Category Archives: Writing

Do the writers you read influence how you write?

I once read somewhere – and I don’t know whether it’s true or not – that the renowned writer Vikram Seth never reads lest he gets influenced by the other writers’ writing style. On the other hand, in his autobiographical book Salman Rushdie says that he has always been a voracious reader.

To an extent I do agree that you tend to write like writers you like. There was a time I was really influenced by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens and Dostoevsky. Back in those days there wasn’t much choice available. There was no Amazon.com, no Flipkart.com, and to be frank I didn’t even have much money to buy books. So most of the books I read were either given to me as gifts, or lent to me by friends and relatives or I got them issued from some library, mostly the British Council. So it was mostly the classics, and that’s how I wrote in my initial days. Obviously the writing was constrained, full of long, antiquated words and I spent more time trying to imitate my favourite writers than actually telling stories.

Letting yourself be influenced by your favourite writers isn’t as bad as it may seem when much stress is put on being unique. If writing like a particular writer gets your literary juices flowing, then why not? Actors acquire the demeanour of their favourite actors (have you ever noticed the similarity between Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Al Pacino? Even Gregory Peck and Dev Anand?). Singers imitate other singers. Even painters imitate the painters who influence them. Remember that initially it’s not important whether you’re copying somebody’s style or you’re creating your own style, what matters is how much you write. Many writers don’t succeed because they don’t write much. And eventually, as you keep on writing, you begin to find your own voice.

 

Khushwant Singh passes away

Khushwant Singh

We weren’t married yet when Alka (my wife) and I had a big argument over Khushwant Singh. I had just completed his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice and I was quite smitten by the author, less by his writing prowess and more by his wild lifestyle – something in the way he had lived his life appealed to me a lot according to my frame of mind at that time. But at that time I also had a big crush on Arundhati Roy, you can easily make out how I used to think during those days.

My future wife on the other hand found them quite disgusting, with his attitude towards women and general morality. In the heat of the argument she said that he was not better than a thief, and if I liked him, I too were not better than a thief. If I remember, we didn’t speak for some time.

Before the age of the Internet we got plenty of time to read. My father used to get The Hindustan Times and there I used to come across Khushwant Singh’s regular column called With Malice Towards One and All with a cartoon of him sitting in a lightbulb. I remember I used to enjoy reading the column but I guess it didn’t make much of an impact on the preference of my newspaper when, when it had stopped mattering to my father which newspaper we got, I switched over to, first, The Indian Express, and then later on to The Pioneer. Not even once I missed the column and in fact, I recall reading it when one of my Facebook friends yesterday posted the title of the column as a tribute to the diseased author.

The first story I read of Khushwant Singh was The Portrait of a Lady, a short story that was in my English course book in eleventh class. One of my favorite stories in the compilation.

My wife is quite well read so obviously she knew more about Khushwant Singh than I did. She knew how he constantly had extramarital affairs and how he treated women around him. She knew how he took advantage of people and whatever plum postings that he had landed were basically the result of the various contacts and the ass licking he had done. Even in the autobiography he had mentioned his various affairs and how his wife was always in distress due to that and then how when she almost left him, he grew depressed and visited the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara to pray which, now I understand, is blatantly hypocritical. I didn’t know that he was a big Congress stooge, he was very close to the Gandhi family and he was among the few editors who openly supported the emergency Indira Gandhi imposed on the country. He always made sure that powerful people knew him and liked him.

This, I don’t particularly hold against him. I started disliking him when I found him to be in the same category of people I normally don’t respect – people who are secular not because they believe in secularism, but just in order to pander to a particular, I would call profitable, ideology. Khushwant Singh belongs to a band of intellectuals who have an illogically soft spot for Pakistan in general, and Muslims in particular. Now, before you throw up and call me names, I have nothing against Muslims and I consider them as much a part of India as a person from any other religion. That is not the point. I am among those who believe that the real problem in India is that we pay too much attention to which person belongs to which religion. People like Khushwant Singh constantly try to instill fear among Muslims against Hindus and keep the cauldrons of mutual suspicion boiling. Even if there is a problem, and even if the Muslims are at fault, they will always blame the Hindus. Not because they actually think that the Hindus are at fault, it’s just that since the Muslims are in minority and the vote bank suits their political masters, they should be given a longer rope compared to the majority community. Many of the country’s problems originate from exactly this mentality.

