Aisha Gawad is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Fiction at Cornell University. She is currently at work on her first novel about the Arab community in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Her story “Waking Luna” appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I started this story at first because I wanted to take a break from the novel I’ve been working on for the past couple years. But it didn’t turn out to be much of a break because I ended up using the same two main characters from my novel—Amira and Luna—as the protagonists of the story. What I found interesting though was that by removing the characters from the confines of the novel (and all the pressures that go along with writing a novel), I felt free to take them somewhere totally new. I imagine this story as a single moment in time in the characters’ lives that never makes it into the storyline of the novel but yet still informs it emotionally.
I felt like a mad scientist in the lab writing the first draft of this story—everything came so quickly and feverishly. But then of course, once the dust settled, I agonized over each word. I found myself very concerned with the sound of each line—how it read aloud. So that obsession with the sound and feel of each word during revisions was the hardest part for me.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Everything. Five years ago, I thought writing was this thing you do at 3 am when you can’t sleep and a phrase pops into your head so you jot it down and see where it can take you. I thought it was all about impulses and inspiration. And while I still think those moments are crucial and that as a writer you should trust them and listen to them, it’s not actually how you produce sustained work. Writing is a job—it’s grueling and it requires more discipline than I can sometimes muster. And to get through it, especially when you’re working on something prolonged like a novel, you have to trick yourself out of the exhaustion and self-doubt that creeps up on you. I have a friend who says that when you sit down to write, you have to adopt the swagger and ego of a rapper, like you’re the best writer in the universe. Of course, you never actually believe it, but you have to pretend if you want to get work done. I call it the Eminem Mantra.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
Yes, I definitely see these phases play out in my own writing process. I usually start with an obsession with capturing a very particular feeling. Even though I mainly write fiction and not poetry, I also think that’s why I’m also very concerned with the sound of the language—the individual word choice and the lyricism of the line as a whole—because I have an obsessive need to recreate a very particular mood. And while I also relate to Larkin’s third stage, I often hope that the reader will do more than just re-create in himself what I felt while writing. Maybe it’s idealistic, but the revolutionary in me fantasizes about people actually acting on the feelings produced by the writing and not merely dwelling on them. So the emotion reproduced in the reader then becomes transformed into something more than emotion—into new ideas that are enacted in real life.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
I’m not sure I have a “credo” exactly but I do feel strongly about literature that is based on ideas—books that aim to challenge a reader and instigate them to think differently about a particular issue or idea. In some ways, I think books like these have been out of vogue. If someone wrote a book today like Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” and submitted it to an MFA workshop, I think his peers would say it was too dogmatic and threatening, its ideas too prominent and forthright. And while sure, there might be more artful or subtle ways of conveying ideas or politics through literature, when you read that book for the first time, it just shatters what you thought you knew and you’re never the same again. This is a quality I value in literature and something I hope to achieve in my own work.