Friday, May 30, 2014

Writing about Ugly Daffodils

This is my first true day off in a very long time: my stories are all with my listeners, speaking for themselves, I have managed the Hydra of grading (though not conquered the monster), and the cats are fed. It seems meet, then, to just catch my breath and take stock as I work my way through my daily allotment of caffeine.

Writing the stories that I have been working on for the past few months has completely transformed my inner landscape. Before I sat down with this project, I was confident of what I referred to as my writing style. I was sure of my ability to reflect internal realities of my characters in a believable way. I didn't care much for including dialogue, didn't trust my characters when they opened their mouths. Most of my writing revolved around recognition of the familiar in a strange world and I built epiphanies, peripeteia, and happily-ever-after's around these. I had thought that two of my major challenges had been tense consistency and avoiding purple prose. Every time I used to revise my work, I would pay meticulous attention to each verb, try to sort out the diction, and endlessly revise syntax. A lot of times, I would re-read a story and fail to find the pivot around which I had thought I had written, and discard that story. I flirted with magical realism, usually unsuccessfully.

I should have known better. I should have read less Virginia Woolf. I should have loved Dickens less.

One of my University professors often said that it was better to write about the pattern on the carpet one stood on, than to write about daffodils. He meant that good writing emerged from being true to one's experience, rather than a conscious or unconscious emulation of admired writers. At that time, all those decades ago, my writing was largely narcissistic (yes, Reader, I kept a journal), and even the fiction and poetry I wrote derived from a very personal perspective. I had a blank book, shaped like a peacock in which I kept my most treasured poetry and this, if anything does, reflects the relationship I had with the process. I had interpreted my professor's words rather too literally and written exclusively about how events and people affected me: that, then, was my pattern on the carpet, my way of avoiding the daffodils. If I were to read any of it now, I would find it claustrophobic and unforgivably abstract. I would burn it all, if it wasn't already lost. I wish I could deny all kinship with it.

I should have stuck to the daffodils, even though I had never seen a daffodil then. My professor claimed that they were rather ugly, as flowers go, Wordsworth notwithstanding. I should have written about ugly daffodils.

These past few months have changed my understanding about carpet patterns and daffodils. This is a good thing. This project has given my characters gumption enough to speak up. Now, if a character does not speak often, I tend to revise the story, coax the silence, and I try to encourage that character to open up a bit. I try to see if the narrator's voice is not too intrusive. I try to contain the narrator's voice to strictly external descriptions. Instead of anchoring the entire plot on a single moment of recognition or realization, I try to sustain a mood of a scene. I now see that my plots had proven too heavy for those single moments to carry, and the forced silence of my characters loomed large, adding to the gravid nature of the stories. I wonder that my readers did not complain of headaches as they ploughed through them! I am learning to recognize and avoid what my wonderfully patient publisher calls "the dreaded inner voice."

Now, I do not revise as much for tense and syntax; using dialogue has done wonders for that! Instead, I try to establish a Rasa or a general emotional atmosphere through a scene or section. I try to understand the many transient emotions that constitute this stable Rasa. I try to ensure that the nature of the characters who inhabit that scene are believable, elastic enough to feel what the scene needs them to feel, and convincing enough to operate within its parameters. I am trying to work on my listening skills, so when these characters begin to speak, I can understand the scene better.

I do not know if this makes my writing any better or worse than it was a few months ago. However, this process has brought me a clearer understanding of my relationship with the writing process. It is my ardent and genuine hope that one day, I finally learn how to write well about the pattern of the carpet I stand on, and find that it is not that different from writing about ugliness of daffodils.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Mythos and Logos

Kristin tagged me to do this in a post. I cannot resist this tag, just as I cannot resist meeting Kristin over a bowl of coffee or soup as we read and comment on each others' stories. I remain grateful for her patience, as, of late, my stories have been woven around Indian mythology, a universe as alien to her as the world of the deep ocean is to me. She continues to inspire me to do better with every word I write. I also tag Marissa, a talented writer who shares our love of mythology and folklore.

