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6 things I’ve learned while writing my first book

From confronting the lack of representation in the publishing industry to understanding the significance of writing through a gender, race and class lens, here are six key things I’ve discovered while writing my first book.

A lot of advice is aimed at men

As someone who works full-time and is a mum of two small children, I’m really time-poor. And I noticed that a lot of advice for writers is aimed much more at men. I don’t have the luxury of carving out a couple of hours before I start work each day to dedicate to writing – I have to make sure my kids are up and fed, and dropped to school. Much as I know that spending a full day honing my craft is a more effective way to write than snatching moments here and there, the reality is that I’ve often been called away unexpectedly to pick up sick children or wrangle other childcare issues. I’ve had to accept this as part of the package.

I’m not represented in publishing

Coming from an ethnic minority background, it quickly became clear to me that I’m not represented in the publishing industry. Between 2018 and 2020, only 6% of the UK publishing workforce was Asian or Asian British, and so it’s no surprise that BAME writers and ‘diverse’ books remain under-represented. I don’t know anyone who works in publishing, and so I haven’t got an ‘in’ to this network and community. In my case knowing all of this only spurred me on: I wanted to share my story, and I wanted people like me to be seen – particularly if it inspires other marginalised groups to tell their stories too.

Writers from ethnic minorities are often pigeon-holed

As an Asian woman I’ve also felt the pressure to be a certain kind of writer: one who talks about what it’s like to be Asian, or a Muslim woman – as though these kinds of experiences are the only ones that I can speak about with authority. Monica Ali, who wrote ‘Brick Lane’, spoke about this in an interview with The Big Issue recently: “I was really naïve in thinking that I could write about whatever I wanted, like a white male writer can.”

Writing about yourself is HARD

I’ve been writing a creative non-fiction memoir – so I’ve been wrestling with telling my own lived experience, and accurately conveying my ‘character’. And I’ve discovered that writing about yourself is phenomenally difficult. In fact I found it totally impossible at first: it hasn’t come naturally at all. The only way I was able to get around it was by using myself as a vehicle through which to tell the stories that were important to me.

What you leave out is just as important as what you put in

I soon came to understand that it’s impossible to put your whole self on the page – you have to make some tough decisions about which stories or themes you want to share. That took a while to come together for me, because as individuals we’re so multifaceted. For example, I don’t think my book has much humour in it. Whereas in reality I’ve got quite an ironic (and sometimes dark) sense of humour, and I tend to live my life with this perspective on things. But that’s not a voice I chose to use in my book, because it wouldn’t have benefited the story I wanted to tell.

Writing can be a confronting experience

Something that’s made the writing process even harder is the nature of what I’m writing about – the work that my charity has carried out with children and vulnerable people in conflict zones. Putting some of these experiences down on paper has only emphasised the lack of power we have in these situations, and the horrendous abuse (and systemic prejudice) that takes place. I had to fight against a tendency to self-censor for fear that my critiques of traditional systems and holders of power could damage my future career or paint me as a troublemaker. And I didn’t know how to do these stories justice. In fact I don’t know if I’ve actually managed it – but the desire to tell those stories, and to address the greed and inequality I’ve witnessed, is what has spurred me on.

Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.


Featured image (top) by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash


1 Comment
  • Lilly D

    June 7, 2022at2:07 pm Reply

    An inspiring read. Very authentically spoken.

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