Saturday, April 06, 2013

A Writer's Toolkit: Thoughts on Writing

Finishing a novel and starting research on a new non-fiction book within the past six months has made me acutely conscious of my own writing process and how it has evolved over the past years of publishing. Much of it has been a case of trial and error, and often just serendipity. Like many who accidentally stumble upon a winning (or at least working) formula, I have learned my process mostly on the fly but repeated and refined whatever seems to work. Many of these lessons now make up my writer's toolkit, and are essential to both my process and product.

Over the years, I have figured out my writing process and honed my craft. When I was writing my first novel, I was convinced that I needed the 'bohemian' life that went with - at least in my mind - with the art of fiction. So I cloistered myself, wrote through the night, sleeping only after the sun had risen high into the sky, and drank a lot of whisky. In my own mind, I was following in the footsteps of the greats, although mostly just punishing my liver with suitable determination. 

Once the manuscript was done, I had to gingerly return to the real world and mundane things like making a living. I remember the strangeness of those first few months of re-entering the world: I had lost the ability to have normal social conversations and needed to remember basic social skills. I could either not speak at all or would chatter incessantly, with words spilling out in generally an incoherent jumble. Although I did not recognise this at the time, I was also recovering myself as an individual from all those people who had long lived in my brain (but more on this later). 

Worse though was the depression that followed, which I initially blamed on the rejections from publishers I was rapidly accumulating.  It wasn't until nearly a year later that I realised that the depression had a more basic reason:  for the first time in my life, words had deserted me.  At the first sight of a blank sheet of paper, my mind wiped out into nothingness. I could not even write a basic message on a birthday card! As someone who has always relied on words as if it were oxygen, those were terrifying times, especially as I wondered if I had run out of words, whether I had only ever had one book in me and could and would never write another.

At the end, despite looking for professional help, it was words that saved me. An editor friend insisted that I produce something, anything, for her magazine, publishing even writing exercises that often took me days to shape and form. Her insistence that I meet deadlines forced me to write, pushed me to use the exhausted word-producing muscles that I had given up on. Then just as the novel found a publisher, I was asked to write a book on single women in India

Suddenly, just as I was recovering my facility with words, I had a big project. But there was no space to write it, living as I was with family, siblings, and a very large dog in a small Delhi flat. That fantasy writer's 'bohemian' life was going to be impossible if I were to deliver the book. But as my dad reminded me, "न नौ मन गेंहू होवे  न मीरा उठके नाचिहे " (As there will never be nine maund (Indian measure of weight) of grain, so Meera shall never rise to dance), a Hindi proverb emphasising that there are never ideal conditions for any action.  So I wrote my second book, still mostly at night, with a fifty kilo Rottweiler snoring at my feet and aided by copious cups of hot tea. Slowly but surely, I was learning the most important lesson of all: that writing was a discipline and a demanding one, not a lifestyle choice.

It was also the first time I noticed the cleansing powers of non-fiction. As I finalised the book, the idea for my next novel had already taken hold. I began the initial writing even as I was promoting the book on single women, writing in my parents' house in the hills, in my cramped Delhi flat, even on noisy train journeys to-and-fro as we prepared to move out of India. In my parents' house, my father and I spent hours weeding the lawns, working in companionable silence, while my mind filled itself again of characters and plots and vast colourful universes.  And then came the strange switch: even as I worked on the early stages of the novel, I moved to Barcelona. 

There I was! Finally! I was living my dream of truly being the 'writer', living in Europe, drinking loads of wine, talking about art and literature and philosophy on the beach and in little cafes, fully living the 'bohemian' life that I was sure all great writing needed as nourishment.  Strangely, my second novel is more truly 'Indian,' set for most part in a village that is much like the ones that my ancestors built generations ago. It seemed as if I could summon up India better once I was removed from its quotidian pressures and realities.  And yet something had changed: I no longer wrote at night, or at least, not late at night. Instead, I worked in the afternoons, took a break for socialising over tapas and wine, then returned before midnight to write till about three in the morning.

This time when I finished the novel, I was prepared for the familiar depression. Or rather I recognised the inevitable moment of complete devastation for what it was: overwhelming grief for the end of a project that had occupied my mind for years. A friend explains that the process of finishing a book is much like getting a divorce, or ending a relationship, with the same complexity of emotions. After all, a writer lives with a book more completely while it is in progress than most humans do with each other. Sometimes, I think that perhaps the sadness many writers feel at birthing a novel is not dissimilar from post-partum depression: one is expected to celebrate and rejoice but the exhaustion, loss of control, and fear are often more overwhelming. 

