by Abhilasha Rayamajhi, Writing Fellow
My days were busy and chaotic. I woke up, got ready for work, commuted, spent nine hours at my desk, commuted back, had dinner, and slept. Weekends went by doing the laundry, cooking, watching a movie, visiting family and relatives, and so on. Life was becoming monotonous.
Then, the first wave of the coronavirus hit Nepal and everything was shut down. The first few days, I felt so relieved that I didn't have to wake up early or get ready for work.
Reflecting on what I love
When I finally had some time at hand in mid-2020, I reflected on my love for writing. Even though I always knew writing was something that I was passionate about; I never took a formal course on it. So I started searching for spaces where I could hone my writing and research skills.
Ticked all the boxes?
At this point, I found The Open Institute’s (OI) website. And without much thought, I applied for the Post-Graduate Writing and Research Program. I got a call from OI for a zoom interview with Professor Peter Graif and Professor Dhirendra Nalbo who are the co-founders of the institute. I had participated in a writing workshop conducted by Professor Muna Gurung who is also a faculty there. I aspired to learn more from her. I didn't think much because I craved for was an environment where I could learn and grow.
Both the professors were quite friendly. I was a bit nervous so my video was off. But when Professor Graif requested that I switch on my video, I did. They asked me why I applied for the course and what my expectations were. I don’t exactly remember what I said, but I remember Prof Nalbo telling me, “You are ticking all our boxes.” Fortunately, I was accepted into the program.
The first semester
I wasn't familiar with the structure of the course and how the classes would run. This was the first time I was studying online for a year. I learned that we would have two classes: Social Contemporary Writing with Prof Gurung and Critical Epistemology and Methodology with Prof Nalbo for two hours each on Saturdays. Then on Monday evenings, Prof Graif introduced us to the History of Social Thought.
I was thrilled to receive books before the course started. For the first class, we read the book Suicide by Emile Durkheim in the History of Social Thought. And we wrote three different essays in the first semester for Social Contemporary Writing. Prof Nalbo assigned us to read the first three chapters from Micheal Crotty's ‘The Foundations of Social Research’ for our first class.
Our cohort had 12 students and the classes ran seminar-style in the first semester. We read different resources and discussed them based on the questions the professors asked us. Before the class, we had to write a reflection of our reading. We had to read, understand, interpret and discuss. I found this process engaging and challenging. At first, I didn't know how I would manage time for so much reading. I am a slow reader and I had a full-time job then. So, things became quite challenging for me. Due to this, I sometimes skipped some assignments and readings, or sometimes I had to submit my sub-par assignments.
However, I felt the Professors were quite understanding and generous. They never let me feel that I was not capable of completing the course because I missed the deadline of an assignment or couldn't always submit my best works. I found the feedback they sent helpful. Before joining the Open Institute, the only thing which I received from most of my teachers was grades. I never knew why I got that grade or what is it that I need to do to improve myself. This might be because in large class sizes it is difficult for the teacher to access and give individual feedback to everyone. In 18 years of formal education, I had not found a culture of giving constructive feedback and accepting it which I found at OI. One of the best parts of this course was getting feedback on my assignments. Every time I would get a notification on moodle when the professors gave us feedback, I would feel excited.
The second semester
The second semester was all about workshops. We workshopped different writings throughout the semester. Initially, I was scared to submit my first draft. I was concerned about what others would think. How would I handle the criticisms from different individuals and integrate some of the feedback into my future drafts? But I also was curious to know what others thought about my writing. What conversations would my writing drive? Therefore, I tried not to be defensive during the workshops; I rather listened and made notes of the feedback from my peers and professors.
We usually only show our final pieces, our best selves to the world. We focus so much on the result that we don't care much about the process. However, through this course, I've understood how important the writing process is. And that process takes time. I don't think anyone became a genius writer overnight.
Forming writing ritual
Ever since the first semester, we have been working towards a capstone project. As working on a research project can be overwhelming, Prof Graif helped us formulate a simple habit of doing daily check-ins. In our group chat, every day we had to answer the following questions:
Very, very briefly (spend no more than 3-5 minutes), please answer these questions: 1) Looking back: How'd yesterday go? What went well and/or what barriers did you encounter? 2) Immersion in your fieldsite: How will you put yourself in a position to watch, listen, and participate today? 3) Time for writing: What time will you set aside today for focused, uninterrupted writing? 4) (Optional) Community: As you think and work through your project, is there anyone in our community with who would you like to find a time to talk with soon?
These prompts helped me understand my writing and research process. Reading through other's responses on our group chat also encouraged me to plan my day better and focus on my work. Even though my field site was my workplace, it became difficult for me to focus on classes once the lockdown was over and I had to go to work physically. Despite wanting to write and focus on the course, I couldn't give the time I needed to my research.
What was I afraid of?
One day, when I got to work, the lift was packed, so instead of waiting, I decided to take the stairs. On one of the doors of the lift, there was a quote, "What would you do if you were not afraid?" I reflected on this question as I moved ahead. An inner voice told me, "I would quit this job". I was afraid of how my family would react if I said I wanted to quit my job to focus on research and writing. I was also afraid that I would lose the financial stability that this job helped me achieve. I had been thinking of quitting but I felt confused. I didn't know what I would tell my supervisor at work.
I tossed and turned at night thinking about what would be the best way to exit. I had several conversations about it with people I trusted before I made a final decision. First I talked to my husband about my decision. His first question was, "What other better job opportunity do you have at the moment?" I didn't have any.
I discussed the opportunities that I could have in the writing and research field with Prof. Graif. He talked about the fellowship program that OI offered to students and graduates. He also emphasized that the fellowship focuses on the personal growth of the fellows, contribution towards the community, and sustainability. I saw myself fitting into the role of a fellow at OI.
Finally, I discussed it with my supervisor at work. It wasn't an easy conversation to have but I had to honor my passion. I quit my job and dedicated myself to writing and research. The path hasn't been easy but it has been worth it.
A lonely process
I feel blessed to be a part of a community that supports, encourages, and pushes each other to do the things that we love, each day. Writing and research is a lonely process. But being a part of this community has given me the confidence that I am not alone. There are writers, researchers, and thinkers who are struggling to write despite having years of experience.
I am learning to embrace the process of writing and research here rather than thinking about the results. Every day I take baby steps and show up to write. Sometimes, the words flow, sometimes, it is a struggle and I can’t write much. But in the past year, I have sharpened my writing and research skills. Being a writing and research fellow has provided me that space where I can write uninterruptedly. I can say that I have now found the writing space I was always searching for and it liberates me.