Author Ahmad Fuadi, right, speaks with participants in his Jakarta writing academy program. (JG Photo/Muhammad Edy Sofyan)
Ahmad Fuadi believes that hard work and perseverance are important in the journey to become a successful writer, and for his own success he also credits his mentor. Now he wants to share the benefit of having a skillful mentor to guide a group of aspiring writers to pursue their dreams.
The 41-year-old author, who is known for his best-selling “Negeri Lima Menara” (“The Land of Five Towers”) trilogy, set up the Akademi Menulis Lima Menara (Five Towers Writing Academy) based on his own experiences in learning to write under a strict and brilliant mentor.
Fuadi first began writing while studying international relations at Padjajaran University in Bandung, where he contributed opinion pieces for newspapers — in part to prove to his friends that he could make a name for himself through writing.
His experience of studying at a pesantren , or Islamic boarding school, taught him to be strong-willed and stand up for his dreams, even though some people underestimated him because he was a newcomer from the relatively unknown shores of Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra.
Realizing he needed an experienced mentor, he asked a senior at his university, a popular opinion writer called Bang Obi, to give him guidelines.
“Bang Obi taught me how to write using his strict style and gave me tight deadlines. At first I felt uncomfortable because he was very straightforward and liked to draw red crosses over my writing mistakes, as if almost all of my work needed correcting,” Fuadi recalls.
However, he discovered that writing was the art of conquering himself. Every writer should be open-minded to criticism, no matter who conveys it, because they represent the readers.
“It’s important for writers to put down their egos in accepting criticism. They need to do this to fix their mistakes and enrich their skills,” Fuadi explains.
He finally managed to keep up with Bang Obi’s teaching and, as a result, the red crosses gradually dwindled away. His works were published in various local and national newspapers, and even helped him win scholarships to study overseas, thus allowing him the opportunity to travel the globe.
After stints as a journalist with the prestigious Tempo magazine and the Voice of America (VOA), Fuadi says he is now ready to share his experiences and ideas with 26 aspiring writers — most of them still beginners — who were selected through tests that included essay writing.
He says he believes they have a talent for writing, after reading their essays. And even though each of them has a busy life of their own, they have committed to joining the academy and sticking with the rules, especially regarding deadlines.
The academy’s selected members have various backgrounds, from university students and office workers, to journalists and homemakers. Many assignments await them, with tight deadlines; those who aren’t able to meet the deadlines have to leave the academy.
It may seem like a strict rule, but Fuadi says that in the end it’s a fair system because the participants are, after all, getting free writing lessons and tutoring from not only a best-selling author but also a public speaker and social entrepreneur.
Fuadi says his goal beyond writing is to be more useful to society, therefore he’s willing to spare time for the academy despite his busy schedule.
The academy implements a mantra quoted from Fuadi’s books: “ Man Jadda Wa Jada ,” an Arab proverb that means “whoever persists will succeed.”
Fuadi himself learned about this mantra from a teacher at his pesantren in Jombang, East Java. He credits it for his determination to dream big.
The “Negeri Lima Menara” trilogy, which was inspired by Fuadi’s own life experiences and travels, has received many positive reviews and awards.
The eponymous first book of the trilogy was published in 2009 and became an instant national best seller. The book has been nominated for several awards, including the Khatulistiwa Literary Award, the most prestigious in Indonesia. It won the Indonesian Readers’ Award in 2010, and was later translated into English and adapted for a movie in 2012.
Fuadi then released the second book of the trilogy — “Ranah Tiga Warna” (“The Scope of Three Colors”) — in 2009, and completed the set with “Rantau Satu Muara” (“Travel to One Shore”) in 2013.
When asked how the trilogy became a hit, Fuadi says it’s because of the confluence of “a unique story and a perfect moment.” Just hours after he had offered his first book’s manuscript to the two biggest publishers in the country, both agreed to publish it.
“When my first book was published, there had been no novels published about pesantren. I was lucky because readers said my book was interesting,” he says.
He adds that social media is also important to help him promote his books.
“Even when my books hadn’t been published yet, I always used Facebook and Twitter to share some parts of them with readers. I also invited the readers to vote on the covers for the books. I think using social media like that helped bring me closer to my readers,” he says.
He plans to take the writing academy members to visit his publisher’s office to see the process of how a book is published. He has also invited them to accompany him on some of his activities, including public speaking for seminars or book discussions and meeting fellow writers and editors. Fuadi says he hopes that in the end all the participants can embark on a journey of writing projects together, himself included, such as a collection of short stories or novellas.
Shanty Dewi Arifin, one of the participants, says it is a very rewarding experience to learn writing alongside others who share similar interests — and of course benefit from having an experienced mentor guide her.
“A method of learning like this is rare. Besides, it’s free — that’s the best part of it,” says Shanty, a homemaker and mother of two.
She adds that raising two children for the last seven years has been her greatest achievement in life so far. But now she wants to achieve her next goal by learning how to “give birth to” and “raise” books.
Another participant, Wahyu Setioko, says he wants to learn how to inspire and motivate other people by writing.
“I hope I can write about children and education, science, and the diversity of Indonesia — things I’m very passionate about,” says Wahyu, a former volunteer teacher with the Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teaches) program.
Fauziah Muslimah, a fellow participant, says she considers herself very lucky to have been selected to take part in the writing academy.
“Although after attending the academy’s meeting sessions I felt that I was the most stupid member, I’m happy I could learn from other members and they are incredible,” says the journalism student.
She calls Fuadi her idol and says she dreams to be a journalist reporting on important events, just like Fuadi did in his earlier years.
Fuadi says the power of the written word should never be underestimated. A bullet, he says, can kill a single person, but through writing one can affect millions of people and different generations.
“Writing makes you immortal,” he says, “as long as people still read your books and get inspired by them.”
This article was published in The Jakarta Globe on June 4, 2014. Here’s the link for the online version: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/features/mentorship-lifetime/