This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Words and my life
I have always been a loner. This is an integral part of who and what I am, and it’s gone a long, long way in shaping my creative work. I would not be who and what I am if I were the gregarious type. Perhaps all only children are like me in that respect.
I was born in a family of readers. That’s one positive in my start of life. Another, I believe, was that I was born early enough that I got into the habit of reading before TV arrived in this part of the country. I was all of twelve before television became a part of our lives (that was during the Asian Games of 1982), and by that time I was already much more interested in the written word than in the televised image.
My family was pure middle class and had that classic failing of the Bengali middle class – it discouraged its members from trying for too much. Anything out of the ordinary was “too much”. So reading books was fine; writing them was not. Aspiring to fame was for other people – not for one’s own members, and attempting to set out to seek the limits of one’s own capabilities was never encouraged. But that came later.
I first realised I liked to write back in school. My school teachers made us read and submit book reports; they also made us write essays. These essays had most of us sweating to produce a coherent piece, but not I – I enjoyed writing them, and, although they were undoubtedly primitive products (heavily influenced by Enid Blyton’s child detectives like the Five Find Outers series), they did get more elaborate and less derivative with time. Those days however I never thought of actually writing for public distribution in any form – the writing was just to satisfy class requirements. The middle class upbringing, remember – creativity was suspicious; what mattered was grades, creativity could go to hell. Grades were the route to success.
(Incidentally, a few years ago I met one of my old teachers. She told me she still keeps some of my old essays and uses them as a demonstration to her current lot of students on how to write. I don’t know whether I should believe that.)
I may possibly never have taken the step forward to writing semi-professionally except that a couple of my classmates wrote comic poems lampooning one of our teachers when we all were in the eighth standard. I decided to try my hand as well, and to my enormous surprise my version proved rather more popular among the classsamizdat than the other two (one of the two others is Siddhartha Deb, now a successful novelist in his own right). For months afterwards I hesitated to write any more, simply because I was so certain I could never cap my own first effort, before I said to myself “the hell with it” and when the next idea came along I went ahead and wrote it down. It was another poem lampooning the same teacher. Poor guy.
Real writing only came to me in college. Those were the days when I finally had a small but receptive audience, comprising people like me who had no friend network and no social life at all. My first story that really was a story, a coherent piece written not as a class essay but for the pleasure of writing, was something called Terminal Velocity. I still count an updated and revised version of it among my better works. Around that time I was still writing – with a ball point pen in an old ledger. Sometimes I would write on loose foolscap sheets which I would pass around. I am still grateful to those friends of mine, all of them long since lost touch with, because if they had laughed at my efforts I may well have given up right there.
Although I was writing some stories at the time, most of my output was poetry. Some of it was cringeworthy. Some of it was – even re-reading it now – quite high standard. But most of it, when I read it now, shows a lonely, wistful, and utterly immature boy trying to make things come true in his life by wishing it were so.
That was also a deeply unhappy time of my life in a lot of ways. I was obese, lonely, deeply depressed, and all this culminated in three failed suicide attempts over the course of a week, one of which put me in a coma in hospital for four days. I recovered, and that was a turning point in my life in a lot of ways. I lost weight – 21 kilograms – and I began to write much more coherently, and more to the point, though much less often. This was also the time I went away to study dentistry in Lucknow and there was almost no chance to write creatively there and no one to show one’s writing to. I did enter one creative writing contest, and produced what I still count as one of my great works (unfortunately I have no copy of it). I did not win – one of the judges told me later he could not make head nor tail of what I’d written. Whatever.
After leaving medical college I had another crisis period of lack of self belief but it was at the time that I began writing. I had no readers, but I had a typewriter (remember what those things were like?) and I used to bang out stories on sheets of paper that I still have. I have retained some of those stories, though in every case where I did, I’ve changed them so much they bear little resemblance to the original. Most of them were severely downbeat and reflected my inner tensions of the period. Then I got busy with my clinic, which was then new and which needed a lot of effort – and my writing suffered. It almost stopped. I wrote maybe two or three poems a year, nothing more, and even those poems were unambiguously rubbish.
In early 2001 I took a correspondence course in creative writing. I never got beyond the first module, but it taught me an extremely valuable lesson. Creative writing courses are rubbish. You can’t teach anyone how to write without turning them into a derivative, monotonous hack. I’m profoundly glad I never completed that course.
From 2001 to 2003 I was a moderately regular freelance writer for the magazine Eastern Panorama. It isn’t much of a magazine, and it paid a miserable pittance, but I needed to recoup my investment in that creative writing course and this was all I could think of. I wrote articles on everything from vermicomposting to piggeries to terrorism, not to mention the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club – some articles got published, some didn’t, the editor tried to skate out of paying whenever he could, and in 2003, when he refused to print an article on SARS he himself had commissioned, I stopped writing for him. His loss.
It was only when I wrote my debut novel, Rainbow’s End that I began writing regularly again. I still wonder at the drive that got me to finish it. I never would have done if I hadn’t acquired this computer. I was writing on paper in between patients (I had a much less busy practice in those days) and I used to transcribe it on the computer after work. These days I prefer writing directly on MS Word.
Once the novel was finished I began another, Fidayeen, which is stuck half way through. I will finish it though. I just don’t know when. In the meantime I’m concentrating on short stories, which I feel is a wise choice. Short stories are an excellent way of tightening up one’s writing skills and avoiding the kind of verbal diarrhoea that contaminates my earlier writing.
You understand this, of course – I’m not committed to a career as a dentist. If it were only possible to make a living as a full-time author, I would, with no hesitation. But in this country, it isn’t. Not yet. And with the rapacious publishers and the absence of a market, it’s unlikely that I shall ever be able to unless I emigrate.And that is not easy.
Somewhere along the way I lost my upbringing. What this means is that I was no longer bound by the teaching that I should concentrate on being a wage slave and that creativity isn’t something the likes of me should aspire to. I feel especially vindictive towards my father about this point at times when I think about it. He was always dismissive when it came to my writing efforts, and by my mid-teens I’d stopped showing him anything I wrote.
Where do I get my ideas? They come. Some breed from things I have observed, or heard of. Some just jump out at me – more about them in a moment. Some are of the genre of “what if” – what if such and such happened? What if a fighter plane crashed in your backyard (hey! Now there’s a story!)? What if your head suddenly began growing horns? What if…
I get two kinds of story ideas. There is what I call the “slow idea” – this comes little by little, and I may not know exactly how a story will turn out when I begin writing it. This sort needs days to complete, and requires a lot of effort and sweat. Also this is not the sort of story I find personally satisfying. However, my readership seems to prefer these stories.
The other sort of inspiration I get is the “brainstorm”. These stories spring out at me, complete and entire, with just the necessity of tweaking a phrase here and polishing a sentence there in the process of getting it down, which I normally do in one session. I have learned to get down to writing as soon as I get a brainstorm, if at all I can – if I wait too long the inspiration fades and I end with another slow idea that needs much developing. For brainstorms I have sacrificed sleep, food and workouts – many times. And brainstorm stories I find personally much more satisfying.
It is of course not just stories and poetry that I write. Most of my output is still social comment, some of it certainly controversial, and a lot of it is politics. I am deeply involved in the online anti-Bush/anti-war movement, both of which amount to the same thing these days. But on the whole, when I can write about something in the form of fiction, I prefer to do so rather than compose an essay on it.
Ultimately, I write for myself, not for a market. Also I write for my online readership and for anyone who has spent a few minutes of his or her time on what I have created. These words are my children – and I have to thank you all, whoever you are, for standing midwives at their birth.