Then I came across this text by him, on none other than Arun Shourie:

“I stopped associating with Arun Shourie. I read of his rise to eminence as a cabinet minister and a member of the BJP’s think-tank. His book on Dr B.R. Ambedkar offended Dalits. He was roughed up by them while presiding over a meeting in Mumbai. Being hurt himself he wanted to hurt other people.

“He has taken every opportunity to display his disadvantaged son in his wheel chair. I feel very sorry for him but no longer admire him.”

Arun Shourie normally takes his son, Aditya, to various ceremonies and functions because one, he completely adores his son, and two, he takes him along because he wants to share every proud moment with his son. If people like Khushwant Singh cannot see a family with a disabled person beyond the disability, it is not the problem of the family, but the person judging them. Whatever political opinion Arun Shourie has and whatever acrimonious feelings Khushwant Singh may have developed because of that, it doesn’t mean that Arun Shourie’s sons disability has impacted his political views. This made me realise that he was not just an opportunist but he was also cheap person. Good that he never had a disabled son or a disabled daughter because he would have been a terrible father.

So as a writer I don’t have any problem with him, and in fact he wrote quite well, and more than that, he was consistent. No matter how screwed up his value system was, at the core of his heart he was a writer.

Then in the later years I found that his father, Shobha Singh, was responsible for the persecution of Sardar Bhagat Singh by testifying that he actually saw the young revolutionary throwing the bomb whereas from his position or from the timings it was not possible that he could have seen Bhagat Singh. Why hold this against Khushwant Singh? Well, knowing that his value system was not in the right place, you can excuse him. But the remaining respect was lost, not respect, rather, the remaining tolerance was lost. Never even once he wrote about his father in one of his books.

Anyway, undoubtedly he was one of the greatest writers in contemporary India and even if grudgingly, I have to accept that. His death is an end of an era. I don’t resent the way he lived his life surrounded by whiskey and women, my only problem with him was his skewed sense of secularism.

Do writing classes help? Can you “learn” to write?

Taking writing classes

In India I don’t think we have this concept of taking up writing classes or writing courses to improve one’s writing as an aspiring writer. In the West, they not only have university level writing courses (I think, if I’m not wrong, we have some creative writing courses offered by some schools and universities) they also have “writing retreats” where aspiring writers (who can shell out a hefty fee) go to these exotic, picturesque locations and work on their manuscripts under a famous writer’s guidance.

This Guardian essay talks in favor of taking up writing classes and how they may help a writer. Here is a quote that justifies, rightly, taking up a professional writing class or course.

What lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it. Commentators sometimes say that writing can’t be taught; that beginning writers either have “it”, in which case they don’t need to be taught, or they don’t have “it”, in which case money and time is being wasted by the exercise. But writers can perfectly well have native ability, a feel for language, an inventiveness and a keen eye towards the world and still not quite understand how they can do something well, not once, but repeatedly. A good creative writing course will explore underlying principles of good writing – not to impose invented “rules” on writing, but to introduce ways of thinking about writing that are strong and purposeful. You could teach yourself how to make a chair by taking a lot apart, and experimenting with joists. A furniture-making course might school you in some unsuspected skills, and save you some time.

A lot depends on, as the above-quoted text says, whether you consider writing an inherent talent and skill or a craft that you can develop. It is a mix of many factors. Once you have realized that you have a talent, you want to improve it under the guidance of someone who knows how to channelize that talent. You may say that the greatest writers in the history never attended writing classes. Did Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy ever join a writing course? Did Agatha Christie? Charles Dickens? None of them. Still, they can be considered the masters of their craft.

You can also say that there are 16-year-old hackers who can give MIT software engineers a run for their money when it comes to creating the most intricate pieces of code. This is true in every field. Still, we have software engineers who cannot compete with amateur but motivated software programmers. There can be a singer in a remote village situated in a jungle who sings far better than a classical music maestro.

Still, why do people join institutions for learning and acquiring skills?

There are many levels of talent. Having a talent doesn’t mean you can make use of that talent. In its raw form even a diamond has no value – it needs to be cut and polished before it can be used in jewelry.

In the same manner, some writers can simply write and awe their readers and some writers need some guidance, some direction and some peer support before they can really express themselves. When you attend a writing class you are made to do many things that you otherwise won’t do, such as explaining various scenes, expressing thoughts, describing facial features, reading and interpreting literature and writing book and film reviews. You normally don’t do these things on your own. You are also constantly exposed to various writing forms of your classmates. You also get direct feedback and if you can use that feedback positively and constructively, it helps you become a better writer.

