Your words still got a home: Writing lessons that never get old

Fareeha Arshad

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It has been a long time since most of us have travelled anywhere. With the pandemic and global lockdown, we had no choice but to sit and cosy up at home, sip cold lattes that we prepared, and catch up with family members — something we had wanted to do for a long time.

If there is one thing that I have missed a lot and realized its importance only after I was denied to have the pleasure for, it is travelling. For me, travelling is not just about going to new places (or old ones) and visiting exotic landmarks. Instead, I love travelling because my brain goes into this firework mode where it won’t stop bursting with ideas to write about. When I travel, I get to meet new people at the airport, listen to their stories, connect with human emotions in their rawest form, think about things I never thought of before, and most importantly: be most vulnerable while writing. There is something about airports (and hospitals) — their walls must bear witness to the most honest and heartbreaking goodbyes and the most joyous welcomes.

During such moments, being seated alone at an airport, waiting for my flight, looking at reunions and farewells, I find myself at the peak of my writing creativity. These are the three writing lessons I have gained from my travelling experiences, and I promise they never get old.

1. It's not always about you

“Do you have a Tylenol?”

I turned to my left to find a polite woman in her 40s with bloodshot eyes — as though she had been crying all night long. I returned her kind smile and unzipped the top pocket of my backpack. I never travelled without a box of Tylenol. They can save lives. Like it did then.

“Long journey?” I asked while I placed the tablet in her stretched palm.

“Yeah. Kind of. Seven hours down, eleven hours to go. My head has been hurting for ages, and the pharmacy here has run out of any paracetamol.”

Headache. That explained her painfully watered eyes.

After she gulped down the tablet with the bottle of water I offered, I gestured her towards the empty seat beside me. Smiling gratefully, she sat down. She took out her cell phone and looked at the time. Inadvertently, I glanced at her screen to find the wallpaper with her and possibly her two very young and happy kids. She touched the screen lovingly. I could see the longing in her eyes for the children who weren’t available right beside her.

“I am heading to India to complete my post-graduate studies,” I say. That was the best ice breaker I could come up with at that moment.

She smiled. “I am going to Pakistan. My father… passed away this morning,” she said, giving a tight smile. Her eyes betrayed her beautiful smile and teared up again.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I said. To my surprise and hers, I hugged her. My heart ached for her. I had lost my grandfather the previous year, and I could relate to her. A loss is a loss regardless of where it comes from. That night, amidst a thousand other people bearing a million stories, I patiently chose to listen to her story of how conflicted she was to leave her young kids at home with their father and rush to her country to see her’s — for one last time.

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Everybody is made up of different stories. Each one of them bears a unique story that wants to break free but has no outlet. The best part of being a writer, no matter how amateurish, is to feel that story like nobody else. Every time I travel, I get to hear a new account that I never heard before. I get to look at the world through an entirely new lens, only to realize that I was missing out so much. Each of these stories bleeds into my articles. Had I not met that woman that night, I wouldn’t have this story to share with you.

This is the first writing lesson that I have taken through my travels: it’s not always about you.

I am positive that, had I ranted about myself that night, she would have listened because she was looking for some change or some diversion to get her mind off her deceased father. Rather, I chose to listen to her instead — to get things off from her chest, to reminiscent her father along with her, to let her know that she is not alone in this.

This is the first step to improving your writing process. You do not make your entire writing about yourself. Instead, you try and relate to your readers. You make things about them. Recall your favourite writer, author, or blogger. Why did you like them so much? I like my favourite writers because I find myself connected to them like nobody else. They make me feel like I am not alone, and they cater to my needs in their writings. That is what makes such writers stand out in a pool of thousands of others.

2. Pay attention to people

This lesson might seem redundant. But it’s not.

The year after the previous episode, I found myself travelling again. This time, I was travelling with a fellow ninth-grader as my seat partner. Fifteen minutes into the flight, I noticed something off about her. Unable to help myself, I asked her if she was alright.

“Yeah, I am fine,” she replied without sparing me a glance. Her voice, hoarse and words, distant. Of course, nobody is expected to gush out their life’s story. Everybody is entitled to their privacy. However, she was sad from what I could perceive, and a part of me felt uneasy about it.

Ten minutes later, my eyes caught a 1-Direction key chain dangling on the side of her purse, suffocating, in the backseat pocket in front of her. A bulb in my head went off right then and there.

“So… you know… I had been to a 1-Direction concert in 2015. I have pictures and videos, wanna see them?” I said with the kindest smile I could muster.

For the first time, I saw her pretty face. It shone with tears and conflict. Not allowing the crease to appear on my forehead because of her saddened face, I pulled out my phone and scrolled down the gallery. I felt her shift beside me and could feel her eyes on my phone’s screen. That’s how I made friends with one of the sweetest girls ever. In case if anybody is curious, her aunt passed away, and she was going to her funeral.

