Amna Ahmad is a writer and a coach for “hybrids,” artists, and creative entrepreneurs. She works for the liberation of her tribe, and believes that we have the right and the obligation to honor our complexity and create and assign meaning in a way that integrates all our knowing and aliveness.
Amna’s signature offering is Freedom From Writer’s Block, a workshop for writers that integrates the practical methods for creative unblocking with a deep exploration of writing as a spiritual pursuit, to support writers in giving form to the work that wants to come through them. You can find Amna over at her blog The Pragmatic Hybrid and on Twitter.
You call yourself a “hybrid”? Can you explain what it means to be a creative and pragmatic hybrid?
In biological terms, a hybrid is an offspring of two parents of different species. The animal example we’re most familiar with is the mule. But in the plant world, hybridization is way more common and is a source of new species all the time. And hybrids often exhibit what is known as “hybrid vigor”—they are stronger and bigger and more robust than either parent species.
I use “hybrid” as a shorthand for all of us who took what we came from and transmogrified/blended/remixed it, and added new elements, and came up with something entirely new and beautifully customized to who we are.
The “pragmatic” part refers to ditching ideology. I think we have the most power in our lives when we look to see what’s actual—what is. This takes some nerve, and some questioning of inherited wisdom. “Whatever works” is my motto—partly because of my inherited disposition toward practicality, I’m sure, and partly because I used to be a scientist, and I’m interested in leaving aside a priori assumptions and expectations and looking to see what’s supported by the evidence. What’s really going on? What works? This is the ultimate measure of the value of any approach in my book.
And what works for me might well be completely different than what works for you. This is allowed among hybrids. Celebrated, even. 🙂
When and how did you realize you had a creative dream or a calling to fulfill? And how did you embrace it?
It wasn’t a thunderclap for me. It was more a gradual accumulation of knowledge about myself and my path that came out of following hunches and heeding small desires.
Taking those steps to explore what I wanted, and to make my desires important, grew my trust in myself and in my ability to make my dreams real. It’s a positive feedback loop—you have an inkling of something that’s calling to you, you follow it, and your subconscious comes to trust you, and rewards you with more inklings and more power to see them through.
And eventually, through this iterative, stepwise courage-and-capacity-building process, you come to a place where you get very clear about your mission, and also have the powers to carry it out. It’s magical.
What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you deal with them?
Many! But for the sake of space, I will give you the overarching theme: most of the struggles in my life have had to do with differentiating myself from a ready-made life system that I was expected to step into. Once I made the decision to organize my life as I saw fit, instead of following the system by rote, it changed every single thing about my life. All categories were up for re-negotiation, and for figuring out what everything meant from within my new context, which was completely up to me to define. Tricky! It means I sacrifice some security in exchange for freedom. And it’s a lifelong project of self-discovery and self-creation. But this theme is the seed for who I am in the world, and all the work I do is related to it in some way.
“The tricky thing is not becoming a writer—since we’re all writers. It’s removing the blocks and impediments that get put in our way about writing. Like the idea that it has something to do with grammar, or paragraphs, or using polysyllabic words.”
How did you unearth and own your true voice?
Through practice! But I don’t think this is ever finished. We grow and evolve over our whole lives—and our “true voice” and powers of expression change right along with everything else. In the end, I think that fretting about your own voice is unhelpful. Just by being you, a singular being who is unique in the universe, you have a voice. I promise. What’s helpful is doing your work, and practicing, and staying limber, and letting your voice work itself out however it wants to in the course of your work. Which it will.
What do you think is the biggest illusion about being creative?
The biggest illusion about creativity is that only some people own it! This is not so. Everyone is creative; every person has a strong, unique voice. In my workshops, I propose the radical notion that everyone is a writer. And then, of course, I have to explain: we’re all born writers, because narrative is a natural function of our brains. We make stories and share stories very naturally. Telling your friend about your day is telling a story—it’s writing you do on air.
The tricky thing is not becoming a writer—since we’re all writers. It’s removing the blocks and impediments that get put in our way about writing. Like the idea that it has something to do with grammar, or paragraphs, or using polysyllabic words. Usually these ideas get put on us by an authority figure critiquing our writing without compassion for the tenderness we’re sharing. And then this criticism gets internalized, and we find ourselves thinking we’re not creative.
So a lot of creative practice is being willing to do the work to dismantle the faulty edifices that got built up over our natural capacities.
How do you get into the creative flow state?
I get deeply in touch with the reality that my creative work is not about me. That it doesn’t come from me, I don’t control the outcome, and the results are really none of my business. I do what it takes to get back in touch with this reality.
This could happen through writing out some such rememberings in my journal, or through listening to a meditation I recorded for my clients to help them remember this, or reading a part of some book that reminds me of what I really believe in this regard: “Oh yeah—I’m just the instrument. It’s not an ego exercise. I can just start writing, and whatever wants me to write it will show up. It’s not about me expending effort to will something into being.”
What kind of daily work habits, routines or rituals do you have?
