Sign up to the newsletter

Inspiration Is For Amateurs

Shubnum Khan

Inspired by endless tapes of Anthony Robbins and stories from Chicken Soup for The Soul, I wrote ‘Publish a novel by 25’ in my goal book when I was 12 years old. In my mind, I also had Penguin’s little penguin attached to the spine with my name on it. It was a dreamy time of my life, filled with glorious hopes and ambitious plans for a future where I would change the world. 

And then I grew up. 

I got caught up in the teenage mayhem of crushes, insecurities and catfights. I became angst-ridden about my body, doubtful about my talents and busy with my studies. I forgot about my plans and packed away the goal book with other childhood memorabilia. I completed high school and meandered for a while; wasting a gap year and dropping out of three degrees. I did try writing a few stories but I never managed to complete any of them; I got busy with other projects and distracted by everything else. I was left with too many beginnings and no endings; a trail of stories with captivating openings that wandered around and did nothing.

Eventually I did complete a degree in Media Studies and then I signed up for a postgraduate degree; mostly to delay entry into the working world. Purely by chance (or so it seemed), I signed up for a Creative Writing elective on offer that semester.

One of the pieces I wrote about on an old lady who made pickles for a living was well received and at my lecturer’s advice, I expanded it into a novel for a Master’s dissertation in Creative Writing. 

And that was the turning point. 

It was when I actually became serious about what I did and committed myself to a piece of work. I had to stop fiddling around and actually make myself write. I had a supervisor to report to, deadlines to meet, and a goal to work toward. I sat for one year writing almost everyday and then took another year to edit it all.

A few months after completion, my manuscript was shortlisted for the Citizen Book Prize, which it didn’t win. I took a hard look at my novel and began re-editing. The following year I entered it into the Penguin Prize for African Writing. This time it was shortlisted with six others from 300 entries across Africa. At the awards ceremony the publisher told me that I hadn’t won but that they were going to publish my novel. A few months later I had my novel with my name on the cover and a little Penguin on the spine. I was 25 years old.

The point of this story is not that you need great childhood goals, or that you need a Masters degree in Creative Writing.

The point is that you need to take your work seriously before anything can happen. The moment I applied myself; sat down and committed myself for two years to the damn thing, I completed a decent book.

This is the one of the biggest problems would-be writers face: they don’t actually take themselves seriously; they don’t believe they can do it and as a result they don’t put much energy into it. 

The thing is, writing is a field that requires incredible commitment and faith to succeed. I’ve had many people tell me they want to write a book and yet they can’t even make the time to write consistently.

When the famed Hungarian photographer, Brassaï asked Picasso whether his ideas came from chance or by design, he replied that he had no idea, that ‘to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.’  In other words, if you don’t make time to write, you’re never going to know what you’re going to write about.  Or as the legendary photorealist Chuck Close famously said,’ Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.’ 

History is littered with great artists who succeeded only once they committed to take their works seriously. Van Gogh only produced his finest work when he was fired from the school he was teaching at and decided to take his recreational writing and drawing more seriously. More recently J K Rowling described her period of joblessness as a liberation that allowed her to focus entirely on her writing. 

If you continue to reduce your work to ‘some side project’ that you ‘dabble’ in, you will never be able to take it seriously enough to complete it.

And if you can’t take your work seriously, how do you expect others to? 

Believe in yourself, read more books, write as often as you can, ask others to read your writing and learn to deal with criticism. You have to work hard and you have to have faith. You’re creating a whole world out of words, dammit; take pride in your passion. 

If I learnt anything from those Anthony Robbins tapes is that if you can believe it, you can achieve it. Publishing a novel with Penguin was a seemingly impossible dream. But once I put the structure in place, everything fell into plan.

Take your passion seriously. 

It’s what I remind myself everyday as I’m working on my second novel. It’s been difficult without a supervisor or deadlines but I know I’m capable of completing it if I can just commit myself to it. 

This year, I took a semester off work, purely to write and read. It seems like such a luxury (and it is) but if you can’t take out time to invest in your dream then what’s the point of having one? I’ve made a concerted effort to read more, beginning with the classics. I write everyday for a set time and I even left social media for two months when I found it had become distracting. I signed up for a Word A Day and started visiting Writing websites for advice. I write a thousand daily (whether it’s rubbish or not, it has to be a thousand words) and report them weekly to a friend and I have a few trusted friends who check my work every few months.

You have to believe in yourself and become serious about what you do, then and only then can you succeed.


Shubnum Khan is a South African Indian author who published her debut novel, Onion Tears with Penguin at 25. It was long listed for the Sunday Times fiction prize and shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Debut Fiction Prize. She has written for O, the Oprah magazine, Marie Claire and The Sunday Times Travel magazine. She is currently working on her second novel, Paper Flowers. Find out more about Shubnum on her website and follow her on Twitter.