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That day, like always, I had two choices — first, like previously, I could have consoled her for her loss, or second, I could have eased up her mood with something completely unrelated. I chose the latter. Being young, it was easier to divert her attention towards something that would instantly make her happy. How I would behave with two different age groups in the situation surely differs. It’s the same with readers.

You may be writing about the same topic for two completely unrelated audiences and touch entirely different aspects. For instance, I could write about viruses to adults and children alike. However, the way I present my topic and the areas I cover could vastly differ. This is what I mean when I say, pay attention to your audience.

Not everybody is going to enjoy your content the same way as you want them to. That’s not because your topic isn’t right or there is something that you are doing wrong. This usually happens because you aren’t catering to your audience’s needs and are targeting the wrong audience. Before you sit and write, always imagine your audience and who they are. Only after that, start to write. It becomes easier when you are sure of the kind of audience you are addressing through your article.

Over the years, I have realized there are three parameters through which you can surely know your readers and accordingly categorize them. These include classification based on:
1. The age group of your audience
2. The geographic location of your audience
3. The vocation of your audience

Imagining the audience and knowing them is crucial because it will enable you to focus better on your writing and guide you on what to include and exclude in your passages. This thought process will allow you to tailor your article for a specific set of people and, therefore, make your passages crisper and more informative.

3. Take risks

“That was genius. I never knew that being an official on an airline check-in counter requires so much patience. You guys are doing an amazing job. Cheers!” I said, hinting at the chaos they cleared after a passenger in front of me threw a fit for not being allowed to carry an extra ten kgs for free. As I handed my passport and ticket to the pretty lady in front of me, I saw her smile.

“We are used to it. I haven’t seen passengers side us, though. Thank you for understanding.” She said appreciatively. It was my turn to smile. As I picked a copy of Indian Express from the pile on her counter, she asked, “why are you travelling alone, sweety?”

I realized her concern. Like thousands of others, she must have assumed that I was fifteen because of my looks and height. I never felt bad about it, though.

“Actually I study here, in India. I am going home to my parents for a vacation.” I replied politely after folding the newspaper and keeping it in the paper bag I carried along with me. I always picked up newspapers at airports to doze off quickly on the plane after reading the first line.

I saw her expression change when she looked at my year of birth. She continued, “you look pretty young for your age.”

“Had I received a dollar for every time someone said that to me, I would have been a millionaire by now,” I replied, laughing to ease the awkwardness. She smiled again.

“So what do you study?” She asked me while she punched data into her computer.

“Medical science,” I said and paused. I looked at the total weight of my luggage. Though I knew I never overpacked, I always felt uneasy when my luggage waited on the check-in counter belt.

“I am in my graduation the third year,” I continued.

“Oh! My sister is pursuing medical science too.” She said enthusiastically, looking at me. I could her proud smile for her sister.

“That’s awesome!” I said, “She will make a patient doc, like her sister.” I gave her a thumb’s up.

“Window or aisle?” She asked curiously.

“I know what I am going to ask is absurd, but do you have a spot in the business class?” I asked sheepishly. I know I was supposed to give up on my childish habit. But I loved pitching for the business class each time I travelled, even though I knew I would be turned down each time. Who agrees to give away a free upgrade to the business class?

Apparently, my new friend does.

“Actually, you know what? I like you. And after the long wait, the other passenger put you through earlier, you deserve the upgrade.” She said, smiling, handing me my golden boarding pass along with my passport and ticket.

I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. She gave me a free upgrade. Though I could see the 2B seat circled on the boarding pass, my brain feared that this could be a fluke, and I would have been allotted a 22B seat in the plane instead.

But that did happen. A moment of fearlessness gave me a comfortable seat and exotic food for the rest of the four-hour flight. It all boiled down to the moment I risked being turned down.

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The aim of this exercise is not to get upgraded each time I travel. Instead, I do this to get accustomed to rejections so that the next one hurts lesser.

This is the third and final lesson I have learned from my travelling experiences — take risks to pitch for prominent publications without the fear of rejection. Yes, there is a chance that you will be rejected. You will be refused more times than you can count. Yet, that one acceptance will remove all the grief that previous rejections gave you.

You can write the best article in the world and still be rejected from major publications. This is not because you didn’t write well or pitched to the wrong publication. Most times, you get rejected because they had better pitches. I always assume no matter how good my pitch may be and how well I write, there will always be better writers out there. It’s like pitching for a free upgrade while travelling, knowing that there are people who have purchased the ticket for the same.

After pitching your writing piece that you bled your heart into and poured out words you never thought you would, you hope that some editor will see the same thing in it as you do. And trust me, many editors do and would love to accept all the articles they get. However, they are bound by their limitations and work hard to keep par with the standards they have said. That is what sets prominent publications apart from the rest.

When I am rejected from a free upgrade during my air travels, it doesn’t mean that I am not going home. I am still going home — business class or not. Likewise, as a writer, the best you can do is, write with everything you can and keep pitching until your words find a home that they deserve. Don’t let rejections from major publications stop you.

Your words still got a home. Keep pitching.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

Texas State
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