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‘There Is No Right Routine’: Zoulfa Katouh on Inspiration, Deadlines, and Navigating Growth

Zoulfa Katouh, author of "“As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow”
Zoulfa Katouh, author of "“As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow” By Courtesy of Zoulfa Katouh
By Erlisa Demneri, Crimson Staff Writer

Have you ever wondered what the daily life of a writer looks like? What time they wake up and what they eat for breakfast? How many words per day they write, if any? How they get sudden bursts of inspiration after staring at the keyboard for what feels like an eternity?

Many are familiar with mainstream routines like “The One Billion Dollar Morning Routine.” While these heavily publicized articles tend to feature entrepreneurs in tech and corporate America, creatives aren’t traditionally given attention, as writing or pursuing art are often not considered lucrative career choices.

Attempting to shine a spotlight on authors of beloved modern releases and provide guidance for aspiring writers and journalists, I created this column, “The Daily Desk,” to pose an inquiry: What is the daily routine of a writer, and how can we both improve our writing and build routines at the same time?

“It began with reading, as it always does.”

Zoulfa Katouh became a writer after becoming a reader. Her debut novel, “As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow,” was published in 2022 and was a finalist for the 2023 Governor General’s Awards, a collection of Canadian annual awards recognizing distinction from the arts to science and journalism.

“I started reading when I was a very young girl. My mom used to read me stories, and I was a reader for a very long time,” Katouh said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.

While Katouh had never previously considered herself a writer, she found inspiration from various stories. Her love for her favorite characters ultimately pushed her to explore the realm of creative writing.

“As I grew older, and I became more of a fan of certain books like ‘The Hunger Games,’ and certain anime shows and movies, I started wanting to write more for the characters. So I went through fanfiction, and fanfiction was the start of my writing,” Katouh said.

Still, Katouh didn’t pursue writing professionally. Instead, she studied pharmacy. Born in Canada, she was raised between the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, where she currently lives, and once pursued a master’s degree in drug sciences. While balancing the life sciences and literature, Katouh’s Syrian roots pushed her to officially begin writing her first novel.

“I felt that it was a duty that I needed to be my people’s voice, just to make people understand,” Katouh said.

“As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow” follows Salama, a young girl whose life as a pharmacy student is upended in the midst of the Syrian civil war. A volunteer at her city hospital, Salama secretly tries to find a way out of the country with her pregnant sister-in-law and best friend, Layla. Exploring emotions of guilt, regret, and despair, the novel adds a dash of speculation that presents the terrors of an ongoing conflict to a young adult audience.

Besides receiving critical acclaim and being translated into over 20 languages, the publication was also a historical landmark — Katouh is the first Syrian author to be published in both the US and the UK in the young adult genre.

For Katouh, a driving force behind her desire to write the novel was precisely this lack of representation and recognition. When she attended school in Switzerland and would introduce her Canadian background alongside her Syrian heritage, many of the people she met found the latter part of her identity fascinating and “had a lot of questions.”

“So I was like, you know what, I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna write a book about what’s going on, about why people become refugees, because no one asks for it,” Katouh said. “I mean, this is an incredibly difficult decision, to leave your homeland behind — everything behind — risking your life, through the sea or through land you don’t know if you’re going to reach.”

Katouh balances deadlines and writing as a form of joy.

From pursuing pharmacy school and a master’s degree to publishing an acclaimed novel, Katouh has been in academia and studied for the majority of her life.

“I’m supposed to be a disciplined person. Because I studied pharmacy, I went through a lot of studying in my life. My birthday is next week, so I’m going to be 30 next week, and this is the first time that I actually have a job and [I’m] not studying,” Katouh said.

As she discussed her daily and writing routines, the first thing that came to her mind was a concept known to any stressed student: deadlines.

“I’m someone who doesn't learn their lesson and has to have deadlines. So whenever I talk to my agent, or my publisher, or even my beta readers, I’m like, you have to give me a deadline. And then I can work towards that deadline. If you just leave me be, it’s not going to work. You’re never going to see me write anything,” Katouh said.

Katouh uses Scrivener, a word-processing program and outliner designed specifically for writers, which lets users set a daily word goal and manage notes and ideas. After placing a 2000-word daily limit for an adult rom-com she is currently writing, Katouh found that she often reached and even exceeded this goal. At the same time, she found the balance between setting daily goals allowed her to approach deadlines in a healthy way that didn’t compromise the enjoyment she finds from writing.

“I try not to be hard on myself if I can’t reach the 2000-word goal because if I force the words, I’m going to start not liking the story, and then that just sours the whole thing. And I like to write. I don’t want it to feel like a job. I want to feel like I’m in the story as well,” Katouh said.

The sciences and the humanities: Are they really that far apart?

At first glance, it may seem that Katouh’s two career paths — a pharmacist and writer — are very different from each other. However, she managed to bridge the two together not only in her novel, but also in the way she looks at stories. Especially after taking a university course about the relationship between arts and medicine, Katouh has found that the two fields are actually very related.

“It was so interesting to think about how science has influenced art and vice versa. For me, I just find there are stories within your own body,” Katouh said.

Art influences art, even in daily routines.

It would be difficult to converse with an author and not discuss what other forms of art inspire their daily lives and their writing. Katuoh shared that her main sources of influence are filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose movies she watched at a very young age, and Korean group BTS, whose music she discovered during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“You feel like these people influence you to write more. So I always say that art creates art. With them, I’m able to write a scene that inspires me from a soundtrack, or from a song, or from a Hayao Miyazaki movie,” Katouh said.

Is having a stable routine a luxury?

In “As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow,” Salama’s life changes forever after the war begins. Each new day is a new challenge, and unpredictability becomes her new normal. Considering the plotline of Katouh’s novel, it may seem insensitive to talk about stability in one’s daily life. As Katouh agrees, just having a daily routine is a form of luxury.

