Published in The Record on 19 May 2021

Niranjan Kunwar: ‘Even if words don’t come easily, I keep at it, trusting the process.’

In this weekly series, well-known Nepali authors reflect on how they learned to write, who taught them, and what practical tips and suggestions they have for fellow Nepali non-fiction writers and storytellers. Their answers are honest, reassuring, and useful.

Two weeks ago, Shradha Ghale shared thoughts on getting beyond the "best talkers" to reach those less eloquent and confident. Last week, Kunda Dixit celebrated the power of writing simply and clearly. 

This week, Niranjan Kunwar reflects on what he calls ‘the writing process’ — the steps he walks through to make his words fly. He guides us through his own flawed thinking when a student and his current writing process. 

Niranjan Kunwar. Photo: Sagar Chhetri

Niranjan's recent book Between Queens and the Cities has won wide acclaim. Other essays include ‘Telling Stories’ (The Kathmandu Post), ‘Silence and Shame’ (Himal), and ‘Giving and Taking’ (La.Lit).

As his essay below makes clear, Niranjan thinks deeply about how to teach writing, including to primary school students. Working with very young writers has helped him better understand his own writing process.

Coming next week: Kesang Tseten

The process

My first memory of ‘writing’ is staying up late at night furiously filling a notebook. I was in Grade Six, eleven years old. I can’t remember the assignment — probably part of an application to join the Boy Scouts — but I do remember never seeing my notebook again, never hearing whether what I wrote was good or not. The hollow feeling has stayed with me to this day. Despite ‘writing’ all those words, I didn't get any feedback. 

My first memory of ‘really’ writing is writing the essays for General Paper classes in A Levels. After we read and discussed excerpts from news magazines like Time and classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, the teacher assigned a writing response. I was always enthusiastic about these assignments and looked forward to the teacher’s feedback. She usually gave only letter grades and terse comments but they meant the world to me. I now understand how each part of those GP lessons had been thoughtfully planned to help us improve our writing: the reading materials provided literary models, the discussions clarified our understanding, and the teacher’s responses encouraged us. 

We can compare writing an essay to constructing a building: reading is like scoping out an area to pick a site, and a wide-ranging discussion is like preparing the ground. Feedback is like scaffolding: without it, the building is always in danger of collapsing. 

I loved writing and dreamt of becoming a writer. In college, I pursued my dream by taking creative writing courses. As writers who had already published books, the professors stoked my passion. Inside their classrooms, we were coals next to a burning log, ready to ignite. Each teacher had their own unique style. Some emphasized reading in order to prepare oneself as a writer. Others highlighted the importance of originality. But they all stressed two common features — sharing one’s preliminary notes and reflecting on peoples’ responses before rewriting. They all talked about ‘the process of writing’.  

During my schooling in Nepal, I seem to have missed this crucial lesson. I thought essays needed to be completed in one sitting, like solving an algebra problem. Those highschool essays were graded and unceremoniously handed back. One or two essays were sometimes mentioned in class but the rest never saw the light of day. 

It was only during a college writing seminar that I learnt the meaning of the word ‘draft’, an initial attempt meant to be re-written, to be fixed. One writing seminar was called ‘Writing and Thinking’, suggesting that the two activities were like belts inside a machine, transporting and modifying thoughts back and forth. Writing was not a one-way task of downloading words from the brain to paper. The act of writing helps organize and deepen one’s thoughts. This means that a first draft merely offers a preliminary glimpse into the writer’s emerging ideas. Since we are complex beings interacting with a complex world, one’s initial attempt to respond to any issue in writing is usually underdeveloped and incomplete. 

Whenever I shared my emerging thoughts with a group of careful readers (in writing workshops or seminars), their impressions and questions were like signposts guiding me towards a new realm of magical possibilities. Their care and concern motivated me to take risks, to venture into unexplored internal territories. It was important to listen to others, to try to incorporate peoples’ diverse responses. Reading other people’s drafts helped me find my own voice, to locate myself in this vast, confusing universe. 


Niranjan Kunwar's debut book, Between Queens and the Cities. Photo: Sagar Chhetri

As I read and practiced writing, I also felt compelled to interrogate why I wanted to be a writer, especially if I wanted to write personal narratives. If I was so eager to share my thoughts, I had to believe in the value of those thoughts or, at the very least, make the writing interesting enough to the general public or to a specific group. 

