Art historian and new mother Avni Doshi recalls her struggle with writing and the years she spent fighting self-doubt
When I took stock of the time I’d spent writing, so much of it seemed like a waste
Seven years ago, I began writing a novel without any idea of how to go about it. By training, I am an art historian and curator. Fiction was my little secret, something I explored when no one was watching. The idea of writing a novel would have seemed daunting, except that I had no experience or training in creative writing—no study of craft, no watching my work gutted in front of a room of my peers on a weekly basis—and with that naiveté I began excavating a single image, a house with a mother and daughter sitting before a window. This vignette emerged from staring at a picture of myself, half in shadow and half in light, where, for a second, there seem to be two different women in my own face. Other moments and characters rushed out of me. A first draft appeared within a month, and I was unscathed, almost arrogant. What was so hard about writing?
Humility entered as soon as I started editing a few months later, and faced the mediocrity of what I had written. Anxiety, obsession and self-loathing followed. I stopped sleeping, endlessly stared into space, and didn’t leave my house for weeks. I felt certain I would never be able to send my novel into the world, and yet it was all I could think about. I decided to try again. A second draft is all I would need, I told myself. But that too was substandard. With the third I decided to change the tense, and then the point of view. I covered my pinboard with cards, plotting and planning, only to throw it all away and begin once more. Drafts four through seven were demolished too.
People began asking me why I was so melancholic. “I’m writing a book,” I would tell them. The same people are impressed and relieved to hear it is finally being published. “A second book?” they ask. “No, the first,” I respond. They seem embarrassed, more for me than for themselves. “Oh! Haven’t you been working on it for a long time?”
When I took stock of the time I’d spent writing, so much of it seemed like a waste. Then I realised that spending those years with my characters—sitting in rooms with them quietly, watching them spar, sleep, and be rewritten—was what I needed to get to know them. They are still there, both mother and daughter, looking out of the damaged glass.
I wish I could say I believe I’m a real writer now, but when I am at my desk, I feel smaller than ever in front of the white surface that extends towards the hazy window of our converted garage. Even now, writing feels like beginning again; all past experience ceases to exist. I have a shelf where my gods reside: Deborah Levy, Javier Marias and others. The keepers of beautiful sentences, they are the masters of pace and tone, where the form of the prose always seems to illuminate its function. When I am at an impasse, I hover around these cracked spines, hoping for inspiration. A warm breeze comes in through the door that is always left ajar, so the fumes from the epoxy paint that shellacs the floor can escape. The perspiration on my upper lip multiplies. This is where I am supposed to work now.
The room I had before, sunny and white, with high ceilings and a garden just beyond, now belongs to my baby. I was resistant to giving it over before—why couldn’t we put the baby somewhere else? My husband agreed. He would be so small. How much space could he need? He could go in the garage.
We changed our minds as soon as the baby arrived. Other things changed too. In nine months, my brain had rewired itself. The baby’s cry became the only frequency I could tune into for a while.
I am now preternaturally adept at sensing disaster, at calculating the dangers around my son at any given moment. There’s little time for writing now. Stolen moments during naptime, or late at night when I should be sleeping. I jot down thoughts wherever I can—on my phone, at the back of receipts, along the binding of other people’s books. I wonder if there is a limited amount of creative energy that can flow through a person. If I have given what I have to this baby, am I spent? If I have given what I have to this book, am I spent? Maybe the baby and the book have cancelled each other out, and I will emerge from this intact and whole. Then again, maybe I’m being naïve.
The things I attempt to write about are small, mundane—the relationships between people, the way intimacies can unravel, and the debt we carry for those who love us. My understanding is that these things—the reality of daily life that is at once both inescapable and deeply human—are the most essential. The answer to the inevitable question of “How much in your book is true?” and “How much in your book is you?” is all of it. I have made and lived it all, in as much as living and making are the same thing. While the book is entirely invented, I have imagined or experienced each feeling and sensation. These questions don’t bother me as much as the assumptions that accompany them. Does writing fiction crafted after life make it less worthy of artistic praise? The delineation between fiction and non-fiction can seem murky at best.
A man who read an early draft of my book told me that he felt that all the male characters were peripheral. I didn’t know how to respond to this, unsure if it was criticism. Many of the books I love (from Sharlene Teo’s Ponti to Sheila Heti’s How A Person Should Be) are almost entirely without male voices. But this is a relatively new phenomenon— normative male perspectives cover every surface of the literary canon. In finding books by women about women, I felt I had come home.
And as I circled around his statement, I realised that he was wrong in the deepest sense—in my book, patriarchy still makes up the structure of things. The walls, the floor, the roof over my narrator’s head… she is at the mercy of her father’s decisions and her husband’s mood, but doesn’t notice it much until a slat comes up, a crack appears in the plaster or the ceiling starts caving in. I know that every time I sit down to write in the back of the garage, that structure is there. A scaffolding which limits the shape of things is in place deep in my unconscious, before I even begin to build. I wonder if I will ever be able to dismantle it—I wonder if I will ever be able to tear down the house.
Avni Doshi is a writer based in Dubai. Her debut fiction novel, Girl In White Cotton (HarperCollins), a story of a mother and daughter treading the line between devotion and betrayal, is now on stands.
Photographs: Sharon Haridas (Avni Doshi).