6 Questions, 5 Tutors by Shana Shabazz

What is the most optimal setting for you to write in?


  • Peace and quiet. A capacity to set my own timetable. This more or less never occurs. So I aim to write little bits and pieces most days and try and plan bigger chunks of time whenever I can. I teach, I mentor, I have a teenage daughter I like to spend time with – and friends I like to see – so it can be a bit chaotic. – Kate B.


  • It’s morning, I’m at my desk, nobody’s home. – Saskya J.


  • Before the pandemic, I would have said at my desk in my apartment: a quiet peaceful spot with a sunbeam and a bunch of daffodils and a fresh cup of tea. But by this point? I’m desperate to write everywhere we’re not allowed to be. In the smoking room of Laika, the candlelit bar across the road from my house. At a table on a train, staring out the window and watching the monotonous Brandenburg countryside whip by. Lying naked in the aromatherapy sauna at the Stadtbad Neukölln, thinking about sweat and edits, trying to figure out where a story should go. – Jane


  • Silence and warmth. A kettle nearby. – Divya G.


  • In the middle of the expedition, when the tent is still without holes, the compass is still working, and the injuries are still minor. – Michael D.


What’s your favorite time of day to write?


  • I used to prefer mornings, but now I find I have to grab the time whenever I can and, as I get older, I often find myself writing on the sofa in late afternoon, which would never have happened ten years ago. – Kate


  • Morning, the earlier the better. – Saskya J.


  • Mornings, before the internet. – Jane F.


  • First thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up. The earlier the better. I usually work until late afternoon after which I go for a walk and return to my desk to focus on copywriting and copy-editing, important paid work I do alongside teaching to support my fiction. – Divya


  • After sunrise, when the air is still breathable. – Michael D.


What have you done to stay productive during lockdown? 


  • As a freelance writer working mostly from home, not much changed for me during the pandemic in that regard. I just kept up my routine. – Saskya J.


  • Zoom writing dates with friends have been an absolute godsend: talk for a bit, write for an hour, talk a bit more. I would have written so little the past year without my writer friends, they’re the best! I have a group who read my novel as I write it and tell me how much they want to know what’s going to happen next and I love that. I know for a lot of people showing their work early in the process is stressful but basically I’m a total exhibitionist who thrives on constant praise and wishes we still wrote novels as serials in newspapers rather than having to edit them after the first draft. Also though, I want to say it’s totally okay to not be “productive” right now. If all you have done for the past cursed year is get through it, you’re doing great. – Jane F.


  • We don’t think much about productivity when cataloging the reflectors and needles we find among the mushrooms and weeds; it simply needs to be done – Michael D.


Do you do any special activities to give your brain more creative space?


  • One of the most effective tools for me is creating temporal distance. If I’ve finished a section or if I’m stuck, I let it sit for a bit and that allows me to see it critically with fresh eyes. – Saskya J.


  • Walking in the woods, swimming in the lake, sitting in the sauna, lying in the bath. So much of writing is actually done in the bits where you’re staring into space and daydreaming, and I have to remind myself of this whenever I get too hung up on word count goals and forcing myself to be at the computer. – Jane F.


  • I learn chess online with an eleven-year-old boy chess whizz. I learn German online with a seventy-four-year-old German teacher and polyglot. My mother has recently been teaching me Gujarati via Zoom because while I’m fluent spoken in my mother tongue, I’m not as confident in reading and writing. – Divya G.


  • We tell each other stories about far away places but it’s more about being able to sleep; it gets rather dark at night. – Michael D.


Do you have any reading recommendations?


  • Two of the novels I’ve read in the last year and liked most are Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous and Jenny Offil’s Weather. As far as non-fiction goes, recently, I’ve loved Alexander Chee’s essays in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Annie Ernaux’s A Girls’ Story and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. – Kate B.


  • Read widely and randomly, without sticking to only one category or genre such as ‘the classics,’ ‘memoir’ or ‘new fiction’ etc. – Saskya J.


  • I should have looked more seriously for a guidebook about this place – I feel unprepared. – Michael D.


What’s your advice for aspiring writers?


  • I don’t particularly like the term aspiring writer. I mean, we don’t have aspiring plumbers, do we? If you’re learning a trade, you’re a trainee. As a writer, in many ways, I think you’re a trainee for life. Understanding that is, in itself, a really useful way to start out. You will write and you will never stop learning. There will be periods when the learning feels hard and, sometimes, you may want to stop but, if you remain curious and open, writing can offer so much. – Kate B.


  • Write every day, ideally for the same duration and at the same time. It’s a job like any other. – Saskya J.


  • First drafts are often full of mystery because you don’t know the answers to the questions in the story. But confusion is rarely as interesting to the reader as it feels when you’re writing it. In terms of mystery, it’s usually better to lead the reader down a particular wrong path, rather than just leaving them asking “what’s going on?” Also, a chapter/story doesn’t need to start at the beginning of the day and end up safely home in bed again. Drop us into a situation. Leave us inside a moment. One of the magic tricks of writing is the ability to cut straight to the place that’s interesting. We don’t always need to find our keys and change for the bus ride there. Finally and most importantly: have fun with writing! Enjoy the process! Make all the writing friends! It takes so fucking long to write a book and if you’re always waiting for the bit at the end where you sell it for lots of money and become really famous, you’re going to miss out on something good. – Jane F.


  • Be kind to yourselves. Be brave in your work (and expect many revisions/rejections). Celebrate your wins, big and small. Find your tribe. – Divya G.


  • Stay at home; write about marriage and children, and don’t come out here – it’s not worth it. – Michael D.
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