What am I working on?

My book: An anthology for which I have a contract with a publisher takes up most of my waking hours when I am not working. These stories examine mythological characters Indian Mythology, who face issues and problems that are surprisingly contemporary. My hope is to enable today's readers to recognize themselves in these characters.

Assorted short stories: These are not based on mythology and they do not have a specific publisher or purpose that drives them. The immigrant identity fascinates me and I see shining vignettes or moments around me, around which I quilt and embroider a story. These stories feel like parts of my own psyche, detaching themselves, metamorphosing, and flying out of the window. I do send them out and some are picked up for publication; and so I lose them.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I think that my stories have a unique place, straddling as they do, continents, ages, and present a moment in the ever-changing ethos of the consciousness of an Indian American immigrant, operating from the particular canvas of experiences and responses that are personal and individual. My work is unique in narratology and treatment of the subject, yet it is informed by a rich heritage and it is not lonely. I have many writers (both, past and contemporary) whom I continue to enjoy and admire even as I resist emulating them and work on developing my own narrative voice.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I don't have a choice. My stories, I sometimes fear, express some kind of a wild, untamed, un-tame-able wildness that is both within me as well as in the world around. At the same time, writing stories is my therapy, my cure against all manner of madness and chaos that are so much a part of one's every day life.

Usually, the story chooses the teller, so I suppose I don't really choose what I write much. The book I am writing is about Indian myths. I find epics, folklore, and mythology very easy to relate to. These stories provide a continuation of the human experience, at the same time, resonate with my internal realities. A lot of my work derives from these genres.

The stories in folklore and myths are ancient, yet I find that they are renewed within me. I try to tell them in their renewed form. For example, when my house burned and I could not go home for a while, I recognized my unwilling banishment in Sita's imprisonment. That is where my writing lives, between this world and the one of the myths.

I write because I have no other way of telling these stories that insist that they must be told.

I  write because I know of no greater magic than that of the written word.

How does my writing process work?

I just blogged about this: I don't have a process, per say, or a part of my day or week I reserve for my writing. Sometimes, I get up in the night with an itch beneath my fingers and a slight nausea and the only way to get normal is to write it out; this usually is out in a few hours. But then, I have entire weeks when I don't do anything but write, weeks when I have planned to work on certain aspects of stories, aspects that need revision or re-writing.  

I fear I might have a writing disorder. I do not particularly enjoy the writing, and it is really hard work.

It is frustrating because what I write is not brilliant, beautiful stuff; most of it needs to be revised, re-revised, and re-visited yet again in order to be just acceptable.  It feels like a narcissistic indulgence, accompanied with guilt at indulging in it. But I love it so much that I cannot imagine doing anything else.

May the gods never visit such horrible fates on anyone I know!






Friday, March 28, 2014

The Yellowed White Coat

"They'll call when they call," M. informed me, her closed frown underlined by her streaming cold. This was unacceptable, not just because of the meaningless tautology of her non-response, but because M was the nurse sent out to attend to me. She interrupted herself and me several times to blow her nose, her belligerence rock like, a most uncompromising oncos, snarling like a Cerebus.

M. is the face of my nephrologist's office. The office has failed to file the necessary paperwork to follow the next step needed in care of my disease management. The office has been singularly deaf to my protests that I need no referrals or authorizations, that I had confirmed this with my insurance. It seems, as it was with my burnt house, I am doomed to fight for basic rights against an army of scrivening, sniffling bureaucrats, who treat me as though I am an annoying fly in their smooth ointment.

Today, M showed me forms I had filled in, which they had faxed to various people, with the word "URGENT" stamped on four drafts. However, recipients of those faxes are not concerned with what the nephrologist's office is supposed to do, and so these "URGENT" summons go unaddressed. My GP's office called me today to remind me that I hadn't seen them in months, and if I needed help with my kidney disease, I should talk to my nephrologist. Furthermore, if it was "URGENT" that a response be made, then it defies logic that the nephrologist's office refuses to follow protocol and address the urgency of the matter.

