Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage
Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.
How she had changed. I watched her, both fascinated and repulsed at how she ate and talked at the same time, indifferently cramming the multi-layered chapatis and korma (that took me two hours to prepare, I wished I had that time back) into her mouth even as she passionately berated her husband and mother in law. It seemed impossible to connect her with the girl whom I thought I knew, who had grown up with me. Could a person change this much in five years?
I had last known her as a bright young business analyst who could make herself at home in the corporate workplace, anywhere in the world. The customers loved her. Each of our regional offices across the globe asked her to join them, though it may have had something to do with the way she cultivated people, the way she would give them her full attention, turning her face towards them, head tilted just a little to a side, speaking in those murmuring tones which reminded me of a cat which purred as it calculated its next move. I had once mistaken the fire in her eyes for ambition to dance on the glass ceilings, but what she did later showed that it had merely been an average human’s lust for life. She was really a very ordinary woman.
I wondered if she was assessing me the same way I was trying to piece together the missing parts of her story from the way she slouched over the table, with that inscrutable expression in her eyes. But she seemed too preoccupied with the happenings in her life to talk about anything else. Who thinks of anyone but themselves in today’s world? Even I wanted to know her story only because I am a writer and people are part of my raw material.
Had I changed in five years? But I had stayed back on the fringes of life, observing, analysing, recording and writing. Each story brings me revelations as I type, flashes of insight into the many dimensions of truth, of life. The last time we met, she told me that those who seek the meaning of life often end up not living it. Depends on what you mean by living. If it was relationships, they were no longer reliable, I said, forget security. She had replied that what matters is the courage to forge relationships, to dare to put yourself out there, to take the risk, which was the key to make a life. Of course she didn’t put it like that, rather something to that effect in cruder words, and ungrammatical sentences.
I willed her to stop the melodramatic monologue as she piled salad, and then dessert on her plate. Even a pulp fiction writer of those appalling bored-housewife-finds-herself novels would have balked to plot the commonplace scenes of domestic woes that she was harping on. I wanted to show her out once more, shoo her away from my beautiful new flat and return to the comfort and excitement of the pages of my novel.
Recently I had occasion to read out a piece of writing that I admired for its usage of language. I made a long long-list of extracts from both prose and verse, followed by several shortlists before deciding at the last moment to read the opening paragraph of Lolita.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
I shared how I had stayed away from the book for many years due to the disturbing nature of its premise. As an empath, I am easily disturbed by references of cruelty to animals or children, indeed reading about any form of hurt to the safety, dignity or respect of any vulnerable being affects me. Hence I stayed away from Lolita throughout my otherwise precocious reading life in my childhood and teens. But when I finally read the book, I was filled with regret on not having read it earlier. So enthralled was I by Nabokov’s rich prose, so mesmerised by the word play and use of language that I carried the book physically with me everywhere for the next few weeks, loathe to part with it.
A scholarly essay on the writerly techniques of Nabokov suggests that he matched the voice and tone of each of his books to its theme and as Lolita is about seduction, he styled the narrative in flowery, alluring language that would captivate his readers as they turned the pages. And how splendidly he does it. With these opening lines, he had me on the very first page.
Where does the compulsive urge to write come from? It comes out of the joy of creating and inhabiting new worlds. Sometimes it comes out of the pressure of deadlines. It comes from making it a routine. Sometimes it comes regularly, and sometimes it disappears for days, months at a time. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly.
Sometimes it comes from strong emotions that pour out as words without any effort other than watching one’s fingers move as they tap across the keyboard, flowing across the virtual page, like music.
When I first heard this poem, it struck me that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had expressed the agony and ecstasy of the process of writing so elegantly within these lines.
My pain is a song without a voice
My soul, a point without a mark
When it finds words, my pain
I will find my name and myself again
My soul, when it finds its sign
The secrets of the universe will be mine.
When these secrets are revealed,
My silence will find its voice
Then I would be sovereign of all that I see
The treasures of both worlds conferred upon me.
~ From the original by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”
From Mark Twain’s Top Ten Writing Tips
I realised the significance of this advice while in the midst of one of the many revisions of The Author and The Hero. As I removed the word ‘very’ from a few paragraphs, I found that the resulting prose read much better – the words were crisper and flowed smoother than before. It was almost like an epiphany. I went through the entire manuscript, finding each ‘very’ and replacing it wherever it was superfluous, which it was except in a few cases.
Many of us tend to write as we speak and unconsciously use ‘very’ to stress the quality of whatever is being described – very beautiful, very calm, very tall. Remember that removing the qualifier ‘very’ can make your prose sound stronger, most of the time.
An example from The Author and The Hero,
1) I had picked up the term ‘bigster’ from Kailash, who used it very frequently.
2) I had picked up the term ‘bigster’ from Kailash, who used it frequently.
The second sentence conveys the same meaning as the first, but sounds more crisp and confident.
I now have this on my editing checklist – To use ‘very’ (very) judiciously.