Life | The Writer's Way

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The Writer's Way
Text by Shilpi Madan and Photographs by Ritam Banerjee
Published: Volume 15, Issue 10, October, 2007

The printed word has a deceptive sense of finality. Once bound, it appears flawless, carved in stone, indelible. The crisp, bound sheets create the illusion of perfectly formed sentences that have transitioned magically from the author’s imagination to the page. In reality the writing process is steeped in imperfection. The journey of thought and expression is a fascinating Odyssey beset with challenges and hurdles, discovers Shilpi Madan

Ruminations on the written word instantly conjure up stunning success stories of the likes of Rowling, Rushdie and Desai. Of how wielding the pen has become not just a viable but even cushy career option. Of how penning blasphemous verses can fetch you international recognition. Of how young scribes can put down thinly-veiled memoirs to grab a million-dollar advance with overseas publishers. But look a little closer. Through the illusion of glamour, you catch the gritty reality of the author as he really is – chasing a chimera in the isolated maze of his or her own world, often stumbling over achingly frustrating mental blocks and grappling with commercial constraints to give birth to a work of pain, sweat and toil. A labour of love.

It takes more than meticulous character sketching, a startling wizardry with words and a manic hunger for creating plots to write a novel. It also takes immense discipline and an uncontrollable desire to write and pour the essence of your being into the creative crucible. “I wish I could spout rhetoric and say writing is as demanding as squeezing blood out of stone. Perhaps not. But for me writing is probably the loneliest pursuit in the world,” says Githa Hariharan, author of the award-winning novel, The Thousand Faces of Night. Nonetheless she wields the pen as it gives her the pleasure to simply write and race along with her thoughts. Of course, there are long hours – of reading, digesting, ruminating, more reading, writing and rewriting that go into the making of a novel. On a day-to-day basis, Hariharan spends a lot of time with people who have absolutely nothing to do with writing, which she finds truly restful.

But the word rest is often an impossible luxury for constantly-on-their-feet souls who are circumscribed within a demanding family grid. Often there are full-time jobs to be juggled along with personal writing and family demands. Former journalist Chatura Rao wrote her first novel Amie and the Chawl of Colour, a children’s fantasy, when her first born was 11 months old. The writer lived in a one-bedroom apartment sharing the computer with her husband. “The television would be on at full volume (not a single cricket match must be missed!). My daughter would be crawling around my chair. You could say I was born to produce in mayhem. Now that sounds like a great title for a story!” Rao continues to have a busy schedule straddling writing with two small children, teaching and other projects. Interestingly she still sees the process of writing as an escape. “A relief from linear time and space and a pragmatic lifestyle. A way to go off by myself to other places, people and lives. A vast personal space to wander off into.”

Yet she does write to briefs. She writes short stories off and on. But in general, she believes small things in daily living spark off the story. So an author’s life is not really separate from his or her writing. Rao believes the story has a life of its own. Once conceived, it grows in the mind, then on paper. It works itself out through the author’s pen or keyboard.
But the times are changing. A successful print run in a genre often sees the churning out of literature in similar categories. Do writers actually keep the saleability factor in mind while writing? “In my mind, both as a publisher and writer, I perceive it as a kiss of death to worry about the market,” says David Davidar, author of The House of Blue Mangoes. “You need to write for yourself and yourself alone. If you focus on what might appeal to a large universe of readers, you do yourself in instantly. Truth is you can never please everyone.”

Few know that at 22, Davidar penned down a semi-autobiographical work A Place for Anger. The story revolved around a young man who arrives in the city of Mumbai to make it big. Davidar approached a British-based publisher who turned down the manuscript. He believed then that it did not merit a print run at all. “But I was unaware of the reality at that time – that at least 12-14 publishers turn down your manuscript before one finally approves of it the first time around.”

Consider also that in Indian publishing, a paltry Rs 25,000 as a signing amount or advance for a novel is not really off the mark. Financial security comes easier for overseas writers who often have several options like being a teacher, obtaining a grant and being a writer in residence while their ideas germinate and gestate and take coherent form on paper. As with other professions, if one works solely or primarily for the money, there is little joy to be had, cautions award-winning journalist and author Sonia Faleiro. Writing is arduous and nerve-wracking. A book can take interminably long to produce and the process causes anxiety and uncertainty. But this wouldn’t change if I received more money or less for my work. Like other professions, there is an earning graph in writing as well. The notion that creative people must starve for their art, live in garrets and feast on a mouldy apple a day has mercifully faded with time. Financial security, as Ernest Hemmingway once said, keeps you from worrying. “Worry destroys the ability to write. I’d rather not have to worry,” says Faleiro.

