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orhan pamuk on writing

To Write Like Orhan Pamuk is to Struggle Through Writing

For quite some time, I must admit here, I have been obsessed with reading about how others write. Specifically, I have been fascinated by what a writer does. What is it like to be a writer? How do they write? Is there an unusual routine?

Do they have a specific time when they sit to pen their thoughts? Or are they just as clueless as I am right now, penning this essay about Orhan Pamuk’s writing style without fully understanding him—reading most of his novels or understanding the depth of the literary forms he engaged in? I am not sure. But, indeed, I will add, the fascination has persisted—for good, for worse.

Recently, I read Pamuk’s essay in The New Yorker titled: “My Father’s Suitcase”. As I began reading the essay, I remembered my own childhood, when my father would incessantly remind me that my purpose was to study—and not paint. It was only when I was in my master’s at Delhi University that I gathered the courage to buy stationaries to paint—and paint. I am not sure if I am a good painter. Well, that does not matter. I enjoyed painting, and that mattered.

Now, about writing. I have come to think of myself as a writer. I am not all that good here, but I enjoy writing. Likewise, that is all that matters. In my quest to discover writing, I think of ways in which other writers come to look at the world and how they navigate through it.

Do they feel as hopeful as I do when I write of gloomy things? In writing, I see myself as expressing (to/with) the world around me. In my writing, I know the world and make sense of it. It gives confident hope and courage that, otherwise, does not exist.

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Orhan Pamuk Portrait | David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As I sat through reading Pamuk’s essay, I came to discover myself as a writer. To think like a writer. To feel the world as a writer. That, I believe, is a challenging aspect of being a writer. Pamuk writes: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is.” He further adds:

When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man—or this woman—may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or, if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at a black wall. He may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete—after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.

As I write this passage, I ask myself: Have I done what Pamuk calls a crucial starting task? Have I turned inward and written of things that would otherwise constitute my world? I am not sure yet. I don’t think I have introspected enough as a writer or someone who enjoys writing. But that is another matter altogether.

As a writer, Pamuk writes with a pen and paper. I, for one, am so addicted to computers that I find a certain incessant joy in typing without looking at the keys on the keyboard. Call me old-fashioned, but that is what it is.

Orhan Pamuk admits, “I am not that interesting”. To be a writer, my PhD supervisor tells me, is to feel introverted, to be boring, and to hook oneself onto books. Likewise, Pamuk writes, “I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who—wherever they are in the world, East or West—cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms with their books; this is the starting point of true literature.”

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Pamuk speaking at a gathering | Image: Kellywriteshouse on Flicker

Many writers, I have come to realise, have grown detached from their world—and created a shell for themselves in a far-off place where they could sit and write.

Orhan Pamuk, elsewhere, tells us how he writes his stories: “First, you must have a story that you believe in or have an area of human experience. Maybe you are working in a grocery store that is very interesting; or you are a traveller; or you have an experience… maybe you have lots of friends or you know lots of people’s experiences that you want to write about.” First, you need this.

Once you have these experiences, you must create a story around them. Pay attention to details. How and where your characters lie—what makes of them, what they enjoy, what they dislike, and create their worlds. But, in essence, a writer must “have the artistry to his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own.”

orhan pamuk
a random pleasant image | Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

To tell stories is to struggle. Pamuk writes: “The writer’s secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where that comes from—but stubbornness, endurance. The lovely Turkish expression ‘to dig a well with a needle’ seems to me to have been invented with writers in mind.” There is nothing new a writer does. A writer writes “of things that we all know but do not know that we know.” I think Annie Ernaux’s sense of writing as not just to record events as they happen, but to “make things exist”, makes much sense. Pamuk adds:

I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink.

To write like Pamuk, one need not become Pamuk. Writing is discovering oneself through writing, as I am learning to discover myself. It is hard work, as Pamuk reminds us. It requires you to sit and write. It requires you to think of yourself as a writer at first—even if you don’t believe you are good enough, as I feel about myself sometimes.

It is to stay humble. But, when you write, it requires you to rage at the world around you. Writing can become a refuge as one looks through the world around them, fraught with conflicts and misery. It can provide a safe space through which you can be yourself—and what you want to be with time.  


Cover Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


Suggested Books of Orhan Pamuk:

orhan pamuk

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

Buy the book on Amazon

orhan pamuk

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

Buy the book on Amazon



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