But do we actually have a famous writer (writer who has published many books and earned lots of money) who came from these classes? Although there are many highly known writers – both fiction and non-fiction – who never joined a writing class, do we have examples of writers who had joined writing classes or a writing course when they were young?

Writing a facial description

Describing a face

Update: When I published this blog post and posted the link on Facebook my brother-in-law thought I was going to describe Morgan Freeman. Here is my effort:

I was caught by surprise when the face behind the black, newly purchased fedoro hat suddenly aligted. Either he expected me to react in that manner or he was used to such reaction, whatever it was, he sat there with an air of non-chalance, looking sideways through his spectacled, droopy eyes, acknowledging my presence with a slight flourish of the unlit cigar he held in his right hand that bore a ring with strange insignia, on the little finger. I was expecting someone younger, as had been the impression on the phone. When I reached the seat closest to the coup-de-sac of the restaurant street, he seemed to be sleeping. There was no extra chair so I had to drag one from the nearby empty table. I had to shoo away a dog sitting under the chair and this had made him raise his head. I sat facing him without saying a word. For a moderately cold weather he seemed a bit overdressed with an overcoat and an Armani muffler.

“You look surprised,” he said, putting a German-language thick hardcover book he held in the left hand with a thud on the table and scratching his white but sparse balbo beard.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“Weren’t expecting a black man?” his tightly defined oblong face seemed to be going through an imperceptible chewing motion.

“Was expecting a younger man,” I paused, “and yes, a black man in a laidback Indian town trying to decode an ancient Sanskrit hymn isn’t a profile you can just simply ignore.”

Update ends

For the first time in my life I wrote a facial description while working on my book. Describing a face can be a bit tricky especially when you want to mould the description into the narrative you have been following so far. You don’t want to sound too mechanical. You may like to interpret the facial characteristics according to the worldview of the person (another character in the book) looking at the face being described. I mean, if A is introduced to B and if you need to describe how B looks, you don’t just start describing, you describe it according to how A sees and interprets B.

Why do you describe the face? Why not simply introduce a person as a name and then go on with the plot? Why linger upon the details?

Describing a face achieves two things: it helps you visualize the character and hence, get more involved with the story, and it also tells you what effect the facial features are having upon the person looking at the face and absorbing the facial characteristics. Suppose A likes chubby people and B is quite skinny. Suppose B has a stubby nose but A likes sharp noses. Maybe B has tied his or her hair into a tight knot while A loves free flowing hair. You know A is not going to feel attracted towards B, and if later on A gets attracted to B and they end up being together (in whatever form) some other factors need to be introduced.

You also describe a face to paint a particular picture of the person. Many writers take an esier route. A vile person normally has unpleasant features. A good person has pleasant features. You will rarely encounter a person looking like Snow White turning out to be a witch (unless it’s a horror story).

Writing isn’t always about working against the odds

Here is a nice piece on how sometimes people assume that in order to become a successful writer one has had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and whatnot whereas the truth might be totally different. The writer cites examples of two “successful” authors who pretended as if they had to make great sacrifices in order to create their works of art. This writer herself lives a comfortable life and hence is able to become a satisfyingly successful writer and when she was struggling to meet both ends meet she could hardly write.

May it be any field, when it comes to success and failure, nothing is written in stone. It depends on the individual. Many people say that they would have done something great had they not been hard pressed to make a living for themselves as well as their families. I think to an extent it is unfair, although not always, to blame your family members for your failures, or lack of success, if not out and out failures. Sometimes yes the difficulties ARE of such a scale that one doesn’t get enough time to concentrate on writing but then, there have been many successful writers who became successful not because they had enough time to write, but somehow they could find time to write.

Personally, I hate to put blame on people and things for whatever I do or don’t do. I have always wanted to be a writer and to a great extent, I AM (I write content for business websites) but in its true sense it’s not the writing I want to do. I want to be successful as (success means getting published and people purchasing my books) a writer. Does something stop me? Not at all. Yes, I need to earn a living, but fortunately I’m self-employed and I’m spared from many plebeian difficulties that people need to go through in order to earn money. My work comes to me rather than I have to go to work. Get plenty of time to write. I believe that even if I can devote 60 minutes to my literary writing I can really write some neat stuff. The problem with me is regularity rather than lack of time, and I think THIS is the case with most people. It is not that life doesn’t give them chances, the problem is that they don’t use the chances life gives them. By making literary writing an integral part of my daily scheduling, little by little I’m trying to make some progress.