Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Caricaturing Yourself: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

You know, I used to be able to write. It wasn't an effort at all, it was just how I was. Some people laugh when they are tickled, some cry at the movies, and I used to write. Didn't everybody? I still can't understand why some people say that they can't write. I mean, people can talk, can't they? I used to hear my own voice in my head, speaking my thoughts out loud in my head, and all I used to do was transcribe it, put it down on paper. Didn't everybody do that? What's so difficult about it? One day in high school I felt a rhythm beating inside me, so I wrote a poem along to that rhythm about all my friends to whom I had given Star Trek nicknames. English class was the most fun, it was so easy. You want to know what I did on my summer vacation? I'll tell you about how I ran throughout the house like a delivery girl helping my parents pack. About the person I love the most? I wrote an essay in primary school about my favourite uncle - a young man - who had left Oman for Canada - almost like exile in the 80s - and how he'd recently had heart surgery, so I wanted everyone to pray for him because I loved him so much. He used to take me out for joyrides in his black car when everyone else had just about had it with my 5-year-old self. He'd buy me red nailpolish and chips and play disco music in his car. My father had asked the teacher to let him keep my test paper with him for an extra day so he could make copies of my essay and sent it to my uncle in Canada and to my grandfather in Lucknow. I'd seen my grandfather whimpering when he read the part about my wanting everyone to pray for my uncle - his youngest son - in a country that was too far away for all of us then.

English class was so easy, even the non-creative part of it, like the letter writing and the reading comprehension questions, because I'd hear the answers in my head except rearranged in a better more smart-alecy way from the usual way we were taught to answer. All I had to do was write down what I was hearing. Sometimes I'd see the words in my head - big, black, with sharp edges, like stone-and-mirror buildings. Didn't everybody? Sometimes I'd think of a cool scenario and wonder how it would pan out. So I'd write that out as a story and see where it took me. I once wrote an essay on the spot with other contestants about the state of India on the 50th year of her independence. I just wrote out whatever my family used to discuss at home all the time, and I won - third place. I had just gone out there and written down my thoughts on the matter. I didn't give it a second thought. And I'd won. I hadn't even prepared or practiced or read a bunch on that topic before going. I know the other kids had been coached by their parents and teachers and did not really care about the topic anyway. I'd just gone and put down my thoughts and left the testing room. That had been prize-worthy? But it had not been an effort at all. Wasn't it supposed to be? Writing for me was like how some people sweat when they're warm, it just happens. Doesn't it for everybody? I wasn't doing the writing for anybody else. I was always laughing and amusing myself with it, and I didn't understand why anybody would call it talent. I mean, everyone took English class, right? We had all learned how to write essays and letters and telegrams, right? I did my assignments like everybody else. It was fun because it felt like a game. Talk, they'd say, and I'd speak. I had something to say, so I'd say my piece and be done with it. I'd never look back, the way I wouldn't go back to discuss a test paper. Why would anybody want to go back and dissect things that way? There was no great design to it, no great strategy that made it work, it just happened like a flash of temper, a cloudburst, and it was gone. Whoever went back to judge the mechanics of rain so that that exact storm could be reproduced exactly that way? Why would anyone want to? I had talent, they used to say. I don't know why they would say that. It didn't feel like talent. I didn't like it when they would call it talent. It made me feel like I was obligated to repeat my performances, the ones that worked, and abandon the ones that didn't stir applause. Cut-and-paste myself onto my own self. Cut out parts of myself. Replicate the best thunderstorms, light by light, thunder by thunder, like a carefully coordinated Pink Floyd concert.

Somewhere along the way I became self-conscious. I had talent, I had been told so many times, so that meant that I was supposed to become a 'writer'. What is that? I'd been writing since kindergarten, and I'd first been published at the age of 7. I'd first been paid for writing at 9. But I wasn't a writer yet. Real writers write books, so I promised myself to have a book published by 24. I made that promise to myself one night sitting in my dorm room alone in America. I had been young, not older than 22. It felt like it should be a novel, that's what the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens and all those other English writers that Indian students are raised on had written. I started a novel on my old PC in my dorm room - it was supposed to be a post-apolcalyptic futuristic adventure story of human rediscovery, it was supposed to be work that would give the world insight into the human condition, but I just could not get past the wall after the first few pages. I felt so ashamed. I had no talent at all.

