For over a month now, I have stayed away from ink and paper. A sudden storm of self-doubt rendered it impossible to sit down at the desk and produce anything. I battled the irrational, though persistent, fear that failure is a form of contagion, and just as one area of life has already been contaminated by failure, so too would writing become another source of public and private shaming. I felt I needed someone’s permission in order to write, though it was not at all clear from whom I needed this permission. So I simply stayed away. The time that used to be filled with words became filled with random bits of information, with frivolity, and lists of consumerist desires.
For a while I felt oddly light-hearted, unburdened of my own expectations and those of others. I particularly did not miss the competitiveness that plagues writing groups – for all the emphasis on ‘community’, these groups can also be a place for unfairness and insincerity (but more on that later). Yet it became increasingly clear that I was also deprived of the joy that comes with creative work, the sense of fulfillment, of the inchoate and the serendipitous that I never felt with academic work. Without writing, I became a self I no longer recognized, or did not want to recognize, consumed by the vagaries of romantic fantasies and passing trends. During this one month hiatus, I shopped more than I have in a long while; I partied; I squandered time on dating websites and pandered to the whims of men. All that, I convinced my irrational self, were things I was supposed to be doing as a normal woman at this stage in my life, instead of swimming in narratives and dreaming of unborn novels.
But one month was all I could withstand of that side of the self, for the simple reason that without writing, what else is left for someone like me except consumerist obsessions, frivolities, and a largely meaningless day job? It is only through writing that I can learn to be something other than what I have always been.
On a recent trip, I received from friends many parcels of truth: about the poison that is regret; about the inevitable normalization of creative anxiety; about the joy that cannot be taken away. That joy is of course a completely private one, untainted by the fluctuating, and at times facetious, opinions of others. In a room of my own, I hope to rediscover that joy. Do we write for ourselves or for others? To whom do we offer this humble parcel of words and thoughts? What remains of the self outside the expectations of others? These are the questions that bounce off of the walls in my little room. More and more, I am inclined to conclude that while writing is a social product, publicly read and debated, it is ultimately, like all artistic endeavours, a form of personal becoming.
This quote from Haruki Murakami: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing…What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself…When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.”
There are times when writing is all discovery and light. Times when strands in the narrative coalesce, or a new facet of a character is dreamed up to change the story entirely. But beyond narratives, writing offers a way to engage with social issues, “to take part in a collective enterprise” as Calvino says, in a way I thought impossible outside the academe. It is a chance to arrest time – personal time and the times in which we live. The novelist’s voice, arguably, has far wider reach than the academic’s, if only I can earn the title of ‘novelist’.
In an effort to climb out of the defeatist narrative, I started re-reading my vast collection of quotes and essays from established writers about the art of writing, and increasingly got the sense that writing has everything to do with the self, not necessarily in a narcissistic way (though artistic production seems to require narcissism to an extent), but in a way that focuses self-examination, and pushes toward self-transformation.
Writing is about the re-writing of one’s own narrative, even if the narrative of failure is stubbornly resistant to editorial changes. Although I do not write anything that can be considered “autobiographical fiction”, so much of the work has been about discovering the limitations of the self and confronting those moments in the past when things seemed unforgiving. The self that writes is the self that Salman Rushdie describes as “a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved.” A rag-picker self, a bowerbird self. We can add to the heap of scraps: spaces lived, wrongs committed, remembered conversations, strangers on trains, digital images, and the thousand lines and narratives on the infinite bookshelf.
These lines from Seamus Heaney are still the most fitting: “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”