowledge at our disposal: did this house always stand on this corner of the street? Is this tree indigenous to the area? What was produced in that old factory before it was turned into a luxury condo? And so the process of data gathering begins. And this is when the academic and creative writing selves cozy up to each other like paramours meeting for a secret rendezvous at a dimly lit restaurant on a Monday afternoon. You can never over-research a subject in academia—indeed, your expertise depends on it. On the other hand, maybe you don’t have to delve into your sources quite as zealously for a work of fiction as you would for an article in a scholarly journal, but good story-telling calls for good research skills. Even the habits of good old-fashioned observation may count as research in the creative writing process, as it did for some of my characters in Outside People and Other Stories, such as the chambermaid at the Mexican tourist resort in “Sunshine Guarantee.” Sometimes just talking to family and friends is research enough, while at other times specialized knowledge is required, both of which were indispensable to my stories “Bread and Roti,” which delves into the psyche of a Pakistani émigré diagnosed with throat cancer, or “Chicken Catchers,” narrated from the perspective of a temporary migrant worker from Jamaica working at a chicken farm in Southern Ontario. In other words, research, in whatever way makes sense for the subject at hand, is something both of these writing selves—the creative and academic—share with unbridled passion.
Writing as Process: Irreconcilable Differences?
Things get a little hairier for our paramours when the writing process begins. They’re both smart enough to see the reasons for their attraction: both can find themselves wrestling with one word or one sentence for days on end. Self-editing skills are, likewise, essential components that each of these partners can share to great effect. And both instinctually relate to the shared experience of production, which usually consists of intensive periods of frenzied activity, or long silent stretches staring into the illuminated blank page of a Word-doc file. However, friction—even some degree of envy—arises in the academic writing self’s recognition that the creative writing self is wholly unattached, and thus enjoys a greater degree of freedom in the relationship. After all, the creative writing self can be as wordy or succinct as it pleases! It can laugh out loud or take emotional risks, while saying “structure be damned!” and “Thesis? What thesis?” Heck, it can even throw punctuation out the window! And sometimes the academic writing self–when it isn’t busy resenting its carefree significant other—goes so far as to try to emulate the creative writing self’s reckless abandon. But soon enough the former retreats from the path of the latter’s seduction, overly conditioned as it is by its scholarly training to compartmentalize or perish! So, while the two writing selves can relate to, even be seduced by, each other’s mutual respect for some of the fundamentals of good writing, certain habits of the writing mind are hard to break, invariably foreshadowing the kinds of irreconcilable differences lurking behind each paramour’s writing process.
Time: The War of the Words
Time heals all wounds, they say, but for these paramours Time is the enemy. Time is where those minor quarrels and lovers’ tiffs—common enough for such heady affairs–escalates into a full-scale war over nothing less than total control of the Word. Outside People and Other Stories was written in just such an environment of protracted warfare, the creative and academic writing selves jostling for supremacy over competing deadlines and messy priorities. The academic writing self, which likes to think it has territorial rights over Time—a highly dubious claim since the creative writing self was articulate well before the academic writing self could walk or talk—shores up its defenses, stooping so low as to engage in elitist blackmail. “I’m the breadwinner around here!” the academic writing self boasts in customary fashion, as the creative writing self grows sulky and browbeaten, being the introspective and sensitive kind. While the academic writing self congratulates itself for another feat of verbal victory only a handful of likeminded specialists will ever read, the creative writing self pulls itself together in its quiet and self-effacing way, and writes against the clock of the academic writing self’s momentary distraction, producing, in record time I might add, a complete and polished manuscript titled Outside People and Other Stories! By the time the academic writing self returns from the fanfare of conference circuits and scholarly-much-ado-about-something-or-the-other, the creative writing self has securely inserted its victory flag into the bedrock of my existence. Even the academic writing self’s ego is taken down a notch when it sees that the creative writing self’s work is receiving its fair share of accolades and, horror of horror, critical attention! So, in this rare moment of mutual admiration, the two sides call a truce—at least for time enough to see what other challenges lie ahead for these earnest lovers of the Word.
Mariam Pirbhai visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Rod Michalko, Canisia Lubrin, Mayank Bhatt, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers.