Welcome new Writers’ Program instructor, Aminah Mae Safi. Aminah is teaching Young Adult Novel I (Reg# 380537) in our Remote Instruction format, with live Zoom class meetings on Thursdays at 7pm PT this Summer. She sat down with us to offer some insight into creative life and her upcoming course.
What sparks your creativity?
People and art!
I think everyone has their own story. That’s my favorite thing to discover when I meet new people. Or even when I’m getting to know someone deeper. People can surprise you with the life they’ve lived; I try to pay attention. I don’t want to miss the part where a person reveals themselves. Those moments are absolutely magic. And I don’t mean that in a “I immediately put that person into my fiction” way. I just think the more you listen to others, the more you can listen to your characters and understand the motivations that would move them through a story.
I also love to engage with art–be that visual art, film, books, or music. I think if you’re paying attention to the things you love, you’ll find sparks in so many places. I really love going to the movie theaters (when they’re open) by myself for this reason.
What do you rely on for those times it’s difficult to find the time, energy, motivation and/or inspiration to write?
Wow! That’s such a big question. To me these are all separate problems.
I’d say for inspiration, paying attention to the world around you, to the people you encounter (both in person and in other forms like art and books and interviews, etc.). I love going to The Getty museum here in Los Angeles when I’m creatively stuck. Being surrounded by so much art and so much beauty really does get me out of creative funks.
For motivation, I think it depends. Are you unmotivated to write at all? Or are you just unmotivated to write the story in front of you? If you’re not motivated to write the story in front of you (and also, you’re not under contract for it), I’d ask yourself why you feel that way. Understanding why is a good way to get un-stuck.
If you’re lacking motivation to write at all–it helps to re-connect with why you love to write or why you want to write on a big picture level. Sometimes that lack of motivation is really burnout. The best thing you can do for burnout is rest and take a step back. Learning where that line is–where you’re pushing yourself beyond what you can do without some rest–is really integral to being able to do the work long term.
When it comes to finding time, I think we all have different constraints on our time. I do think finding time is ultimately a matter of figuring out priorities. And, you have to be kind to yourself and realize you might be in a season where you aren’t able to prioritize the writing work. Again, giving yourself permission to take that space, while also checking back in is so important.
With my students, I’m very “butt in chair” about getting your writing done. But I’m also realistic that sometimes life comes at you fast. Sometimes you have an ailing family member. Or you’ve got to find a new job that pays the bills and offers health insurance. Or the world shut down due to a pandemic. Giving yourself the grace to recover and to know sometimes you’ll have to de-prioritize writing is okay. Learning to trust yourself that you can come back to it and that you will come back to it is also important.
My one thing is: if you do prioritize your writing and you do carve out a slice of time for yourself to show up and write–show up and write. Honor your commitments to yourself. They’re just as important as the ones you make to other people.
What’s your favorite book and/or movie?
Oh, man. I have such a wide range of stories that I love. I’ve re-read Pride and Prejudice so many times since I was eleven. I love Their Eyes Were Watching God on a such a bone-deep level. But I also cannot resist a good adventure, which is why I still re-watch The Mummy and love being swept up in the scope of it all. I have a deep and abiding love for The Fast and the Furious franchise.
Ultimately, I think I’m drawn to characters. So if it’s film or books, if it’s commercial or literary–I just want characters that I find interesting and that I can watch as they grow and traverse their own story.
What’s your favorite quote about writing?
“We write for the same reasons that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.” – Maya Angelou
Who do you wish you could write like (or: Whose writing discipline do you wish you had)?
I’m so sorry, but! I think this is a super dangerous question. I hate to be a walking cliché about comparison being the thief of joy, but comparison really is the thief of joy! I know! Sounds so simple but is actually terribly hard to do on a day to day basis.
So I’ll give you another answer: I want to write more like myself every day. I want to pay attention to myself and the ideas I find interesting. I want to cultivate a discipline in my work that I can be proud of, even if it might not work for anyone else.
The more I do this, the more proud I am of my own work. It’s given me my own rubric for self-evaluation.
The beauty of this way of working is that you crumple and fade so much less when you hear criticism. By the way, you might always crumple and fade a little bit when you hear criticism. That’s normal and natural. But the less it gets in your head. The less it lives in you, because you’ve already got your own standards and your own voice in there. The more you listen to yourself and figure out what you’re trying to do: the more you can translate that criticism into constructive feedback and action.
This is the only way I know how to keep writing and stay sane at the same time.
What excites you most about teaching for the Writers’ Program?
I love the moment where I help a student understand their own voice as a writer. Teaching a student to write the best book that they can write–a book that is wholly theirs–that’s my favorite part of teaching.
I don’t want to teach you to write like me. I want to teach you to write as yourself. I want to give you the confidence in yourself that you know what you’re doing and you’re actively making choices that you believe in with your own writing.
What do you hope your students get from your course(s)?
I hope they learn to read critically, like a writer. I hope they learn how to form a writing community. I hope they learn how to offer constructive feedback to other writers and to themselves. I hope that they learn if they aren’t to the place in their writing that they want to be, that they can build their own toolkit and do the work to get there.
Thank you to Aminah for taking time to share with us. Look for more instructor interviews coming soon!