TOAST Magazine

Fatima Farheen Mirza | The Written Line

ARTS & CULTURE

Brooklyn-based author of A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza recalls her nine truths about the written line...

1. I never opt for lined notebooks. For me, it’s the truly blank page that promises possibility, play, the illusion of a perfect sentence waiting to be written. Like the wonder of the first snowfall of winter, just before we’ve stepped out in our boots. Or the smooth surface of a frosted cake that children - and even us - want to dip our fingers into before we’ve even lit the birthday candles.

2. Both the habit of keeping notebooks and the preference for no lines began early. I remember my father coming home from business trips and always gifting me a notebook. I never tired of the gift. Right away I’d want to crack it open, flip through the pages, and even before I could, he’d smile and assure me, “No lines.”

3. But some mornings, the same blank page that feels limitless becomes constricting: how to articulate with ease and elegance what’s muddled in one’s mind?  Writing is trying to pin down what eludes us—an impression, a sensation, a memory, a truth that can only be understood through story. When these ambitions are translated into prose and we confront what we’ve come up with, it almost never feels quite right, quite what we intended to say. And with each sentence, each scene, all that could come after also narrows in response to what’s been written. This is the anxiety of writing for me, what my own personal “writer’s block” would be—the ever narrowing of what the story could be, which takes us further and further from what it could have been, what we thought we wanted to say before we begun.

4. I always read with a pen in hand, ready to underline the sentences I love. It's how I engage with the text, isolate what I want to learn from it - whether it hums with a human truth, or is an example of prose to aspire to. Before I’ve returned the book to the shelf, I re-read the passages that struck me. Much later, flipping through the books I’ve read, the familiar lines comfort me - my old self reminding me what passages I’d wanted to remember. But sometimes, I am surprised: what I’d want to underline now is not necessarily what I’d underlined in the past. In these moments, old markings even feel too revealing, less about the text itself and more about what my concerns and curiosities were when I first encountered it.  

5. The fear of writing is partly rooted in a belief that I write what strikes me in that moment, and that to pin the thought down is to eliminate the other ways it can exist, alter what can come after. But recently, I’ve been searching my notebooks from the past year looking for lines I’ve written towards a new project. It’s been eerie to discover that there are some lines I’ve written almost a year apart that are almost exactly alike, both in content and style. The descriptions, the word choices, the cadence of the paragraph, even— though I have no idea when I am writing that I attempted that very passage months before. Of the many mysteries of writing, this is surely one: the inexplicable sense that the story is already written, is only waiting to be brought to the page.

6. Reading “Practicalities” by Marguerite Duras, I underlined the following passage: “… It’s a matter of deciphering something that’s already there, something you’ve already done in the sleep of your life, in its organic rumination, unbeknown to you.”  

7. My friend, a brilliant writer, when starting a new short story will always laugh and tell me, “You’ll see, it’s the same one I always write.”  Having only worked on one project, I never really understood what she meant. But now that I’m at the early stages of a new project I do see how the characters change, the setting, the sentences too, but something—an impulse, a question, a way of trying to make sense of life—remains consistent. Each story is the attempt to understand something, articulate something, and even if it is completed something remains unsatisfied, unknown.

8. Or, as James Baldwin put it, “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.”

9. Even now, when I open a new notebook or start a new paragraph, there is that exciting, fresh snow feeling. It's an excitement born from curiosity: where are we going now, and what will life be like when we get there, and who will we be?

Fatima wears the Cotton Oxford Shirt, the Brushed Sateen Trousers, the Recycled Cashmere Sweater, the Chie Mihara Low Heel Lace Up Boots and the Cashmere Wool Wrap Scarf. In one image she is also wearing the Cotton Twill Trousers. Fatima was writing in one of our Recycled Block Print Notebooks.

Fatima Farheen Mirza is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has taught at The University of Iowa, Catapult, and NYU. Her debut novel, A Place for Us, is a New York Times bestseller and is being translated into seven languages. 

Caroline Tompkins photographed Fatima in Brookyln, where you can now purchase TOAST pieces from the beautiful concept store Bird. Fatima took us to her favourite place for writing, Café Regular, and her favourite bookshop, Community Bookstore and Books Are Magic.

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