Six acclaimed authors on the importance of writing

What does writing mean to you? Ahead of September's International Literacy Day, Vision speaks to six writers on their personal literary journeys

Following 2016’s Year of Reading – an ultra-successful campaign by the UAE government to ramp up literacy in the emirate and the wider MENA region – Dubai has continued its efforts to promote reading and writing. From opening the Middle East’s biggest library to hosting a global literary festival, the emirate is actively promoting reading, and encouraging budding writers to pursue their passion.

But what is the true value of literacy? Below, six authors tell Vision what the art of writing means to them.

Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl

I write historical fiction because I find it a genuinely inspiring form. Of course, it combines my two great loves of literature and history but I also think that a novel is an inspiring and interesting way to tell history and bring it alive, to tell secrets of history and the history as it might have been. At the same time I love the novel form and I think that the style and language of a novel is the only way that I want to write. To me it is a perfect combination.

Writing is my hobby and my craft and my leisure as well as my professional life. I have always written from the earliest years (and always read too) and there is something about going to an imaginary place and time and entering it and writing about it which is deeply satisfying to me. I cannot imagine going for more than a few days without writing. 

I think that coherent writing really encourages logical thought. When I see something laid out on paper I can follow a thought through in a way which is far more complex and interesting than when I am thinking aloud, or thinking in silence. I can sustain an argument in writing when in the spoken word I would lose the thread. So I am sure it is good for anyone wanting to communicate anything; but obviously essential for scholars and anyone who needs to argue or persuade. Clearly, it's therapeutic for people to get down on paper the issues that are troubling them, and writing poetry or fiction is to enter a great and ancient art form, probably the most expressive form there is.

Writing is the primary basis upon which one's work, learning, and intellect will be judged, in the work place, in the community, among peers and eventually in history

Dr Reem El Mutwalli, Writer and academic

Kamal Abdel-Malek, author of Come with Me from Jerusalem

I am both an academic and a novelist. My life as an academic is austere in many ways; I have spent years poring over research topics, writing papers and books in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. So one day I decided to try writing something else, something less objective and more personal; something that is not engendered from the grey cells of the brain but from the folds of one’s own guts. And this, as in the case of writing my novel, Come with Me from Jerusalem, is a truly liberating exercise. I have a dream that one day I will quit academic life to live on an island, with seagulls bringing me grilled fish, palm-trees oozing a nectar-like drink, and mermaids, unlike the case of Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, singing to me, while I pen narratives covered with the translucent enamel of seductive metaphors. Is that too much to ask?

Writing may be therapy, a way to rearrange the interior design and furniture of our mental state. I am currently writing a novel titled, The Maiden of Kerkennah. It is about a man sailing to an island, off the coast of Tunisia, in search of his beloved who has suddenly disappeared without a trace. The narrator is also a novelist and he too utilizes creative writing as therapy for his agonies. As you can see, writing is necessary for our fallen world—it is difficult to imagine it in a perfect, paradise-like world.

Writing empowers us to break away from the restrictions of time and space. If asked where we live, we may answer: “We live in Dubai” or “We live in London”.  But the more accurate answer is really that we live in our own bodies—this is our permanent address. As human beings we are subjected to the restrictions imposed on us by time and space. We cannot exist in two places or two eras at the same time. We live in the here and the now. Writing is the magic carpet that flies us across time and space, showing us the human landscape with its multiple yearnings, sorrows, and joys.  

Dr Reem El Mutwalli, writer and academic

There is an old Arab saying by Al Shafi' that states; ‘Authors perish, leaving their words to transcend through infinity… So do not write that which will not please you to read come day of judgement...’

Writing is the primary basis upon which one's work, learning, and intellect will be judged, in the work place, in the community, among peers and eventually in history. 

Through our history people have needed to effectively and efficiently convey meaningful information to each other; strong communication is what helps keep most of the world moving in the same general direction. Consequently, communication is one of the most crucial aspects of our working world. It’s needed to form trusting relationships, conduct business deals, convey crucial information and retain historic facts.

I’ve always felt slightly out of sync with the world and I suppose writing is my way of finding my place within it

Rachel Hamilton, Author

Jessica Jarlvi, author of When I Wake Up

In my writing, I have always been drawn to psychology: why do people act the way they do? As an author, you also want the reader to keep turning the page so it felt natural for me to add a suspenseful element to my novel. The result was the psychological thriller, When I Wake Up.

Writing can be likened to exercise for me. If I don’t do it, I don’t feel good. Do I procrastinate and do everything else to avoid sitting down to write? YES. But when I eventually do get on with it, I don’t want to stop because it makes me feel great.

Creating characters and plot is deeply satisfying. You’re essentially given a blank canvas and since you’re not writing about yourself, your characters can be as complicated or as nasty as you want them to be. That’s very liberating!

My writing isn’t just limited to fiction however. I also journal from time to time, especially if something is going on in my life. I find that seeing words printed on paper helps me think more clearly.

Quite often, people tell me that they wish they could write. My answer is always the same: just do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. No one even needs to read it. Not a single person read my first manuscript before I sent it off. Mind you, it wasn’t picked up but I found an old rejection letter the other day and it wasn’t too bad! At the end of the day, I had created something out of nothing and to me, that felt amazing.

Writing should be encouraged for people of all ages – it’s never too late to start.

Rachel Hamilton, children’s author

I’ve thought about why I write and it’s probably because I have a lot of thoughts I want to share, but they never come out clearly enough when I try to say them out loud. I always want to rephrase things, to rewind what I’ve said and play it back differently so it makes more sense – to myself as much as to other people. The American writer, Flannery O’Connor, once said, ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,’ and I understand exactly what he meant. I do a lot of thinking and it’s nice when I feel I’ve reached some sort of conclusion!

The characters in my books are often described as ‘fish out of water’ and that’s probably not a coincidence. I suspect it’s connected to this need I have, to make sense of things. I’ve always felt slightly out of sync with the world and I suppose writing is my way of finding my place within it. And, if that doesn’t work, it can help me create new imaginary worlds, just for me.

Zora O'Neill, author of All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World (2016)

I usually say I’m a travel writer, even if that has changed substantially in the past 15 years. When I started, as a guidebook author, I was excited to get paid to travel. The traveling was rushed; the writing, constrained. I got 50 words to assess a town and its history, 25 to damn or praise a restaurant. Later, I wrote magazine articles, which allowed more words, more creativity, more leisurely trips to faraway places—but always places that readers might visit themselves. 

A few years ago, I was able to write a book about traveling in the Arab world. At first, I looked at it as a typical travel book, about places: Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, the UAE. But soon I found myself cutting the chapter on the Pyramids of Giza, for instance, and expanding the one where I sat in a Cairo Starbucks and chatted with a frustrated college student and his teenage sister. I wrote more about mundane, funny conversations, about work, school, and relationships. Many of my American readers consider the Arab world too far (we have very limited vacation time in the United States) or even too dangerous to visit. I like to think that my writing has introduced readers to people they might never otherwise meet. 

Now I write not so much for the perks, nor to help others travel better, but to help readers imagine the daily lives of people on the other side of the globe. I hope this can make us all feel more interconnected; I hope it can expand people’s worlds even if they don’t travel themselves. Everyone can contribute to this mission because we all have at least one good story—our own—to write. And every story will help us understand one another better.