Hariharan is not too inspired by numbers on pay cheques. Even though Indian publishers don’t pay well, she says her irreverence insulates her from the numbers – in terms of royalty and also the number of copies sold. “I may be a famous writer, but I have no idea how I should write a sentence keeping in mind that I’m a known name. I am never on a mission to find the proverbial pot of gold through my works.” She never writes to specifications – in fact, till she has a complete manuscript in her hands, no one, not even a publisher comes into the picture. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone who will tell me what to write on and how to write it. It’s much like the impossibility of finding the ideal man,” she jokes. Hariharan believes each writer knows what to write and how to write it. Though reactions are crucial, they alert you to the ways in which your written words can be viewed or misunderstood – a proficient editor initiates the author into this domain after reading the first draft.

What about the environment? Is it true that pristine climes nurture the fountainhead of words? Often writers are known to retreat in the lap of nature to think clearly in solitude and craft their magnum opuses. Faleiro is clear she cannot function under chaos. The writer works early in the morning in her study, which is full of books and overlooks the sea, when the temperature is cool and there is silence all around. She finishes about noon after which she concentrates on other work, her house, her puppy.... “I abhor the sound of the doorbell ringing, of doors slamming, dishes being washed and of cell phone conversations wafting from the garden and though the open windows of her neighbours’ homes. I use a laptop or a desktop depending on where I am, but never paper and pen,” says Faleiro whose debut novel The Girl was critically acclaimed.

For others, the mundane, in consonance with a few eccentricities, feeds upon the process of writing and actually fertilises the imagination. Internationally recognised author Amit Chaudhuri says, “I dislike complete seclusion, though I do try to avoid noisy distractions. I move about while writing with a ball point pen, mostly in my bedroom. I write every day, although there are no allocated hours in my schedule. I do put a loose time frame – call it a deadline – into my writing regime. My practice of classical music facilitates this aspect. I do riyaaz in the morning, then write, do riyaaz, then write again from morning till afternoon.” The author of Freedom Song writes only in a notebook.

These notebooks bring a certain comfortable familiarity because he has been buying them from Oxford for years. Chaudhuri confesses he likes the feel of sheets and knows approximately how many words fill up a page. In fact, his first book was a simple Jagruti register. As for Afternoon Raaga, he penned down a large section of the book in a shopkeeper’s accounts register! His first draft is always in longhand. And he writes while walking because it clarifies the sentences that form in his mind. “But I have extremely bad, small handwriting that literally no one can read. So my illegible manuscripts need to be typed.” Most writers have their own idiosyncrasies. While Davidar writes with a prized Mont Blanc on ruled sheets, Faleiro uses only Arial in font 10.

For many, peace is synonymous with night time when the world is asleep. Davidar worked on his second book, The Solitude of Emperors for 18 months and admits his social life (and his wife’s) was reduced to zilch during this time. “I am in the habit of sleeping by a certain hour and wrote from 4 am to 6 am every day on my second novel,” reveals Davidar. Establishing a daily routine is crucial, he maintains, be it 1000 or even a 100 words. His desk in his study faces a blank wall so there are no distractions when he is at work. His wife, who has transcribed the scripts for his two novels, is always his first reader.

“I am like any other working woman, except that I don’t report to a boss and don’t have to listen to anyone. I don’t really care for the romantic vision of blissfully cocooned writers,” says Hariharan, though she concedes that a few lucky souls have fantastic set ups where partners and parents take care of the banal and mundane aspects of everyday life while the writer goes about pouring his/her soul into words. “I am a writer, mother, citizen. In my mind, the interruptions arising as part of these roles sometimes actually feed into what I am writing, trigger thoughts and even inspire a vein of humour,” she reflects.

Originality constantly demands creative fuel. But a painful phenomenon called writer’s block is a challenge every writer has to reckon with from time to time. Every author battles this phenomenon in his or her own way. Faleiro says when she faces this ‘blank terror,’ she doesn’t try too hard to write, instead dipping into books and online reportage when her attention is waning. “Reading something great is the best inspiration to write yourself. Or I do something enjoyable that takes my mind off work. Of course, each day can be one of writer’s block if one allows it to, and there’s a point when one must simply trudge on, even if it appears at the time, that the words make little sense and one is simply writing for the sake of it. Sometimes it’s better to write first and edit later rather than to postpone the inevitable,” she qualifies.

Faleiro also takes refuge in watching films, horror being just one of the many genres she enjoys. “I can’t explain it but I won’t deny being terrified while watching the film and for many days later! Nevertheless, it’s a guilty pastime I rather enjoy,” says Faleiro.
At the end of the day, there’s no denying that chasing thoughts and harnessing words is a lonely pursuit. Yet it’s a pleasurable, immensely gratifying experience. “Sometimes I walk into neighbourhoods and experience the familiarity of the foreign mundane. There is a sense of close recognition of something completely unfamiliar. I feel this in parts of North Kolkata, New York, North California and Berlin. This feeling of constantly swinging between reality and imagination fascinates me,” says Chaudhuri.
Constantly frequented, never fathomed, this fertile space writers inhabit can itself launch a thousand tomes.