Last week, Zahir Janmohamed, a previous Attic student and current Attic fellow, answered a few questions about his life as a working writer. As a renowned essayist/playwright/poet/short story writer and more, Zahir imagines genre and the teaching of writing not only as necessary practices but as creative exercises.
This January, he is teaching a workshop called "Telling Our Stories Through Food."
Q: How are you?
A: Ecstatic. I knew I would be relieved to see Trump lose, but I did not think the feeling would be this good. A friend said it best: we can finally go days, even weeks, without thinking or worrying about what the US president does. Imagine that!
Q: Recently, what book/article/essay have you really enjoyed reading? What’s another recent text that made you write better or think about writing differently?
A: Hands down—and by a long shot—Why Poetry by Mathew Zapruder. I am sort of one of those annoying people that Zapruder talks about who goes up to poets and says, “I don’t get poetry.” In this book, Zapruder is not just defending or explaining a genre. He is pushing us, ever so gently, to consider being in the world in a certain way. I read this soon after Covid-19 hit, and I will always be grateful for how it helped me survive this pandemic.
Q: Because your work intersects with multiple genres, how does each genre influence what appears on the page? Do certain topics feel more accessible through a particular “lens” or set of genre expectations?
A: For the past few years, I have been actively writing fiction, non-fiction, and now, plays. What I have come to learn—especially after a lot of failed drafts—is that each of these genres, at least for me, requires a different relationship to how information is shared. In non-fiction, you can sometimes get away with hand holding, or what journalists often call “a nut graph.” But fiction and playwriting require the reader and audience to feel like they are creating the work with you in real time. You are going up the hill one way and the reader is going up the hill another way. Hopefully if its working, you meet somewhere, ideally at the top.
Q: What have you learned about writing from teaching it?
A: Here’s a story: when I was in India, I was convinced I did not like cricket. Then a friend, a cricket fanatic, took me to a game and taught me how to watch the game the way he does. I think about this all the time when I take a class or teach a class: it can be such an act of generosity to share how we see a thing, especially if we do it with humility. I try to do this when I teach, and teaching has helped me find the language to describe how I take in the world. That helps immensely on the page.
Q: How has your previous job experience informed the way you write?
A: My previous life was in politics, specifically in the US Congress and at Amnesty International. What I learned in both of those jobs was that while my sentimentality might lead me astray, my curiosity rarely will. I also learned the importance and benefit of sitting down with people who I passionately disagree with (so long as they are civil, which I know, is sadly a tall task these days).
Q: What is one piece of advice you’d give to those new to applying to fellowships and residencies?
A: Don’t be an asshole. Seriously, I jury for a writers’ residency and it’s amazing how some artists will submit incredible work but make no mention in their personal statement about their desire to interact with or learn from others. Yes, I realize that a residency is about getting work done, but there are also moments at dinner, at breakfast, when you want to be with another artist who is, well, human. So, please be kind and show that you are kind.
Q: What is one quality that you hope individuals who take your workshop walk away with?
A: The more I teach the more I think about workshop like suit shopping. When my brother was picking out his wedding suit, the tailor made him try on a ton of styles. That’s sort of what I hope to do in my class—get students to try out new things. In the end, my brother bought the suit that he thought he would, but it had subtle distinctions from what he expected, something he only realized after exploring lots of options.
Q: How would you describe the “Attic experience”?
A: I was a student at the Attic before I was a teacher. I studied fiction with Natalie Serber and Jon Raymond, and I loved their classes. They were fun, inclusive, rigorous, and most of all, immensely encouraging. I have tried to do the same in my class. I want students to feel good about themselves. Why not? The world can be dark. By all means, be dark on the page, but try, at least, to be light in the world. I was in Natalie’s class on election night 2016 and I will never forget the way she comforted us all.
Q: What does your writing routine look like? Or more generally, what are your thoughts on writing routines?
A: I learned in my MFA program that there are as many correct writing routines as there are writers. For example, I know one writer who only writes on her phone, ideally on a swing set. I just have one rule to my writing routine: turn off the internet. I even bought a Google Home router recently because I can shut off the internet for just my devices (and not for my wife’s) when I am writing.
Q: How do you move from one writing project to another or what are some ways you manage multiple projects and deadlines at the same time?
A: Ugh. I wish I had a better answer. This is a challenge I continue to face. But I think about what the writer Aimee Bender speaks about: find out where the “heat” is and follow it.
Q: What is a new project that you are working on that excites you?
A: My MFA thesis was a collection of short stories. Recently, I began revising one of the stories, thinking I would make it a longer short story. But now it’s turning into a novel. Is it working? Who knows but also who cares? I am having fun.
Sign up for Zahir's winter workshop.