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Elif Shafak on Becoming a Writer

Posted on 28th August 2020 by Anna Orhanen
Elif Shafak, the Booker-nominated author of 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World, is an internationally acclaimed novelist, political commentator and human rights activist. In this exclusive piece, Shafak reflects on her journey to becoming a writer, her decision to switch from writing in her native Turkish to writing in English, and on an important encounter that revealed to her something essential about the nature of storytelling.  
When does one become a writer? Is it the moment you finish the first draft to your first book, and feeling slightly dazed and lost, and perhaps empty of words, decide to go out for a walk after spending weeks and months cooped up in the house? Is it when you receive a phone call from your agent saying you have an offer from a good publisher and the sound of that is so extraordinary and magical that you don’t even know what to say in return? Is it the first time you see a copy of your book in the window of a bookstore and you stop dead in your tracks, standing there on the sidewalk with a bizarre look on your face, as if you had just spotted a ghost? Or is it when you meet a reader for the first time who gently approaches and quietly asks for a signature and the warmth in their tone is so genuine that you just want to give them a hug? Or is it when you go through yet another anxiety attack while sitting at your desk because you have no idea where the book you have been working on is taking you this time? 
 
Being a writer is tantamount to becoming a writer, and that process of becoming— reading, thinking, observing, learning, struggling, discovering, doubting, writing, erasing and rewriting — is an open-ended journey. You never arrive anywhere, really. You just keep going. 
 
I wrote all of my earlier novels in Turkish. Back then I used to live in Istanbul. After moving to the metropolis on my own in my early twenties, I had rented a small, dimly-lit flat near Taksim Square, a flat so small that I hadn’t been able to fit in a sofa in the hallway, which also happened to be my living room. This was one of the most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in the city — a street called Kazanci Yokusu, the Street of Cauldron Makers. It was here that I wrote my books, at a makeshift desk by the window, watching the street vendors pass by, listening to the sounds of backgammon from the teahouse on the opposite side. Much to my surprise, with each new title I wrote, I found new readers, and little by little, some success. After I finished a novel called The Gaze, I had a great offer from a well-respected publisher and realised I could move to a slightly bigger flat on the same street, and the realisation made me panic because I felt under pressure and so I decided to leave not only my flat, but also Istanbul and even Turkey for a while. 
 
I went to Boston — Mount Holyoke College — on a fellowship given to women artists and writers from different parts of the world. For a year I would research on a subject approved by the department and take part in academic discussions and social activities. Instead I spent most of my time reading in the magnificent Gothic library on campus, which was miraculously open 24 hours 7 days, except for national holidays. Some parts of the library would be packed with students studying for their exams, and some other parts would be almost always empty— and this is where I sought refuge.

I would always be there, weekdays and weekends as snow piled outside and silence descended on the books inside the library.

There was an elderly cleaning lady who noticed my presence . Everyday she would stop by for a chat, asking me what I was reading, and why I spent so much time here, and though she never said anything openly, being the gentle soul that she was, I could sense she felt a bit sad for me. She was kind and wise and reminded me of my grandmother. 
 
I told her I was a writer and I had come from Istanbul. I told her I had decided to write in English from now on and it scared me this sudden shift, this migration from the familiarity of my mother tongue into the unknowns of a foreign language. 

‘Good,’ she said. ‘Write in English then.'

'You think I can do it?' I asked.

'Of course you can' she said with a confident smile. 'But you have to go on Oprah.’
 
I had no idea what she was talking about. I did not watch TV, and as a foreigner in the US, I was yet to discover Oprah Winfrey's shows, which I did later on and absolutely loved. But back then I had no idea what she was talking about. 
 
‘But Oprah would’t have you if you don’t have a story,’ she said, nodding her head fiercely. 
 
It was then that I realised for her writing a book, publishing a book, did not necessarily mean having a story. You could write a huge tome or ten novels one after another and still may not have a story. 
 
Having a story was more personal, emotional, visceral. It was something you did almost against yourself.

Being a published author didn’t necessarily mean having a story just like not everyone who had a story was a published author. 
 
She urged me to take a closer look into the craft, the woman in the library, and she made me understand something crucial about the art of storytelling and for that I will always be thankful to her. 
 
When do we become a writer?
 
It’s not about having a nice bookjacket, signing copies of your books, speaking at festivals, doing public events.... although all of that is very much at the heart of the journey and they do matter. But it is when we have a story beating wildly deep inside in the chambers of our hearts, making us lose sleep at nights, asking to be born, demanding to be told, clawing at our flesh, a story stronger and wiser and ultimately better than our deeply flawed selves, that is when we start to become a writer. 

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