I called the nephrologist's office, but then they were closed. They are closed every week day between 12pm and 2pm, and there is no way to leave a message during those times. They do not answer the phones before 9:40am,  or after 3:30pm, so divine intervention would be needed if a caller worked from 9 to 5, even counting for the usual 12-1 lunch break. The only way to reach the office is to take time off from whatever useless profession one pursues, and just arrive, unannounced and unexpected, exhaling fire. Then there is much scurrying and a file emerges.

I asked to see the file, and the first thing that caught my eye was the name of the nephrologist attending my case; it was the wrong practitioner. I asked about it, and M covered the objectionable information with a swollen finger, stabbing at the word "URGENT" repeatedly instead in an excellent demonstration of the Red Herring Logical Fallacy that my Freshman Composition students would immediately recognize.

The doctor's office had drawn blood (after attempts on different arms, resulting in many bruises that spoke horrible lies about my tendency to addictions), but had failed to collect the results in time for my nephrologist appointment a couple of weeks later. The nephrologist is personable and interesting to talk to, and my office visit with him resulted in a rather pleasant conversation without much matter, since the relevant results were not available; it felt like a $35 tea without the tea.

Today, M condescendingly explained (as though to a rather slow four year-old in need of a nap) that without the blood work, there should have been no appointment. I asked her whose fault that was; M blew her nose noisily in response and went back to stabbing the "URGENT" on the file.

I asked, "Do you think that no one will notice if I should die or get really sick because your office did not file this? Why did your office not check if the results were received before confirming the doctor's appointment and assuring me that the results were, indeed, in?"

Her response, patient reader, deserves a concrete description. She stood with one hip jutting out to express her extreme boredom with the situation her virtues were tested in. She sighed and coughed in a single noise, blew her nose again, and cocking her head first northeast, then southwest, and finally northeast again to punctuate each word, she spat, "I don't know."

Then she escalated the voltage of belligerence in her glance and stance, and stared hard at me, pursing her lips so tightly that her lips completely disappeared and caused a little balloon to blossom underneath her flaring nostrils. Had I stayed farther, she would have been unable to stop the raspberry that was so obviously blooming.

Stress aggravates my disease, an obvious observation, considering the sudden plummeting of my health after my home burned. I regularly practice stress management techniques and common sense assures that my medical team's constant vigilance should decrease my stress. However, my dealings with my nephrologist's office might well have taken years off my life, negated many a meditation session and calm morning.

There is a vertical frown above my eyebrows. It reminds me of Shiva's third eye, the one that opens when Shiva becomes Rudra, the angry deity whose dance brings on the end of a world. However, unlike the god, I am of mortal flesh and do not have the skill to the burn a world without killing myself first. But I know the shape of that third eye too well. If I could control mine, it would burn off the consummate indifference and its attendant belligerence radiating from self-aggrandized care givers who remain convinced of the need to keep the sick from their hallowed halls, to keep the diseased fettered in reams of indefatigable bureaucracy.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Little of All

I have been amiss in updating this blog and I could offer some really good excuses; but that's not what this space is for. I asked the universe, and the universe rained down gifts on me. I did get my book contract and I am working on my book more hours than can be contained in a day. It is rewarding work, even though I am still writing and not getting anything concrete in return. Just the writing feels cathartic.

I have been complaining about stories haunting me, itching me beneath my finger nails, fluttering beneath my closed eyelids, racing through my brain path ways, running along my veins, like plasma I cannot rid myself of. So every time I write a story or a section, I feel like I have been drained of all blood and must rest to fill myself up again, like I have poured out a part of myself. However, this pouring out is exhausting and leaves me unable for the rest of the week. Instead of these intense writing schedules, I'd love to be able to write a little each day, grade a bit, clean up the house regularly, and keep up with my reading, all as part of an unremarkable daily quotidian.

