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Tag: Learning


The Story

Bear this in mind. Get it tattooed on your back in mirror writing if you can stand to: ‘It’s all about telling the story’. Writing and journalism are about telling the story in such a way that people will listen. It’s about making an impression, and that means it’s about telling the story in a way that will keep them hooked. Sometimes before I write the story or the anecdote down, I’ll tell it verbally to a few friends. I’ll tell it in various ways, keeping the facts the same, and see which telling gets the most dramatic response. When you call an editor, or email one as we now tend to do, you have to deliver the knockout blow. Journalism 101 teaches you that news is not DOG BITES MAN, but ‘MAN BITES DOG’.  And remember that. If there’s any space left on your back, get it tattooed on there too. In the next few days I’ll probably talk about some of the feature work I did. I used to specialise on stuff that got editors flushed with excitement… and I used to promise the articles that were near impossible to bring in. But somehow I’d always manage. So what I’m saying here is to plan the story you’re going to pitch with care. If it’s some tired old has-been story, then revamp it… package it in a new way. Put a spin on it. Tell it with a kick. And remember, editors get hundreds, or thousands, of pitches all the time. They are looking for ideas that deliver the knockout punch.



Getting Started

So, you take the ‘Tahir Shah crash course to writing’, which is essentially getting published as a journalist with a target of hitting a mainstream newspaper or magazine… and here you are, wondering how to start. The first mistake that everyone makes is that they think ‘OK I’ll give those bloody editors something fabulous and they’re thickos if they don’t take it’. You get my drift. It’s a mistake because editors know what they want. They know it so well that they will only take material (unless it’s a scoop description of Michael Jackson naked covered in honey and feathers standing alone on the Bay Bridge), if it’s in their format. Over the next few days I’ll talk more about formats and how to get an article planned. But the important thing here — and really the key point — is to buy yourself a copy of the newspaper or magazine you want to write for, and analyse five articles. Really look at them, and make notes on where there’s description, raw information, characters, themes and all that. Because writing’s all about packaging. And if I want to sell an editor something, I need to package it in a way that they will find appealing… in a way in which they’ll be ready to receive it.



A fantastic way of staying primed and getting published is writing journalism. Over the next few days I’m going to write some postings on what I have come to see as the most powerful way to learn your craft. I often meet people who tell me that they are taking creative writing courses. I usually smile politely but inside I’m cringing. There’s only one positive thing about such courses, and that’s that they give employment to writers who would otherwise be starving… and in that way they’re a great little wheeze. By far the best way to learn the art of writing is to sell your work, and the finest way of starting, and learning, is to be forced to write to the spec of a particular newspaper or magazine. I’ll give some tips in the next few days. But a great thing to know is that by writing for editors (and even by getting work thrown back at you), you are giving yourself a mini crash course… and you’re getting published and paid at the same time.



One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.

June 12, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Thursday's child

On some days I sit here alone hour after hour, fingertips striking keys, my mind in a twilight zone far away. When one of the guardians creeps in and stands to attention, or when the phone rings and I have to answer it, I find there’s an abyss between where I am and the real world. It’s something that fills me with awe, and troubles me all the same.

Sometimes I find I am so deep in a story, so detached, that my soul has become separated from my body. Or that’s how it feels. It reminds me of ‘Susto’, the Latin idea that a sharp noise, a jolt, can rip one from the other… with the terrible fear that they can never be rejoined. But with me there’s no jolt, rather a gradual descent, a slow and even deviation. I can hardly explain it, but have come to know it’s something of extreme value… a way of reaching another world, the real world.
My little son, Timur, will be five in less than a month. There’s a quality about him that I wish could always stay there, inside him, without being knocked out. It’s the quality of pure innocence and  a natural human genius — something that the adult world strives to destroy as soon as a child has entered school. Our world regards it — a way of appreciating and processing the fantastic — as a thing of evil, a faculty to be replaced surgically with the ability of  cold, clinical thought. Timur still has it though… only just… a mind that embraces fact and fantasy as one and the same, two inseparable elements.
Ariane is seven and a half and she’s lost it. You can’t tell her a tale, a fairy story, without her having to establish whether it’s fiction or fact. And she insists that we have to make clear, one or the other. ‘It’s a little of both,’ I sometimes say. And when I do, Ariane’s face sours with rage. ‘It can’t be!’ she snaps. ‘Because you can’t have both!’
I have travelled with tribes and so-called ‘primitive’ peoples who are, as you would imagine, far more brilliant than us. Their souls are still attached, their minds screwed on right in their heads. I once spent months with the Machiagenga and the Shuar peoples of Peru, and learned to appreciate an ancient and natural way of thought that is the default setting within us all. The longer I spent with them, and the more I came to know of their customs and ideas, the more I understood how terribly misguided we are.
It sounds like basic criticism, a cliche, the sort of thing that’s fashionable to say. But it’s not. Not really. Instead, it’s something that we can all relearn… a little bit at a time. When Timur makes Lego, something he likes very much indeed, he slams some bricks together and, when asked that stupid adult question ‘what is it?’, he fumbles, then says, ‘an elephant.’ A moment later he adds a red brick to the top, and christens it ‘an aeroplane’, and after that ‘it’s mummy.’ 
Of course it is, and that’s how it should be. And we all — all of us — can learn from that, from the default setting that little Timur and every other four-year-old in our world is desperate danger of losing — his imagination.