I’m a little all over the place when it comes to routine—I attribute this to being a Scanner (in the Barbara Sher sense), and also a Gemini. While I mostly do the same things from one day to the next, I don’t follow the same sequence or calendar every day. If I try to over-regiment myself, I get very, very fidgety and irritable, and then I rebel against the (self-created) structure. Backlash!
I’m much happier when I set my plans for the next day or week or month, and then respond to the planned items in whatever way/order I feel like within that time frame. Because I never know what I’m going to feel like doing when!
That said, there are two “rules” I abide by (in quotes, because I try to hold them loosely, and not make a religion out of them): First, when I’m involved in a long form writing project, like a novel, I make that my first work of the day, so it doesn’t get pushed off at the end of the day when I’m tired. Second, I get enough sleep. Whenever possible, I sleep until I’m good and ready to wake up. Getting enough sleep is what makes everything good in my life possible.
Is there anything in particular that drains your energy? How do you deal with it?
Too much socializing can deplete my fuel reserves—even when it’s with my favorite people. It took me a while to come to terms with my introversion—to really make the connection that playing with my friends would have the direct consequence of the need for rest. I deal with this by being conscious of my capacity for interaction (as much as possible—it’s not a fixed point, so this is a moving target at best). So if I know there’s one day where I’m doing lots of talking and playing, I’ll plan the next day (or more) so that I have lots of quiet and solitude. I can also choose to exceed my capacity, if I’m willing to be responsible for the effects.
“I’ve learned that drama is antithetical to creative work. So I avoid dramatic people/situations/environments. It’s better for my work, and my happiness, if I keep my nervous and adrenal systems on an even keel.”
How does your environment affect your creative process? And how do you deal with negative influences?
Historically, I’ve tried to “bloom where I’m planted”, but recent experience has reminded me that we’re not trees. We have feet! We can move ourselves to a more hospitable habitat!
Being in particular kinds of nature makes all the difference to my life. I grew up in Arizona, and the Sonoran Desert feels like my soul’s home. So I can be in the desert, surrounded by saguaro cacti and creosote and palo verdes, and feel happy without having to do all the internal machinations I have to do to be happy in New York City. I love NYC, don’t get me wrong—but it’s more work for me to be there, and I have less energy and resources to devote to things other than self-management. Knowing this, being in the city is a choice I can make, while accounting for the positive and negative effects.
My point here is that not all creative environments are equally good for all people. Be open to learning what works for you, and then acting on this knowledge to support your work.
Also, I’ve learned that drama is antithetical to creative work. So I avoid dramatic people/situations/environments. It’s better for my work, and my happiness, if I keep my nervous and adrenal systems on an even keel.
How do you restart or continue stalled goals and projects?
In teeny tiny increments. In increments so small, they’re almost laughable. Write for one minute. If that seems too daunting, write one word. And then I congratulate myself heartily for doing what I said I would do, and consider my work honorably done for that day.
What is your approach to creating with kindness and in a sustainable way?
This is one of my favorite things to talk about right now! And I teach a whole course on this for writers—so I’m going to give you one pithy angle here.
One important thing I teach is that you can do big, important work in much less time than you might think. I wrote most of a novel draft in no more than 40 minutes a day. Many days it was less than that. I finished it in three months.
You can do this math for yourself—say you work for 20 minutes, five days a week, on your important project. If you’re writing, this would add up to something like 500 words. In a week, that’s 2,500 words. In a month, that’s 10,000 words. Which means you could have a first draft of something in six months.
Six months of our lives is not a very long time, if you’re thinking in terms of building a body of work. But it’s enough time to make something really substantial, while approaching your work in small, manageable, kind increments, without burning yourself out, and while having the whole rest of your life going on at the same time.
You could do the same kind of math for whatever your creative projects are! Maybe you paint for 15 minutes a day, and aim for a completed piece in two weeks or a month. It’s flexible, and it’s up to you, and there’s no externally-defined goal.
The point is that you can do big things that will make you happy, and you can do them in a sustainable way.
“Be willing to be uncomfortable. Know that discomfort doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.”
How do you take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally?
I hang out in nature with my plant friends. Every day I rest my eyes on the desert, and let it love me. I make it my business to look, and to notice all the natural visitors and their unique characters and relationships. I have various techniques for getting out of the chatter and commentary of my left brain, and getting into the wordless, sensing right brain. And once I’m in firmly there, and in my body, I practice love and Oneness.
I suppose this is a kind of meditation, though it mostly doesn’t involve what I’ve done in the meditation category. But the ideal endpoint is the same—a feeling of presence, and an awareness of the connectedness of all things.
Do you keep a journal? What journaling system, tool or system do you use?
I do! Sometimes I write every day, and sometimes I don’t. I let my journal be whatever my life needs it to be. Sometimes it’s a crisis file. Sometimes it’s notes and outlines and jottings about a writing project. Sometimes it’s where I bring my writing process issues—hashing out my fears, and getting myself back in a place of courage. Sometimes it’s a poem or a snippet that’s downloading itself to me. I let it be whatever I need it to be, and as a result, its role in my life changes based on whatever I’m up to.
What’s the best advice you ever heard about creating with more ease and less stress?
Be willing to be uncomfortable. Know that discomfort doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.