Later, during teaching internships, I observed elementary school teachers who teach writing. To make their lessons stick, they stretched every step of the writing process. An entire week was devoted to ‘collect ideas’. Children were encouraged to list every topic that gave them ‘big, strong feelings’. Writers write about things they care for, the teachers kept saying. It was crucial to explore one’s passions, to fully investigate one’s concerns. Children were trained how to listen closely to their friends, not just to their teachers. What kind of feedback was meaningful and which ones superficial? Writing short responses on post-it notes after reading a friend’s essay was worthwhile because the notes became evidence to a sort of a communion - we perform these rituals because we believe in this cause; we have faith in this process. 

My experience with elementary school children also revealed how writing was so much more than just words on paper, so much more than an essay or an argument. Writing was connected to the heart, to hopes, to humanity. 

These mini-lessons also helped me promote good habits. Most professional writers might agree that the crux of writing is about habit formation and discipline - the habit of staying attuned to specific topics, the habit of reading and drafting, and the habit of sharing and revising.

My shorter articles gradually made way for longer pieces that required more research and meetings with experts. If I invested time and energy, the writing morphed and expanded. The ideas changed shape. I have worked on some articles for more than six months, refining the thesis numerous times, exchanging multiple drafts with mentors and editors. 

While crafting essays, I keep five steps in mind: prewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, and sharing. Prewriting can be deliberate actions like brainstorming, outlining, and listing. But it can also be a casual conversation with a friend. Talking about a topic is an efficient way to understand multiple perspectives, just like reading. Prewriting emphasizes that we need to get mentally and emotionally prepared before physically sitting down to draft. 

Drafting can be taxing. I prepare myself by clearing my schedule and committing to sit in front of a laptop with a cup of coffee. Even if words don’t come easily, I keep at it, trusting the process. By now, I have learnt that even if the first draft is poor, I can always improve during revision. 

Many Nepali college students have misconceptions and bad habits. Most usually submit a rushed first draft. And those unfamiliar with writing as a process pressure themselves to produce a finished masterpiece in one sitting. Also, unfortunately, students in Nepal are trained to pay more attention to grammar and neatness than to rigor and style. The goal of drafting should be to simply put words on paper, to make connections and explore possibilities - not to censor oneself or get discouraged. 

After the first draft, it’s a good idea to let time pass. If I let days slide, my energy for an essay gets rejuvenated and time usually offers a renewed perspective. I began revising this essay more than a week after drafting. At the very least, I let 24 hours pass before rising early to revise. I might share the draft with a friend or I might share one of several versions of the revised draft. To me, revision means refining ideas, moving paragraphs around, and rethinking the structure. Revision can do wonders to an essay. It allows the writer to fully tap into their potential. (Some professionals use the term ‘editing’ interchangeably with ‘revising). 

The fourth step, proofreading, tends to get confused with revising. I’ve noticed inexperienced writers worried about proofreading too early — even while they are prewriting and drafting. That kind of worry interrupts the creative flow of ideas. Proofreading means ensuring that the writing is technically sound. We should double-check syntax, grammar, and vocabulary only at the end of the process. 

The final step, sharing, can be an incentive, a concrete motivation when one gets distracted or discouraged during the process. For small children, sharing (or ‘publishing’) means making illustrations to go with the writing so that the work can be displayed on a wall for everyone to admire. After all, isn’t this why we write — to share? To commune and celebrate, to connect with each other? And making connections can be a powerful, life-affirming experience.

This is how I write — by making time and committing to the entire process. Everyone has ideas but very few have the discipline to commit to the entire writing process. Most learn bad habits in school and emerge with low confidence. They may not complete a draft because they never learnt the power of workshopping, including the risk it takes to show others. Workshopping requires one to be vulnerable. Most equate good writing with a didactic tone strewn with big words. Most of us in Nepal are not raised to speak from the depths of our hearts and listen compassionately. 

The ‘writing process’ is meant to be a flexible guideline, not a fixed formula. I recommend it as an experiment. A lot depends on practice and preference. Someone might spend more time with the first two steps and not so much with the third and the fourth. For others, the reverse might be true. One has to find one’s pace, get acquainted with one’s own instincts. 

Ideas are like birds. The writing process allows us to observe our ideas - these multicolored restless birds - more carefully. And if we want to study the birds closely, we better put them down on paper. If we don’t make time to draft and revise, to put these restless birds on paper, they’ll fly away and we might never see them again.