Will the things we wrote today, sound as good tomorrow? Elton John
I don’t know what it is, something in the air perhaps, some non-malignant bug that seems to affect (in a nice way) most people I know. In case you’re wondering what this incoherent babbling is all about, I am referring to the hobby of writing. I employ the word ‘hobby’ advisedly, as this is aimed at amateurs such as yours truly, and not the gnarled professionals who receive obscene advances from publishers even before they have put pen to paper, or finger to keypad. Everyone I know seems to be afflicted by the writing virus. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. As is self-evidently true, I am doing it myself even as I write this. If that makes any sense. Persiflage apart, I have not known a period of time, this past decade, when so many people from all walks of life have been smitten by the act of committing their thoughts and feelings to the written word. Blogs, newspaper columns, short stories, full length novels, biographies, translations of little known, albeit notable, vernacular efforts into English – the list is endless. Journalism and authorship are taking mincing steps, hand in hand, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. And those steps appear to be morphing into giant strides. Fiction or non-fiction, they are all grist to the budding writer’s insatiable mill, even if the harried readers are hedging their bets. And a very good thing too.
Part of the reason for this flurry of literary activity can be put down to a friendly ecosystem, to employ a very au courant expression, that has made it easier for the armchair writer, so to speak, to find his or her efforts instantly on the printed page. If not actually on paper, as in a magazine or a newspaper, then certainly in the online space, where you are constantly being exhorted by a plethora of blogs and other digital platforms to write, write and write. What is more, if your vaulting ambition runs to publishing a book, there are a number of organisations that are ready to extend a helping hand. There is a cost attached to this, and not too much rigour goes into the assessment of quality, so before you can say ‘Midnight’s Children,’ your book is out – both in printed and digital formats. Goosebumps time. These publishing outfits are also well organised and anyone can buy your book through one of many online shopping sites.
The presence of Google search and similar engines precludes the risk, for the budding writer, of committing silly mistakes by way of spelling, erroneous quotations and the like. Unless you are doing it deliberately. Though you need to state a clear preference towards either American English or the Queen’s English, if you get my drift. I tend to lean towards the latter, but that’s just me. If your taste runs to saying ‘My bad’ instead of ‘I am sorry’, that’s your funeral. Though Microsoft Word gives you an option to plug in to British English, the software reverts to the American default setting, when your attention is drawn elsewhere. Sneaky devils. Which is why I find it inexcusable when errors abound like a rash even in established newspapers. Double negatives, apostrophes wrongly placed, the colon /semi-colon confusion and much more. Lazy is what I call it. For a highly readable tutorial on the subject, get hold of Kingsley Amis’ The King’s English. It should reside permanently at your workplace.
That being the case, there is a profusion of wannabe writers who are putting out their material at a phenomenal rate. During the course of the last few years, it has been my experience that I cannot throw a stone at a large family or social gathering without beaning someone who is either in the process of commencing a novel, or someone who has just put out a novel. ‘Pssst, have you read my new novel?’ is a standard conversational ice breaker. If not a novel, certainly a book of some description or the other. Uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces, they are all at it. The same goes for friends. As I am tapping at the keys of my desktop, I have at least four good friends who have mailed partial drafts of their recent efforts for me to give an ‘unbiased opinion.’ As I belong to the same fraternity, I am honour bound to go through the material and offer my free and frank views. Be warned, however. It’s always a challenge to divine how frank is frank! If you’re too frank, you may find yourself one friend short! Oftentimes, this can eat into your own writing time, but hey, that’s what friends are for, as that famous hit song tells us.
Speaking for myself, I prefer to keep my writing counsel to myself, and unleash the verbiage on an unsuspecting audience, and the devil take the hindmost. I am essentially a writer of columns, like this one, so I do get fairly swift feedback which I can either take serious note of or loftily ignore. The general rule of thumb being that if you do get a response from friends, it is bound to be constructive, and if others have not responded, it’s a bummer or worse still, it has not even been read. Sometimes, not always, I ask my wife to cast her beady eye over the material, she being a student of literature and a former publishing and advertising workaholic. To such a one, proof reading and informed comment come naturally. As a former advertising professional myself, I can vouch for that. Those long hours burning the midnight oil at sweaty printing houses in Calcutta, proof reading annual reports and corporate brochures, did not go to waste. What is more, the distaff side is quite adroit at pointing out inconsistencies in logic or dodgy development of an idea, and I usually defer to her delicately expressed nolle prosequi.
There is a much touted school of thought that youngsters don’t read any more. This is a gross exaggeration, even patently untrue. They may not read the newspapers, but they do all their reading on their mobile phones, which, admittedly, is done more functionally than to in any way enhance their literary appreciation. Books continue to be sold in large quantities worldwide and there is no evidence to suggest there is a general falling off in the reading habit. Cynics have commented that the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings tomes, while grandly adorning bookshelves across the world, don’t actually get read. Kids, so say the naysayers, watch the subsequent movie releases and all their knowledge comes from the celluloid versions. Anyhow, neither Rowling nor Tolkien are complaining. The marketing mavens at the publishing houses are doing a sterling job and the cash tills are ringing like every day was Christmas. To cap it all, the books come in handy if the famous author is visiting your neck of the woods, and you can cadge an autograph! Not to mention, a selfie.
That’s another reason why so many people want to write. You never know. You could, out of the blue, luck it and hey presto, you’ve written a best seller. Here in India, the Chetan Bhagats, Amishes, Shobha Des and quite a few others of their ilk are providing inspiration to so many to sit in front of their computers and await the Muse. And I haven’t even mentioned the Arundhati Roys, the Amitav Ghoshes and the Vikram Seths whose literary avoirdupois is on a higher plane than those mentioned earlier.
All in all, I can think of worse things for people, young and old, to be obsessed with than writing. If you have a penchant for it, go grab a pen or start depressing those keys on your word processor. And don’t fret yourself over writer’s block. What was that someone said about the monkeys? That the law of probability will see to it that The Complete Works of Shakespeare will get typed up if a clutch of monkeys kept going at it long enough!
Finally, there are many eminent writers who have said some wonderfully inspiring things about the art and craft of writing. I settled on this quote from Franz Kafka, who wrote some pretty grim stuff in his time, but he was brilliant at it. ‘Don’t bend, don’t water it down, don’t try to make it logical, don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’
You said a mouthful there, Comrade Franz.