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Look at me, listen to me

photo-26A friend of mine, photographer Karl Griffiths-Fulton, asked me to pose for a portrait. He is doing a series on writers/poets/artists. Here he is in this photo (taken with my iPhone) preparing to capture my image with his twin-lens reflex camera. Using real film. Old-fashioned grainy film. It was an honour to pose for a talented photographer. A little weird and uncomfortable. But an honour.

The experience has me thinking about the changes in my life since Where the Air Is Sweet was published in June.

People now ask me to do things like this: be photographed, filmed, interviewed, to read aloud from my book, give a talk. In other words, people want to hear from me, see me.

This is new. This is not the person I have been all my life.

Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to be a writer. But at some point — I don’t know when — I pushed the idea of writing creatively to the back of my mind. After high school, I did an undergraduate degree in journalism at Ryerson. I wasn’t happy in the program. Right after I finished I decided I wanted to study English literature. So, I enrolled as a special student at the University of Toronto. A special student is someone not working towards a degree. I was trying to get into the master’s in English literature program and I didn’t have enough prerequisite courses. I spent three years as a special student before being admitted to the master’s, which took a year to complete and to convince me that the study of other people’s writing was not for me. At that, I was done my formal education.

After this I didn’t feel ready to be in the world. After a four-month trip backpacking in South Asia, I took on internships and jobs where I was being “trained.” If I was asked to actually do something that might put me in the position of being judged publicly, I’d panic. So I spent years being underemployed.

When I finally took on jobs that challenged me, I found positions where I could remain largely unseen. Copy editors don’t have their names anywhere near the copy. They are, in the newspaper business, pretty much invisible. Vital, absolutely vital, but invisible.

I was a professional hider.

Until now.

I recently changed the quote on my blog. It’s over on the right-hand side of my page (if you’re not on a mobile device). I update the quote every few months when some words inspire me or speak to my current state of mind. This one is by writer Jhumpa Lahiri.

“Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.'”

My experience of this shift hasn’t been jarring. In fact, it feels right, comfortable. I’m ready. I’m excited to share my story, my thoughts. I enjoy interviews. I enjoy people stopping me to talk about my book, about their experiences, not only of my book but of what they have brought to the book from their lives.

I’m even beginning to enjoy being photographed.

Being judged — by others, in public — I am learning, is okay. What people see is what they project. I can’t control their responses. It is utterly liberating to make peace with this.

The real gift though is that by finally coming out of hiding I have opened myself to so much, to other people’s thoughts, their stories. I’ve opened myself up to the conversations of life and to the experience of living.

By allowing myself to be heard and be seen, I’m hearing and seeing others in a way I was not capable of before.

How unexpected and lovely.

Comments ( 4 )
  • Gillian says:

    Thank you for speaking your truth and daring to be yourself in each moment as you walk your own, perfect path through life. Your book, “Where the Air Is Sweet.” Is next on my list. Every good wish to you.
    ~Gillian

  • Shells says:

    Thank you for writing that, Tasneem. I am currently struggling with this at the moment as I am trying to write a children’s series, but feel so paralyzed by not wanting to share my work with anyone other than a publisher … who I can email anonymously. It’s so difficult thinking about going back to work after an eight-year hiatus and feeling like hiding as a copy editor again. Copy editors are vital, as you say, but it is the best occupation in which to remain hidden.Your words are very inspiring and just what I need this Monday morning! I couldn’t have said it better myself!
    You have deserved this for so long and I’m so happy for you! My mom is picking me up a copy of your book to bring down here next week (hopefully). Can’t wait to read it. I’m so proud of you! :-)

    • tasneem says:

      Thanks, Shell. I know it’s hard. Especially where you are. But keep at it — if you have a solid idea and you’re writing you are far ahead of most. You’ll know when you feel ready to attach your name to your work and send it out to be judged. xo

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