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On February 21st, the international best-selling author and all-around wonderful person Azar Nafisi spoke with some nonfiction MFA students as part of the Living Distinguished Writers Series. Some of the tips were so useful I wanted to share:

  • Write through discussion. Nafisi said she has no regular writing schedule. Like Margaret Atwood, she writes when under deadline or inspired. Though she’s gathering material for writing constantly. She surrounds herself with music, art, and literature. In particular, she learns through discussion. It gives her vitality. This was why she started a covert book club in Tehran. She learns and writers through conversation (as indicated by her preference to have a discussion with Colum McCann rather than a reading). Small talk ain’t so small when you treat it as a space to explore ideas pertinent to your work.
  • Follow your obsessions. Obsessions are a great sign that you need to write about something. After the death of her parents, Nafisi began work in Reading Lolita in Tehran in earnest. “I couldn’t think of anything but them,” she said.
  • Be invested in the truth. When asked about changing the names and certain details of the women she had the book club with, Nafisi sad she didn’t have to think twice about it. She maintained that she was being true to the core objective of that person– “that’s your duty as a writer.” Some details are superficial compared to the core personality.
  • Listen to music. For each memoir, Nafisi had a few musicians she listened to while writing or whenever her mind needed a break. For Reading Lolita in Tehran, she listened to The Doors constantly. For Things I’ve Been Silent About, she listened to Janis Joplin and Nina Simone.
  • Love narrative, love blood. “Bad writers impose messages,” Nafisi said. “Critics do damage to literature by turning it into an idea, a message, a simple object that can’t penetrate the soul.” Whether fiction or memoir, Nafisi said that writers should be concerned with storytelling — the process of making a character flesh and blood.

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