Mark Liechty: Effective writing is about managing informationIn an interview with the Post's Srizu Bajracharya, anthropologist and historian Mark Liechty shares his writing methods and his love for non-fiction.
Mark Liechty is an anthropologist and historian, who also teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also the co-editor of Martin Chautari's Studies in Nepali History and Society Journal. Liechty till date has written three books on Nepal Suitably Modern, Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity on the Global Periphery and the most recent Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal. Liechty first came to Nepal 50 years ago, when his parents were working in Nepal. In later years, he came back to Nepal as a graduate student making Nepal his research area. In an interview with the Post's Srizu Bajracharya, Liechty shares about his writing methods and his love for non-fiction. Excerpts:
How did you first come to love books?
As a child, I was very slow, and I didn't read much, but it was during my early teens that I discovered a love for books. Since then reading has been an important part of my life. I literally go nowhere without something to read, if I have to wait, I will read. Even now, I am carrying a book with me. I am currently reading Abraham's Luggage. It's an interesting book that explores trade in the medieval Indian backdrop.
Have you always liked reading non-fiction more?
I admire novels as well, but if I have to choose, I always go for historical books—works that give accurate images of the past. I love to read about the places I visit. Learning about places that I visit makes my travel experience even more rewarding. It gives me a chance to understand the place better.
Why should people read non-fiction?
I wouldn't say they 'should', as everyone follows their interest, for some chemistry is exciting, for others, books about religion. However, reading history has always been essential to me. I believe you can't understand the present without delving into the past. We can't remake things if we don't know how they came to be. To look at things in a more profound level, we need to learn about past experiences.
When did you begin writing?
I came back to Nepal as a graduate student as I had picked Nepal as my research area and that dissertation went on to become my first book: Suitably Modern.
Initially, when I had come, I was looking up information for medical anthropology, but when I talked to people, I realised that many had already explored that theme. At the time, I was living with a Nepali host family and I used to travel around Nepal with a youth group. I was intrigued by the culture of the time, people's relationship with growing consumerism and processes related to middle-class families. And so, I ventured into writing the book.
During the '80s and '90s, you could suddenly see more middle-class people working their way up the social ladder. For the youth, at the time, their social ground was shaking, and they were quite aware of their situation. It was a different time when castes were reorganising and classes were coming into place.
What is it that makes you write about Nepal?
I have always liked Nepal; you see there is no better reason for it. I love how the environment here is not overwhelming and has a human scale to its experience. Here I have seen things that have been beyond my imagination. Nepal has always intrigued me.
What has been the take away from working on your latest book?
I think the take away was the writing journey itself—the time I spent time collecting information and bringing them together one by one. It's gratifying when pieces of information gradually start to manifest into something meaningful. You can say it's like collecting pieces of a puzzle that you have no idea of where it will fit, but as you assemble these pieces, a picture starts to form.
Which Nepali history books would you recommend to readers?
People should read Mahesh Chandra Regmi's books; he has written quite many historical books, mainly examining the Gorkhali and Rana period. His books were some of the first history books I read about Nepal. He was a competent writer and was critical but in an objective way. Very few since his time has managed to achieve that distinction.
It's usually said that people in power write history. What is your view on this?
Yes, this has certainly been true, it's often the victors who have written histories, but in the post-colonial era many have started writing their own history. History is written by people with privilege; being a historian and academic is a luxury you can say. You need to be in a position where not being productive immediately doesn't affect your life. For many, they can't afford to do this because they need to make a living. I am unquestionably fortunate to enjoy that privilege.
How do you draw inspiration for writing?
As a researcher and professor, I read different types of works. However, I mostly draw inspiration from my classroom teaching, for which I have to read many papers, and I am continually exchanging knowledge with my students. Teaching is not a one-way process: the different discussions, the new ideas that we explore together always allows to learn more. Education never stops in this setting.
How do you start the groundwork for your book? Do you have a writing method that you follow?
Yes, and it's quite primitive. I usually write notes on pieces of paper, cards and I keep collecting and putting them in a pile.
For my latest book, Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal, I had more than 12,000 cards. I had them in two boxes. It took about two years to complete the book, but for my first year, I just spent time reorganising these cards. I spent time segregating them according to their subject matter and their sequence. This was quite labour intensive. And in the process, I got to explore new ideas and analysis that I had never seen before. Effective writing is about managing information.
Do you go through writer's block?
No, I think it's because I give myself time, and that again is a luxury that I have. I don't work well under deadlines, and I feel horrible when I have to write before I am ready. I can't write in a rush. However, I also think I don't go through writer's block because I follow a process. A writer should know when they are the most productive: if it's morning then they should leave out all their other commitments and be strict with themselves and spend time writing because it is something that doesn't happen by itself.
I think writer's block is a symptom of being overwhelmed by information and ideas—when you are paralysed because there is so much to grasp. To work on a narrative, you need to organise your information. After all, you are telling a story, you can't just spill everything that you have spent time collecting.
Why do you think reading and writing is important?
Reading and writing probably won't be essential to all, but if you want to share knowledge, then you have to be able to write. Moreover, writing is not a natural skill, it's not an inherent character; you have to work at it. The more you read, the better you can write. Writing can help you organise your thoughts; it's a creative process that can get you to new realisations. The more one is comfortable writing, the more they can generate ideas.
What do you think?
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