I came across Sakinah Hofler in her Ted Talk, ‘How to Use Creative Writing to Bear Witness’. I was taken by her authenticity and view that creative writing is an opportunity to take control of our experiences.
I was intrigued how Sakinah started out as an engineer and is now due to start her teaching post at Loyola University New Orleans where she will be teaching undergraduate students. Being a writer comes with the notion that there is something risky about it, as is the notion circumnavigating the arts, but Sakinah is a fantastic example that perseverance is the most important ingredient.
How did you go from engineer to writer?
Sakinah had wanted to write but also enjoyed the experimental nature of the sciences and impacted by her family’s take on writing being lofty and unachievable (as is so many), Sakinah started out in the Department of Defence. Eventually, Sakinah applied for an MFA but as the universe would have it, it wasn’t quite Sakinah’s time. Her craft needed some time to mature and come into its full bloom.
With her commitment to writing, her affiliation with writing groups and relationships with former tutors, skilfully being balanced alongside her day job, Sakinah eventually landed her place to study her MFA and left behind weaponry for words.
What do you think the writer’s role is?
‘To be an artist means to never avert your eyes’, a quote by Akiro Kurosawa. Sakinah see’s the role of a writer as someone who records the world as it is or as it could be. Sakinah believes all artists need to write about their observations whether the writer grounds this in reality or the fantastical. A writer’s job doesn’t have to mean they are didactic, but it is our job to record truth, however this truth may look to them. Writers like Wolf and Austin informed her of times people lived in and feels stories are about capturing the times we live in and recording our present lives to inform the future.
Could you talk us through ‘Naps’ and ‘Family on the Path Train’?
Sakinah’s prose piece ‘Naps’ is inspired by her reading of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine exploring racial relations in the US and Sakinah’s observations and experiences of micro-aggressions against Black people in the US. Sakinah wanted to draw on the use of ‘you’ in this piece from a writing exercise she had previously done and see in Rankine’s work.
Sakinah explained how when growing up, she felt inferior about her hair and would ask her Mum why her hair wasn’t the same as those women on the adverts. As Sakinah puts it, she was living through and still is, a colourism gaze where there is a bias towards the appearance of white women. Naps discusses these feelings and Sakinah’s struggle around seeing and accepting herself as a Black woman in a world that favours being white.
‘Family on the Path Train’
Sakinah wrote this piece on her way to a writing class in New York on a train. In the midst of writing, she heard a thump and initially thought it was the train but soon saw a father towering over his son and had then seen him throw his son against the seat. Sakinah explained that although a train full of people saw this, no one did anything. Sakinah was and is angry at herself for her inability to act, which prompted her writing in the first place. Sakinah uses the character of a superhero to highlight our misunderstanding of humans and what we do in an emergency. Whilst the superhero comes to our aid, people typically stand by and look on at the scene at hand.
What are your routines and practices for writing?
Don’t believe in the muse- you need to sit down and write every day. Referring to Ray Bradbury where if he has said that if he doesn’t write every day, soon his writing sounds off to him. Sakinah echoes this by writing every day so she can establish her own style and practices far better than dipping in and out of it, even if it’s just jotting words or ideas down. Sakinah speaks about ‘morning pages’, a strategy talked about in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This involves sitting down to write three pages every morning for fifteen minutes and not thinking about what you’re writing. Sakinah jested that this could range from ‘This piece is terrible’ to ‘I ate this for breakfast’ and even names these pieces ‘trash’ knowing that at a later time, something will be birthed from these rough scribbled ideas.
When Sakinah is novel writing, she types out three different pages in first person present to figure out the beat of her novel and play around with voice. Her inspiration is to read works such as Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love and Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, to see how these writer’s create voice and how she can adopt their style. Sakinah borrows such stylistic qualities to see what fits with the voice she is trying to create and quips that she gives herself permission to try things out from other writers, after a momentary ‘can I do this?’ thought.
When writing poetry Sakinah needs quiet where she implements a no phone policy. With studious dedication, she reads an hour of contemporary poetry and an hour of classical poetry before writing and then gives herself two hours to write. Sakinah’s overarching goal with her poetry practice is to make sure that something gets on the page because poetry is less instinctive to her than writing fiction.
If you don’t know what to write, how do you overcome this?
Sakinah’s first piece of advice is to try and change the mood, whether that be the lighting in the room, changing background music- ‘try changing the tempo’. Sakinah always writes first drafts by hand, because there is something raw about this in terms of process where changes are seen, unlike the all-too-handy edits on a device. Sakinah also journals and says this has been useful for her to flip back for ideas. Much of her writing also comes from observations seen in day-to-day life which she journals.
What advice would you give for writers starting out?
Reading a lot and figuring out what you like. During Sakinah’s first year of her MFA she read Seed to Harvest, Octavia E. Butler, and this helped form her love for speculative fiction which is now what Sakinah’s preferred fiction is.
Sakinah found classes helpful, and whilst finding the right one took time, once she did find the right class, it was invaluable for her writing progression. The accountability was a positive element because she knew at the end of every month, she needed a piece to talk about with her peers. The beauty of a writing group too, is that your work doesn’t have to be polished. The point was to turn up and engage in conversations about writing. With her writing group in motion, Sakinah also attended writer conferences to make sure she was circulating within writing communities.
Keeping ties with teachers, tutors and the alike, where you had a positive relationship can be beneficial; there may be a time when reaching out can manoeuvre you to desirable places. Add to this, volunteering at literary or creative events and see how your opportunities, of whatever size, multiply. Sakinah cited her time at the Tribeca film festival where she met people in the creative industry and made connections that are relationships she still has today.
How can someone write and make money from it?
Sakinah first suggestion is to apply to writing contests, some prizes are quite substantial but even if they are modest prizes, it is still a reward for your efforts. With an intended heavy underlining, Sakinah cautioned to not giving away your wok for free. All your work regardless of length should be paid because it is your labour. We may need to start out as writing for free but eventually, you should have a fee for your work; don’t be afraid to make this clear if people are requesting your writing.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass on for writers?
- Persist and you will have your breakthrough
- Don’t become complacent- we all need to improve all of the time to keep learning and evolving
- Challenge yourself and your writing style and practice
- Submit Work
- Put heart into what you write because that always produces better writing
You can follow Sakinah and keep up to date with her writing at https://www.sakinahhofler.com/
Thank you Sakinah Hofler for sharing your wisdom and planting seeds of hope for all writer’s out there,