I’ve found that it’s usually better first to do, then to plan. This ready-fire-aim paradigm has served me well in life. Act first and figure out the why later. I don’t know, or more precisely only try to determine in retrospect, the origin of most of my most important decisions. My intention to make lifestyle changes that ultimately resulted in my losing nearly 100 pounds in 2018 came out of nowhere. Likely it was some sort of silent siren call that finally became audible in a Pakistani hole-in-the-wall restaurant, as detailed in Day 5. Similarly, my 20,000 step challenge (Day 2) was birthed by happenstance when I noticed that I had hit this impressive number for a week straight in the early days of the pandemic.
No forethought went into this crazy 30-College-Essays-in-30-Days challenge; the idea popped into my head when writing the final paragraph of Day 1: NYTimes Crossword in Pen. Even my writing process for these essays relies mostly on serendipity. I typically get back from the mosque, which happens to double as my place of work, at about 6:10 am. I brew some coffee, maybe empty the dishwasher, eat some low-calorie breakfast while reading Tools of Titans or the Oxford Book of Aphorisms (highly recommend, but get them on eBay), and head downstairs at 6:31 am (I have an obsession with odd numbers). I put my phone in airplane mode, set a 37-minute timer, and then let my muse take over.
I do have an ideas journal (Day 14: The Little Journal that Could) in which I have jotted down fleeting epiphanies, usually in the form of opening lines or working titles, but I choose my topic in the first of those 37 minutes. When I remember, I do make the prayer of Moses that we are taught to recite before public speaking, “My Lord! Uplift my heart for me, and make my task easy, and remove the impediment from my tongue so people may understand my speech.” Interestingly, Moses continued, “grant me a helper from my family, Aaron, my brother. Strengthen me through him, and let him share my task, so that we may glorify and remember You much.” My Aaron turns out to be my brother Habeeb, who has written some incredible “college essays” of his own on his hyperactive Facebook page.
But after those brief preparations, I let the Ouija board of inspiration take charge of my pen and write until the alarm goes off (though I sometimes hit snooze and get to work a bit late). I then leave my handwritten journal on the dining room table, which my saintly wife types up when she gets a free minute between homeschooling my son and fueling his Marvel obsession. I think the unplanned genius of this system is that it breaks my need to write the final draft on my first try. I seem to have stumbled upon the idea laid out by Peter Elbow that distinguishes between first order and second order writing. First order “is intuitive and creative and does not strive for conscious direction or control;” it is when you write off the cuff and without censor. Second order is “conscious, directed, [and] controlled;” it is when everything you type goes through a filter. The editing of the essays, which usually takes a bit more time than their writing, is when this second order happens. I usually edit during a planning block at the end of the school day once I have taken care of the needs of my day job. While I have taught my students about Elbow’s ideas for years, I had never really tried them myself. I always banged out the final draft in one brutal sitting and thus confronted existential dread any time I had to write.
Even the most consequential decision of my life—entering the fold of Islam at the magical age of 15—had no specific start date. I’ve been asked about it so many times that I have retroactively constructed a narrative (Day 23). I did not officially pronounce the shahada, the simple prerequisite for entry into the faith which states, “I bear witness that there is no God but God and that Muhammad (SAWS) is His messenger,” until something like 2004 when I realized I had somehow missed this profound ceremony that marks the birth of Islam for most reverts.
What began as a whim and somewhat of a gimmick has become one of the most profound experiences of my life. I have finally, inshAllah, broken through the fear barrier of my love/hate relationship with writing and somehow managed to wrest some semblance of order from the chaos of my complicated mind. People keep asking what Day 31 will look like, and I don’t have a good answer. I guess I’ll just have to go back to my old standby of ready-aim-fire and figure it out on the fly.