I had also been careful to not isolate myself from people during my second novel so the return to society was not nearly as disorienting as before. However, it did made me realise that my judgement about people is completely shot while I am writing: my own decisions about likes and dislikes are so over-ridden by characters in my head that I found myself wondering how I had ended up befriending people with whom I had little in common. "You just test out your characters on people" my siblings insisted, rather unfeelingly and despite my protests. Sadly I have grown to realise that they are right. It doesn't just stop there: my tastes in music and reading, hobbies, even the style of dressing changes with my characters, making me appear either fragmented or just attention deficit. And this is before I begin to have entire conversations about my characters who are - in the moment of writing - more real to me than people I know and see. Sentimental, nostalgic pronouncements on the lines "X would so love this wine/dessert/exhibition," where X is completely fictional are something my closest friends have grown inured to. 

At least, I have learned that I either have great survival skills or am madly lucky as I also acquire a lot of friends during the writing process who can cope with my dysfunctional behaviour. Indeed, some of my best friends have been made while I was deep in throes of the creative process, a testimony perhaps to their generosity or foolhardiness (or more likely, both).

Fortunately, experience had taught me skills needed to face the post-novel depression. Within months of finishing of my second novel, I moved countries (again) and began a PhD, throwing myself into research about things I knew nothing about.  Once again, the nonfiction worked to clear my head, this time more consciously. But more importantly, juggling a full time job and PhD ensured that my writing discipline got more focussed, perhaps even ascetic.  Writing late into the night was no longer possible. Neither were erratic hours and other bits of bohemia.  So instead I began writing when I could: holidays, days off, weekends, even on the tube as I commuted back and forth from work.  The thesis took up so much time that I could not think of novel-universes, so instead small miniature worlds were born in my mind, taking shape as short stories, forcing me hone my craft. From the large canvases and Pollock-like frenzy, I was forced to take up a the tiny frame and single hair brush of Indian miniatures.  I struggled, splashing like an over-sized fish caught in a tiny bathtub, but slowly I adapted, began to control my abilities, learning new skills, polishing my fiction with the obsessive precision only miniatures can provide. 

And once again, even as I finished my phd, the idea for a new novel had taken hold, germinating, growing silently as I referenced, cross-referenced, and indexed. As I defended my thesis, my mind was already full of a new world, of characters drawn as finely as in a miniature but inhabiting a world as complex and full as a large canvas. Writing short stories has made my writing sparser, more restrained, and that changed my novel, making it equally restrained. For the first time in all my years of writing, I felt that I had some control over my craft.  Moreover, for the first time I wrote as a professional, with a clear knowledge of the end result and full awareness of the discipline.  My writing time now begins early in the morning, followed by a swim, and then work. For the duration of the writing the novel, I felt more like a marathon runner than the bohemian, pushing myself to draw on all my experience, skill, stamina, and strength. 

I was ready for the downer that finishing my novel would inevitably bring although I had prepared for it mentally. But this time it didn't happen! Don't get me wrong, I am still struggling with words - this blog post is intended to force myself to write something, anything. I have again realised that I have been living in a creative haze - albeit far more controlled - and many new acquaintances are baffled by the changed persona.  It is invigorating to see art, read books, hear music for myself and not from within the skin of my characters. And once again, I have another project - a non-fiction book that will require vast amounts of research, and shall cleanse my mind for more fiction. More importantly, I don't feel the need to move countries just to find excitement to help overcome my post-writing depression.

It has been a long journey to this space, to where I feel like I have some (although not nearly enough) control of my craft and much awareness of my creative process. I no longer have to fear that I will run out of words or ideas, just because I have finished a major project. I have an endurance athlete's discipline in terms of writing and have increasingly realised that I need to be physically as healthy as my mind if I am to ensure that I keep writing for many years to come. This has sadly meant the demise of my 'bohemian' fantasies but perhaps that is not necessarily bad.  Finally, I am grateful that I have enough people in my life who not only acknowledge but support my forays into the creative universe even when they don't quite understand them.  All of these are, I have only now learned, essential for the writer's toolkit.