No great story starts with a salad

I had heard scary stories about the writer’s block. Trust me they are all true

Hasnain Iqbal December 19, 2016
The writer works for the public sector. He moonlights as a journalist and is a graduate of the University of Warwick

Drink. Because no great story starts with a salad. And water does not help. I had heard scary stories about the writer’s block. Trust me they are all true. There are days when words and ideas seem to descend from heaven. And then there are days when the mind feels numb and the fingers go torpid, and writing becomes torturous. I dread such days as they tend to visit me on Sundays. Tribune expects the piece emailed by 10 pm on Sunday night and I have always been finicky about keeping my word and fulfilling commitments. But I have found a way to deal with paralysis of thought. I withdraw to a room as far in the house as possible to cut off noise. Café Del Mar or Buddha Bar come handy as I let my mind wander and dance to the unhurried rhythms of chill-out music. I have realised I am a prisoner of my moods. But I am also a happy victim of the Stockholm Syndrome and love my moods. Music, solitude and a sofa next to a window with a tree peeking through help me break the shackles and unwind.

I had written my first piece in 2010 when I was based at Peshawar. It was a true labour of love and spoke of a month long trip to USA in 2003. It was an exhausting trip that embraced both the East and West coasts starting appropriately with a weeklong stay in Long Island, New York. It was raining when we landed at JFK and headed straight for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. That first lunch in New York is seared in my bowels for the bewildering range of dishes from prawns tossed in coconut milk to crackling crabs. I became a New Yorker in spirit at that instant as I gorged on plate after plate of ambrosial food. The most endearing thing about Long Island was its rustic charm, bucolic green and sprawling parks. Not manicured, not groomed and not perfect but at liberty to flirt with nature and respond to its dalliances. As a consequence, the trees, the grass, the shrubs looked plump and vibrant and seemed to sway for no apparent reason. They looked alive. Frank Sinatra echoed in my mind and I hummed bicycling on the grey, perfectly cemented roads, “These vagabond shoes/ Are longing to stray/ Right through the very heart of it/ New York New York”.

America is a lot more than concrete and roads that seem to go nowhere and everywhere. There is this joie de vivre that permeates the air, a sense of empowerment that engulfs, an overwhelming surfeit of awe at the human genius, a sense of liberation as you walk unencumbered. You acquire this magical shroud that lets you disappear in that indifferent American air, free to walk your thoughts without the fear of prying, scornful eyes. At times I felt like a Lilliputian in the land of giants, such is the American occupation with size. Manhattan was not intimidating and I was rather more interested in trying my fist hotdog from a kiosk, something I had seen in many Hollywood movies. And I dutifully went about layering my sausage with mustard, onions and pickled cucumbers. I wanted to feast on every hue, every facet of the land of opportunity. From the dizzying Six Flags rides to the stunning pole dancers of Vegas, from the royal buffets at casinos to crazy discounts at highway malls, from the opulent Hamptons wallowing in luxury to the poorest Bronx, from the cold, shivering, wrapped up Manhattan to the sunny, minimally dressed San Francisco, from pancakes with honey and butter to roasted Turkey legs, from the brutal and heartbreaking ‘American History X’ to the arousing ‘Unfaithful’ set in a windy Manhattan, I dug into the great American melting pot with unabashed fervor.

I was talking about the travails of a writer, most notorious of which is the Writer’s Block. I have found in my case music to be most helpful, but music of a certain kind. Soulful, sorrowful instrumentals have the magical power to coax out of me just the right kind of creative energy. Try the musical score of the movie, Spring, by Jimmy Lavalle. Set in as small Italian town, the movie features the gorgeous Nadia Hilker, a German actress who is making waves for her frizzy, bobbing hair and feline features. If that would not do the trick for you as a poet or a writer, I don’t know what would. Having a muse around also helps. Mine was a dear friend from Warwick University. Tall and persuasive, she was my dorm mate and from Islamabad. We would often go for hiking to the winding Trail 3 in Margalla Hills and a routine topic of discussion was our shared interest in writing. She played an important role in motivating me to write which I must admit remains a daunting task. Try sitting down and writing a line or two. Imagine the prospect of writing a page or two and you are likely to end up dejected, defeated and empty. Writers are crusaders who fight a valiant battle against tedium, sloth and mood swings.

Wanderlust keeps me alive, so does brew. I have had little opportunity to wander around, but lucky to have had ample of the latter. Hangovers and friends are lovely for they remind you of the evening gone, for they bring to life the laughter and banter of yesterdays. I had mused in an earlier piece of mine, “To be fair, our lives are essentially about living the past. The present is but a moment, fleeting and ephemeral, and in a disturbing hurry to move past”. Truth is, nobody walks away alive. “The idea is to die young as late as possible” and this pretty much sums up my way. Drink, eat beef and butter, frolic, be kind and be merry. That is how you write great stories.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2016.

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