A food writer on finding the focus to savor the moments she creates
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Meet Sumayya Usmani
Sumayya Usmani is a self-taught cook, food educator, and author.
Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, her early childhood was spent traveling the world on merchant navy ships – reading and cooking with her mother acted as an escape from life on the ship. After practicing law for twelve years in both Karachi and London, Sumayya decided to turn to writing professionally, hoping to inspire others through personal and human stories of food, culture, and history.
She has written two cookbooks on Pakistani cuisine, both published by Frances Lincoln. Summers Under the Tamarind Tree (2016) won the Gourmand Award for best first cookbook and Mountain Berries and Desert Spice (2017) was shortlisted for the Food & Travel Awards. Sumayya has written for and appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC Good Food, and was a weekly columnist for The Sunday Herald Scotland.
Sumayya is currently working on a food memoir, Andaza, about her life growing up on the sea and in Pakistan, around food and women. The book is set against the backdrop of political unrest during the 1980s, from the times of Zia ul Haq to Benazir Bhutto. She was awarded the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award for Andaza, which will be published in April next year.
In this fascinating interview, Sumayya reveals how she feeds her creativity by indulging her senses, eliminating distractions, and sticking to a strict timetable.
What came first, cooking or writing? And how did you combine them into one career?
Writing for sure – it’s the one way I always made sense of the world, the next was food because it is the one thing that offered me a sense of belonging. It was inevitable it would become a career.
What is the hardest part about being a writer?
The hardest part would be mindset – it is the make or break of a writer, we are notoriously hard on ourselves despite successes and accolades. The next would be procrastination fueled by fear and finally a lull in creativity fueled by burnout.
What or who inspires you to improve your craft?
Reading always inspires me, as do long walks in nature, art, music, and drama – it’s important to keep feeding your creative soul with varied outlets and exposure. Keep an open mind, establish journaling practice and keep working on your confidence by taking on exciting challenges both as a writer and as an individual.
How do you incorporate Freedom into your daily working routine?
I am a highly distracted person, so you can only imagine what access to the internet on my computer does to me.
Having Freedom installed means I’m forced to be isolated from digital distraction – it helps me with focused writing, creating my online course and membership content as well as dedicating time for rest.
What are your biggest distractors while writing and how do you conquer them?
As above – social media, then also cleaning the house (can you imagine?!), decluttering when I’m meant to be working or cooking or drinking coffee just for the sake of it when I should be working!
I conquer this by sticking to a written, weekly hour-by-hour timetable that keeps a healthy balance of self-care, time out, focused writing, and creative and administrative time set out. This helps me stay on top of work and time for my own rest and recovery too.
What environments are most productive for you?
Calming spaces, with a few people about, lovely classical music, places that smell beautiful – I am a sensory person so this matters a lot which is why I always create a ritual out of setting down to work. Lighting candles and incense, playing beautiful light music, and having a beautiful pen and journal to write with and on. I like plants around me, the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the distance, and endless hours to write.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?
I like a beautiful fountain pen, it makes the words flow as delicately as the ink, I love luxurious journals to write in, and scents around me that are calming and will not irritate. I also like Freedom because it allows me to focus on savoring the moments I create to help my creativity.
What advice would you give younger writers regarding staying productive and focused?
Dedicate time for distractions such as social media and then stay away – be disciplined with journaling and morning pages (journaling first thing). Be consistent with it and make your writing time sacred, make no compromises with it.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive?
Taking time to educate myself, with personal and professional interests, taking real time out from work daily, without guilt. I always keep the mindset alive of wanting to keep evolving, re-inventing, and elevating myself and my work.
What upcoming project are you currently most excited about?
My upcoming online course on writing a cookbook proposal is out this autumn, I’m super excited to be offering this, and also my monthly membership Savoured, for mindful writing and intuitive cooking reopens this winter.
Most of all I’m excited about my new book which is set to be published in April 2023, a food memoir about my coming of age around food and growing up in Pakistan – I can’t wait to share this with the world.