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I began writing when I wanted to speak, and there was no one else to listen. So I began to write and talk to myself, and listened to my own voice, and then, I began to tell my story.
“How do we write our first novel?” Someone asked me the other day.
My answer was: “Mindlessly, fearlessly, and shamelessly.”
I left the young woman feeling even more confused, but this is the only way I know. If the fear of what others think of your writing, of baring your soul to the world and of thinking too much about getting published or appreciated, then that novel will possibly not see the light of the day.
It’s somewhat like making love. You have to undress and show your nakedness. You have to shed the anxiety of performance, and the fear of being psychologically naked before the world. Of what your mother-in-law would think about the sex scenes, or if your husband would question you, picking a random phrase from your novel!
You have to meander through time-consuming house work and steal few moments of quiet only to walk through the harsh trails of writing every day.
Your worldly duties of being a homemaker or a day job professional shouldn’t be the excuse for not writing.
You have to brace yourself to withhold nothing from your life and experiences; take the risk of being mocked, slandered, ignored, and worse, being stopped from writing.
In brief, you have to take many risks; otherwise you will carry that novel inside of you all your life.
When I was writing my first novel, like every other writer, I too had my share of battles with the onerous daily life and the pitiless slog of writing life. I went through those sleepless nights when I just couldn’t find the right phrase, the right word, and would stay awake to nail them down, until dawn peeped through the windows, and I would just slump down in a tight, painful curl; exhausted to my core.
I could still recall those days of anxiety, when my characters would just buzz around my mind refusing to obey while I would be busy baking a cake for my son’s birthday. When I would be writing a perfect and magical love-making scene in my head, while having lousy marital sex with my husband.
Like a woodpecker the words would bore into my conscience, when I ignored them. There were plenty of moments when the cleverest of sentences would spring up in my mind at the oddest of hours and then slip away, disappearing like vapours for want of writing them down at that exact moment of my creative flush.
Anyhow, I did make it to the end and my first novel, the Holy Grail of every writer’s life got published.
People asked me, “How do you feel getting published?”
“I don’t know.” I replied. “I did not feel the earth move. Only a huge relief, like an old festering wound that’s finally lanced.” Because my book— as a dear friend, William M once said— “needed” to be written.
I understand that writing a book and publishing it is as presumptuous as tapping someone on the shoulder and making a demand on them to stop and listen to you. It’s a huge, huge expectation, and rather delusional in its wake.
But I also believe that we women need to tell our stories, because carrying the burden of untold stories bear heaviest on our souls, and if we don’t tell our stories, someone else might, and it may not be the truth.
Well, I agree that the decision is always scary at first. To unleash into this rather unfeeling and capricious world the thoughts, feelings and an open gazed vulnerability of deeper emotions; and then lurk around, secretly hoping to be accepted, praised, and loved makes you nervous, to say the least. Because, writing, especially fiction writing is like baring your soul to the world and risk getting rebuffed, sniggered, ignored, shattered, wounded or restored according to the sole perspective of that unknown reader.
Reading. It was reading that compelled me to write. I have loved books so much that it hurts. There in my bedroom of girlhood were these packed shelves of enough stories to keep me going for life. And I constantly looked for my identity in this treasure of other people’s experiences and expressions. In these books I looked for an affirmation to sustain in a world where mediocrity is a crime. Perhaps it is this secret desire to rise above the mediocrity that the desire to write a book came into being.
It was the need to tell the world, “I too have a story!”
Once I was called to a University seminar where an M Phil student had presented a paper on my book and I was invited to that seminar as the author of the book. When they called me on the stage to speak about my book, to my horror I realised that I was totally making a fool of myself. I was babbling, smiling too much and trying hard to hide the fright of being in front of a hall full of faces and eyes looking straight into mine with hope and expectations.
I am sure I must have dashed many hopes and had disappointed many eager souls. I may know how to write, but I admit I am a pretty bad public speaker.
However, when a young college girl came up to me for autograph, on the copy of my book and said to me, “Ma’am, I want to write like you.” the dreary nights of despair and the aftermath of the stage-fright were forgotten in those precious, uplifting moments.