I wonder at all who write for the love of it. One of my best friends writes in the wee hours of the morning and is disciplined enough to command her pen. She, along with a lot of people whose writing habits I read about, can write for a couple of hours a day and not miss time. She can have normal appointments, meet people for lunch, attend and contribute meaningfully to meetings, and do the same thing the following day! She has amassed a formidable body of varied genres, all because she has the discipline to write a little everyday.

One of my favorite writers describes her writing routine: she tends to her family, takes a walk, meditates, and then settles down for the afternoon of writing. All that I have read about writing habits point out the importance of having a routine, the richness that comes from disciplined expression of one's passion. One should have a specific place to write, like a desk, Virginia Woolf's room of one's own to write most productively. This designated place and routine validate one's writing.

To that end, I have cleared a desk, arranged my work schedule, and given myself lots of pep-talks on the importance of establishing a writing time-table and following it through. After all, I reasoned with myself, I do submit my grades and manage the Learning Management System at work! My mortgage is never late and the cats are never hungry. So I must possess a modicum of self-discipline. Why not use that for the one thing that nourishes me the most?

Aye there's the rub! Writing is my nourishment and I have a writing-disorder!

 Last year, when my kidney disease suddenly plummeted my well-being, I began a diet that is stricter than a movie-star diet, and for the most part, have kept it up. I lost some weight and people around me exclaimed at my self-control. However, no matter how much I talk about it, I cannot fully express the ferociousness of the battles I fought to resist pizzas, to walk away from chhole-bhature, piping hot bhajias, the dhebras that used to be my staple, or the constant struggle to refuse cheese. The problem is, I can resist all that food, even get used to my salt deprived, lean bowl, mainly, I believe, because my body is more biddable than my writing habits.

I fear that my writing habits are sofa loungers that resist all discipline and refuse all commands to get up and get going. I have always felt guilty when I have given in to them: I should be cleaning up a bit, grading, updating, arranging my house, tending to the cats who share my living space. After all, I am really not the only person extraordinary enough to love writing! So on days when I give in to my unhealthy writing habits feel like wicked indulgences, though the aftermath is cathartic. I do not mean to say that the quality of writing is excellent; actually, quite the contrary. More than 90% needs to be re-written. But then there is a separate relief that comes with each draft.

The stories I am in the middle of inhabit me. I remember last week, I came home from work, got my dinner together and opened the story I had been working on. The television was on and the cats fed. I'd just meant to give the story a quick glance. When I looked up, it was 3:00 a.m. My dinner was untouched and my back hurt. I did finish that story but the next day at work was difficult, to put it mildly. I vowed and promised and threatened myself against such extravagant immoderation. I felt as though I had fallen off my diet and my stomach was paying the price of my intemperance.

I love that my stories have a purpose, a deadline, and a home. I am more than grateful for the close reading they receive; it has been  long time since anybody read anything I wrote this closely! Yes, I have problems with weaving plots, maintaining perspective, and ensuring tense consistency. However, it is a labor of love and I feel more meaningful, more like an active participant of a purposeful universe, more relevant than when I am doing anything else.

This entry is an exercise of discipline in itself. I am forcing myself to take a break from the story that owns me right now. Little by little, the gods willing, I shall tame my unruly habits. Perhaps, one day, I, too shall command a clean house and a body of writing I can show off, all because I finally will have trained myself to do a little of all everyday!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

When You Wish Upon A Star . . .

The dance form that I had been trained in is Kathak. The word Kathak means Story Teller (the one who tells a katha or story is the Kathak). You could say that all my training in all I have studied has purported towards teaching me to tell stories. I have always taken this ideal very seriously and have made it the end of all. I have wished to tell stories that would tell listeners about themselves. I have not been able to sustain the rigor of my dancing training, but I have sought to hold on to the idea of the story teller, and connected to that has been my dream of a fiction book contract. But you know what they say about wishes, though: they all come true and they are not free.

