In the shoes of a writer

What is your advice to aspiring young writers?‘ This is a question writers are often asked.

Here, I have a distinction to make. What aspirations are we talking about? The aspiration to be a writer? Or the aspiration to be published? It has taken me years to understand that the conventional definition of a writer is different from what actually defines a writer.

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A writer…

I wonder how many young people would want to be writers, if they knew what it takes to be a writer and what it is to be a writer.

Being a writer is the realization of a potential. It is a journey, not a destination. A writer is a personality type, and not anybody who writes stories or essays or poems. A writer is one for whom writing is like breathing- it sustains him and keeps him alive. It is immaterial if his work is pronounced good or bad by the world. It is immaterial if he is published or not. It is immaterial if he becomes famous or not. He writes for the integrity of his spirit; writing keeps him together, keeps him whole. But in the process, he often unearths certain truths and deep philosophies of life that connect not just to him, but to all of mankind. His words offer hope, strength and consolation to the numerous souls who are otherwise immersed in a world of struggle and suffering, and they become the medium through which his work reaches out to the world. A true writer gives- to those who are in need of his words. But left to himself, the true writer has no desire for name, fame or publicity. In fact, he often finds himself intimidated by attention and expectation; he is comfortable in his anonymity. It is his work that he loves. It is his engagement with life and with his writing that he loves and desires. It is this that he aspires for- the ability to engage with himself powerfully so as to be able to write.

Throughout the history of literature, various works have been published and written anonymously, often due to their political or controversial nature, or merely for the purposes of the privacy of their authors, among other reasons. 

There are so many good reasons to write: revenge, passion, the purging of grief or despair. The love of beauty, the exposure of villainy. The recording of a life (one’s own, or someone else’s) for preservation. Or one might hope to inform later deliberations about history, as Thucydides did: “[If my work] be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.” And then there is the matter of fame, in the present or in the future. How many do not write in hopes of attracting the admiration of a distant posterity? With what awe does the ordinary scribbler contemplate the glorious achievements of Chaucer, Cervantes, or Fielding! In silence, in secret, perhaps he dares to imagine himself in their company, in ages yet to come.

One kind of writer, at least, is immune to the lure of fame: the anonymous writer. No name, no literary glory. What would possess someone to go to all the trouble of writing a book and then take no credit for having done so? What compulsion drives this strangest of artists?

Anonymous is more than a pseudonym. It is a stark declaration of intent: a wall explicitly thrown up, not only between writer and reader, but between the writer’s work and his life.

A writer is indeed a personality-type, and deep empathy lies at the core of that personality. Empathy is often a misunderstood term. Though many people understand that empathy is different from sympathy, they perceive empathy as a phenomenon akin to kindness or compassion.

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Empathy is the ability to dissociate from the self and become the ‘other’ momentarily, feeling the vibes and currents of the other, experiencing the other.

The ‘other’ could refer to inanimate bodies too- one can empathize with the river, the wind, the moving cloud, or with any inanimate force in the environment.

It is this empathy that allows writers to perceive life in inanimate bodies- to perceive the spirit of the river, the spirit of a forest, the spirit of a mountain, each different from the other and unique. It is this empathy that enables a writer to perceive the spirit of all living creatures inhabiting this planet. It is this empathy that enables a writer to perceive the wounded, shattered and fragmented mind that often lies beneath the aggression and violence demonstrated by an individual. It is this empathy that enables a writer to read people’s secret thoughts, decipher people’s underlying motivational drives, differentiate between fake/manipulative and authentic statements or acts.

It is this empathy that weaves the writer inseparably into the fabric of the universe so that everything that affects the universe is his own concern. He is pained by the war in another continent, he is pained by the stories of rape and murder, he is pained by the suffering inflicted on the poor by governments and capitalists, he is pained by the human assaults on nature.

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This empathy makes him a ‘feeler’; his perceptive ability is strong- in intensity, range and duration. His perceptions are intense; they encompass a broad range of stimuli, and they last for a long duration, knocking at the doors of his mind, urging him to act and deliver.It is this urge that eventually drives him to writing.

This empathy defines the artist in general- be it a writer, painter, sculptor, scientist or teacher and propels him to rise above the pain and suffering of his world.

Often, personal trauma plays an important role in a writer’s self-discovery. The writer is in a state of constant inability to fit in and to conform to the ways of the world around him. This creates persistent conflict in his mind, and the drive therefore, to resolve this conflict. The writer discovers that he is unable to express his personality freely in the world because convention and reality impose restrictions on him. The world therefore suppresses the writer. Often, there is a suppressed world within a writer- a beautiful world that he is constantly trying to retrieve. The writer is sensitive to the sharp contrast between two emotional worlds- the bitterness of his experiences and the rich possibility of a fantasy. It is this contrast that contributes to the beauty of the world in his mind.

Initially, the writer finds his escape in reading, and in other sources of aesthetic engagement. He connects to words that resonate with the suppressed world within him. As the writer reads extensively, the words find their way into his unconscious. The deep empathy enables the writer to experience the words as his own. The barrier between the words and his emotions is broken down progressively. It is then that he learns to translate his own emotions into words. The writer is often self-conscious. He may stammer and stutter when spoken to. But left to his spontaneity, his perceptions knock powerfully on the doors of his mind and he creates magic with his words. As the writer matures, his empathy causes him to expand the horizons of his mind to embrace a larger segment of the world. He awakens to the vast expanse of human conditions- poverty, illness, loss of a loved one, natural calamities and man-made disasters, death, oppression, and much more. It is then quite natural that his mind is never quiet, for it feels the torments of a universe.

So, coming back to the question that I was trying to answer here- ‘What is your advice to young aspiring writers?’. I would say the question loses its significance in this context. However, my advice to society would be to create opportunities for children- opportunities to engage with their environment, with stories and books, with their own perceptions. The true writer would automatically discover himself in the process. It is when such opportunities are absent (as is the case with our current education system) that children never discover their potential- a scenario that breeds mental unrest and mental illness.

To the writer (the writer personality), my advice would be- preserve your anonymity. With the advent of blogging, self-publishing and numerous platforms to ‘advertise’ , ‘promote’ and ‘market’ one’s writing, the writer often gets distracted from his path.

I remember reading somewhere that psychologically, one must be a nobody. To the world, we may be many things. But to ourselves, we must be a nobody. That is when we write best- when we uncover some truth of significance to the world, for we do not shield us from ourselves. All other writing is only our means of appeasing our bruised ego. I think that is also why failures contribute more to ‘growth’ than do achievements. Failures provide us an opportunity to be a nobody and be comfortable with it.

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