On the other hand, a book may appear to mean different things to different readers. Every reader understands the book in his own way. It may not be the writer’s way.
It is our business as readers to know what we like. It is our business as writers to know what we like. And we both have to be honest to our respective roles and crafts, without impinging upon each other.
I am asked – How did the idea come to you? Did you plot it first, or just began writing it?
Incidentally, my first novel was born several years before its publication. I still remember the day it all started. It was 25th August, 2006.
Those were the days when I took refuge in the borrowed bliss of just packing up my bags and going away; propelled by this urge for verisimilitude, in a life full of delusional imaginings.
And on that humid and dull afternoon when I was in the remote, small town of Jalpaiguri, the idea was conceived.
It was raining outside and the heavy rainfall had stalled my plans of travelling to Darjeeling. I had to make a stopover at Jalpaiguri and spend the day walled inside the musty room of a cheap hotel. I was lying on the bed watching those damp patches on the walls growing bigger, until it felt like it would enclose its wet tentacles around me and choke me. The bed sagged and the sheets smelt fusty with the trapped memories of previous guests.
I called the room service for my meals, because I had no inclination of seeing another human being. The malodorous weather had dampened my spirits.
Perhaps, I would have just lain there and watched another common, dreary day crawl towards a lugubrious evening through the thin curtains of the narrow window. But something turned inside me, and a tight invisible fist began to beat upon my chest with dull thuds.
I became too restless to keep lying inert and I sat up with a jerk, propelled by the familiar feverish itch to write. I was not carrying my notebook or laptop. So I just picked up the hotel’s monogrammed letter pad from the bedside table and started scribbling…
By evening, when the time came for me to check out because I had to board a train that was leaving for Calcutta, almost the entire notepad was filled with many crossed, uncrossed, disjointed sentences, phrases and paragraphs, mostly gibberish. Some phrases made sense, a whole lot of it didn’t.
Anyway, I tore the sheets off the notepad, thrust them into my duffel bag, and left the hotel…
The next day I landed home, armed with ambiguities and impeded by the insidious consciousness, decisive about turning my limitations to good purpose.
Writers are not born. Writers are made, by writing every-day.
Writing just came to me, like everything else came to me, without applying any intelligence. I lived on the frugality of coincidences. Incidentally I am strong. Incidentally I was able to hold my sanity. Incidentally I did not break down and fall apart when everything around me was falling apart.
I began writing when I wanted to speak, and there was no one else to listen.
So I began to write and talk to myself, and listened to my own voice, and then, I began to tell my story. I fought for my story against the demons of procrastination in my head.
I fought for my space and right to write my story.
I finally finished my story, closed those chapters, and was ready for fresh new stories.
One of the FAQ about my first novel was “Is it an autobiography?”
My mother had once told me that to write a sincere autobiography one needs a great deal of ruthless grit and masochistic honesty. I believed her.
I know how hard it is to lance the old wounds, pull away the brown, hardened skin, gnaw at the raw unhealed flesh, and still do not cringe.
More often than not, autobiographers create a Frankenstein’s Monster like caricature, to tell the world how brave they are, hoping to provide recompense to themselves for all the inadequacies that life had thrown their way. And like Victor Frankenstein, we all run away from the reality of this Monster, unable to face its goriness.
We are too chicken-hearted to tell the brutal truth of why we failed, cried, and killed our soul.
I asked myself, would I be able to write about my ‘not so good self’? The blemishes, the flaws, the foolish mistakes that I have made, the wet, dark bits of me… if I choose to write an honest story about myself? Will I be okay if a child of mine picks up my autobiography and comes to know the fallible-human-woman behind the idealistic mother?
No. I can never be the heroine of my own novel.
Thus my answer to the above question was, “No. My book is a fiction.”
To which the wise answers came, “Well, isn’t all first novels autobiographical? And to add ‘fiction’ to what could have been an honest confession, is a ruse?”
To which all the writers of first novels must say, “Confession is a provincial word and we the writers are generally covert-grandiose-egocentrics who secretly want to tell the world, ‘Look at me’.”
Thus we write our first novels.
Image source: AlessandroSquassoni on pixabay
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Nazia Mallick is the author of a literary novel, "Meshes of Smoke"- (2011)
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