Yes. This is what it feels like when dreams are granted: the constant nervousness, the unending fear of inadequacy, the unimaginable excitement (which feels like big cats cavorting around one's innards), and the desperate need to maintain balance, to keep things real.

Yes. I have a book contract, and I only hope I will not disappoint. On the one hand, I do believe that this is what I have always wanted, that my training, teaching, indeed, my living has been leading up to this, that at least some of my stories now have a validated purpose. I remember being ecstatic for exactly four days when I first heard; but after that, this deep fear has taken home within me. I think that this fear is the price I will have to pay for this wish.

We are forever told stories of happily-ever-after, of dreams coming true, of wishes granted. These stories end there. What else is left to say, the story-teller asks. The after-story is boring, like all accounts of "happiness" are boring (just ask Tolstoy!). What is interesting is the journey to this shining gem of dream, the process undertaken, choices made, prices paid to achieve it, that we might step on the same stones to our dreams.

I would insist that the journey and process are boring. They are often accidents, not even vaguely connected to what they lead up to, and the choices are not deliberate; such a narrative would lack focus and would ramble. What happens once the goal is reached? That is what interests. I wanted to come home when my house burned and I did; I wanted a fiction book contract and I have it (if I do not disappoint). How does one figure out exactly what it was that caused this? Most importantly, how does one avoid waking up and losing the dream?

I do not mean to seem ungrateful. Of course, I am grateful. I also recognize the wonderful, unimaginable feeling that has accompanied this gift: I no longer feel alone with my story; the validation has done wonders for the stories and an editorial voice is just the infusion of freshness my stale stories have needed, something I had not even realized until I got it. I love the absolutely new perspectives opening before me, like the revolving doors for Walter Mitty. The possibilities seem endless and instead of feeling defeated or diminished, the editorial feedback has given me a focus and an excitement for working on those stories; I actually look forward to the work. I cannot believe that my stories merit this serious treatment!

The popular adage advises that if one meets the Buddha, one should kill him; life (and the journey) are more important than achieving perfection. What if one could actually avoid killing the Buddha and begin a new road? That is the process that would interest. That is the story that would need no sub-plot. That would be a story of true courage, since I don't think I am the only one who is enveloped with this dark fear once the euphoria of a granted wish evaporates.

This post goes out as a validation of all fears, especially the ones that form the dark shadow of a granted wish. Perhaps we need these fears as much as we need our dreams; they provide depth to otherwise single-dimensioned ideals. I will try to study the face of these fears so that I may understand the actual nature of what happens when a star grants a wish.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Magic

There is an explosion, a disturbance throbs through the air, and the chase is on! Yes, reader, I saw Dhoom 3 on the big screen and I cannot think of a better way of enjoying a holiday afternoon with my family. I have previously waxed exuberantly about the magic of Hindi movies, and I am reassured that that magic has not waned as I get older.

As a girl, I remember the excitement that flooded the pit of my stomach at the prospect of a film outing, especially if a large number of people were to join in. During vacations, the afternoon or morning shows were preferred, and during regular school days, we went for night shows. The entire day ended up revolving around these outings, even when we had other things going on, other treats. We had consultations about wardrobes, who might say what, who would sit next to whom, and conjectures about what possible plot lines could lead up to the songs we all knew by then, thanks to the Binaca Geet Mala on the radio. Buying snacks at the theatre was out of question; those snacks would be prohibitively, exorbitantly priced. But perhaps, we could go for bhel or other spicy-sour-irresistible street food after the film. Oh the possibilities of how the outing could turn out were endless! Who knows what adventures awaited us in the unpredictable, electrifying hustle-bustle of the city streets and cinema halls! We wanted to be prepared for it all!