“We see it more than ever right now with Gaza, we’ve seen it with Syria, but unfortunately, it’s been so long since that has started. But now with Gaza, it’s really fresh. For me, I think it’s a wake-up call for a lot of people,” Katouh said.

At the same time, her novel reminds readers that continuing to tell the stories of others who are suffering is of utmost importance.

“It’s humbling, it’s devastating, and it just makes you want to do more. But the fact is, the bare minimum that we can do is bear witness to what is going and not close our eyes,” Katouh said.

Should you write for yourself, or as a form of productivity?

Many may have a romanticized view of the act of writing. You may picture sitting and milling over your thoughts and emotions lyrically, through complex storylines or characters. You may think of musing for hours to find the perfect word. Writing seems to be both a task yet a cathartic process, one that leaves a deep feeling of satisfaction when properly achieved. But what happens when writing becomes your job, when you become part of an industry? What happens when — suddenly — you need to write at a “productive” pace?

Before “As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow” was published and handed over to readers, Katouh was warned not to confront negative reviews. However, she actually found herself to be unaffected by critical comments, as she was able to maintain a distance between her book and the thoughts of the reader. Katouh shared that, surprisingly, she was most affected by positive reviews.

“What was getting to me was the good reviews,” Katouh said. “Because when I was tagged, always, most of them would end with, ‘Oh, I cannot wait to see what she writes next.’

However, Katouh found herself in a difficult position as she grappled with rising expectations from both herself and her newfound audience.

“I spent the last year writing a book that I was trying to force. And I was always shaking, my hands were always shaking. Every single sentence that I would write, I would second-guess it,” Katouh said. “In the end, what I got was not a very good book. It was an okay book, but it wasn’t hitting that spot. So I had to come to terms with that, that each book that I’m going to write from now on — it’s not going to be ‘Lemon Trees.’ It might be better. It might be not as good. But it’s going to be a story that I wrote.”

Katouh also experienced thoughts of comparison as she found herself in the midst of a big industry that made her reevaluate her writing pace and routine when placed side by side with other authors.

“If I were to compare the alumni from my own year who had debut books, a lot of them have books coming out this year or next year, and some of them have already had three books out. You start comparing yourself to others, and you’re like, ‘Why am I so late in the game? And why am I not able to catch up or have more books published?’ And it just truly shows how an individualistic process it is,” Katouh said.

Fortunately, Katouh managed to escape feelings of negativity by focusing on her desire and passion for writing and, importantly, continuing to write the stories that mattered to her the most.

“With the book that I was writing in 2023, I had to set this aside and be like, ‘I can’t write this because I’m too in my head. I need a fresh idea.’ Now, I’m writing a new story for my second book. And it’s a story that I’ve never written before. It’s a fresh, new idea. And I absolutely love it,” Katouh said.

While Katouh found new inspiration from this difficult creative experience, she expressed that she wanted this issue to be more talked about in the industry. Since writing can be a lonely process, it is important to know that others are experiencing similar difficulties.

“It’s something a lot of authors should talk about. Because I changed the idea of my story, apparently my agent was like, ‘so many authors to do that’. So many authors change the stories because they’re not finding inspiration, and then they find it in something else. And it’s totally normal. It totally happens all the time,” Katouh said.

Katouh has learned to understand personal writing patterns and routines.

Writing a story changes for everybody. Routines differ by how writers set deadlines and goals, and how they structure their pieces — whether they outline or not. For Katouh, understanding what works best for her work was a large part of her journey as an author.

“I go with the flow, with my mood. Sometimes I get these intense writing bursts of energy, and I immediately grab onto them and then start writing because if I don’t, they will go away and they won’t come back. Sometimes, when I don’t feel like writing, I never write. I don’t push through it,” Katouh said.

At the same time, Katouh’s writing pace and routine match her personality and the way she wants to interact with stories, even her own.

“It’s a very individual process,” Katouh said. “But for people like me who are very spontaneous, I don’t plot my books. I don’t plot anything. ‘Lemon Trees’ was not plotted — I just wrote. Towards the end, I knew a couple of big points that were going to happen, and I was writing towards that. Because if I plot the books, I lose interest. I need to be a reader for my own stories.”

So, what is the perfect daily writing routine?

From her journey as a published author, Katouh has many important pieces of advice to give, especially when it comes to coming to terms with writing as both a passion and a career. Her first piece of advice: Write the stories you want, without considering what the market demands.

“Look at me,” Katouh said. “My book is set not even in the States. It’s set in Syria with completely Arab, Syrian Muslim characters who technically are speaking Arabic, even though it’s in English. It’s a Muslim character who wears the hijab, and the issue is not how Muslim she is — the issue is her trying to survive. I was like, this book is so niche, no one’s going to read this, it’s too niche. I was very wrong, and I’m so happy that I was wrong.”

When it comes to having a daily writing routine, in the end, there might never be a perfect recipe. What is important is doing something that aligns with individual passions and desires, and one that fits one’s personality and interests. Writing is a process of discovery, something that writers should strive to find even in repetitive, routine creation.

“Do whatever feels right to you. There is no right routine that every single author should take. That’s not a thing,” Katouh said. “Do whatever inspires you to write. I’ve never done a writing routine. I think I would love it, or I would hate it. I would be like, ‘This is too much.’ Try different stuff, because I did. I tried different stuff until I realized that nothing really fits what I’m good at. Whatever you feel is right with your own writing, that’s the right routine.”

—Staff writer Erlisa Demneri can be reached at Her column, “The Daily Desk,” focuses on the daily and writing routines of various authors, and how they each view productivity in writing.

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