As I grew up, I promised myself I'd bloom into this sophisticate, for whom a film outing would be no big deal, nothing to be excited about; such excitement was for silly young girls, who had no real "life" to speak of. I had plans for my "life," which would be scintillating and sparkling with all manner of unimaginably brilliant things. Hindi films would pale, I promised myself.

Last week, when I went for Dhoom 3, I realized that this was one of the many promises I'd broken to myself. I could not resist the excitement that flooded over, unexpectedly. Of course, since I am no longer the dashing thrill-seeker, I do pray that no unexpected adventure awaits me on the streets or cinema hall. But when the chase is on, I find myself on the edge of my seat; I love the surprises splashed on the large screen; I do not need the screen to be 3-D to get fully immersed in the movie.

There are a few selves I wear, which help me live most fully. The un-aging self in the cinema house is one of these selves. It is well-known that those who read, get to live a thousand alternate lives; I would contend that the same is true of those who love the movies!

On this last day of the year, try out an unfamiliar self; go to the cinema theatre! Find a motorcycle you'd never ride, navigate vectors you could never balance or control, swing behind the screen to discover an unforeseen, amazing reality; who knows what astonishing, electrifying adventure awaits a half-forgotten imagined self?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ibsit Invidia

Once upon a time, there was a king who sought to banish all pain, sickness, and death from his kingdom. Now this story, though old, is not alien. It defines the consciousness of all ages, a very human quest for an impossible utopia. This story illuminates, like few others, the importance and inevitability of all that Pandora let loose on the mortal world.

I do not remember the first time I read this story; as long as I can remember, I could rattle it by rote. So this story is not new to me. Yet every time I have been brought before it, it has affected me. It is an ancient tale, the definition of happiness very superficial, yet amazingly, it resonates with undiluted power. Our mythologies have sharpened and shaped our fears, our pain in so many forms, some sacred, some obscene, yet others that are neither. Systems of belief insist on logical connections between the profane and the ills our flesh is heir to, even provide methodologies to keep ailment at bay.

The Gita points out that what causes fear is the imagination of a circumstance rather than the circumstance itself, and so what needs to be addressed is one's imagination, not avoidance of a circumstance. The Ramayana counsels to embrace all circumstances with equanimity, presenting as role model a prince who accepts crown and banishment with the same smile. However, I find it impossible to live up to these very simple, very wise ideas. I find it impossible to react in the same way to the birth of my daughter and the loss of my son; the only similarity in those reactions is the intensity of almost exactly opposite feelings. My nightmares abound with imagined horrors that I am unable to control.

I suppose this is the reason why the old story speaks so clearly. This morning episode of Buddha addressed this part of the story. I had never thought what it would mean to banish all suffering from a city. It was a horrifying picture. Old age, sickness, pain are woven in the fabric of life, along with youth and good health. Ripping the two apart would loosen unimaginable hells, rob all that makes sense in organized civilizations. Children would languish for grandmothers' tales; sons and daughters would worry about their infirm parents; families would not be allowed to care for sick loved ones; young children, missing grandparents, could be reunited with them only if they were diseased enough. Flourishing households, torn apart, would wither away, like a city of insects deprived of their shade of a felled tree. The episode ended with the image of the infant prince weeping helplessly in his sleep at this heavy loss to his land.

 I find myself blaming the king for his short sightedness. However, upon reflection, I am guilty of something similar: I too have wanted to banish all suffering from my child's life. In fact, I count my failures in terms of horrors, disappointments, heartaches, and illnesses I have been unable to keep away from her. Today, I ask if I have done her any favors by trying to protect her; I, too, want her to be a feared and respected conqueror of lands, rather than a wise ascetic her peers jeer at.

This post goes out as a prayer to the universe, for strength to accept (if not welcome) whatever awaits. I am counting on old stories to hold my hand and light my household when evening insists on advancing, when night seems unending. I pray for eyes enough to discern the twilight of dawn from dusk and remember the importance of both in a fully lived day.

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