In the real world, in America, I discovered that real writers got published by the big magazines. I started small. I turned a few stories in to a magazine that was run by the English department at my university. I had written those stories in the style of an up-and-coming genre in the Western world in those days - English-speaking South Asian writers. That's what I was, so I wrote like that. The magazine never called me back. But I had always been told that I had talent. Maybe I didn't really. My grand gestures of genius shattered in the brittle breeze of anonymity. I felt so ashamed. I was 19 or 20. I stopped writing around that time, mostly because I had nothing to say anymore. My technical education was making me so right-brained, I had to worry about life and death and immigration and God and terrorism, I was so tired, and I didn't want to embarass myself anymore. I had no talent, but I wouldn't tell anyone that. I would just not say anything at all. I was trying to be a writer but I couldn't do it. There was nothing in my mind anymore, no running dialogue, the Oracle had stopped speaking. Without it I was useless. I had nothing to transcribe anymore. So it had never really been me that was talented.

Around the time I stopped writing, I also stopped speaking. Stopped speaking my mind, stopped taking a stand. I didn't know who I was in this new country, I hated what I was studying at university. I tried to sound like all the engineers but I couldn't. It was such an unnatural forced way of being. Who talks like that anyway? People usually talk about what they feel, and everyone around me was always talking about binary code and learning the languages of machines. I tried to talk like that, but I couldn't. I had failed at writing, and I was failing as a technical person, despite all the money that my family was spending on me - and reminding me about - on my university education. I used to be good at everything once upon a time, and I had vague memories of never feeling this pressure inside me to just become what people wanted me to be. Everyone else seemed to be doing it fine, becoming whatever their degrees were teaching them to become. Then why was I having such difficulty blending in? I had been trying so hard too. So there had to be something wrong with me, I couldn't seem to do anything right. I wouldn't tell anyone that, though. I just kept going, smiled harder, and people thought I was doing so well. I tried so hard because I didn't want to fail at this too. The only writing I did in those days were emails and university papers. I used a lot of 'therefore', 'herein', 'in fact', 'as follows' in my writing. My emails were quite long, and people used to tell me that my capitalisations and and grammar was always perfect, that one could tell that that email had come from me. I heard from people that my emails were always so much fun to read, that they were like stories, but I was no writer. I could never be like Ghalib or Jhumpa Lahiri. It hurt sometimes so I tried to not think about it. But it would come to me late at night when I'd be trying to sleep.

Once I started my fulltime IT job, I joined a writing club and attended a number of meetings and conferences where I heard speakers - poets, published novelists, editors, agents - talk about mindmapping, character development, paragraph structure, punctuation, character archetypes, manuscript formatting, cover letters, niche markets, genres, submissions, pitches. I wanted to learn how to write because I obviously didn't know how to. I wanted to learn from the people who had done it. I had to compensate for my lack of talent. I even subscribed to Writer's magazine. There was so much I didn't know - dangling modifiers, misplaced phrases. I felt even worse. I had never known any of these things when people used to say that I had talent, when I had been published before. I must've been really green. I felt so ashamed of myself. So I tried to learn as much as I could from as many people in the business. I learned about the 3-act structure, about opening with a hook, I learned about active versus passive voice, I learned about opening a book with action. I knew all these things now. And you know what? I still couldn't write that big amazing book that would make me a writer. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a Muslim and sent a cover letter, synopsis, and sample chapters to over 100 publishers in the US, and most did not respond. A handful wanted to see the rest of the book, but turned me down after. One publisher who'd wanted so badly to see my work started avoiding me later and then told me angrily that my writing had put him to sleep. I had been surprised at how rude he had been, considering how he had been pursing me himself. Another editor was really nice to me, and though he didn't buy my book, he told me that he had liked my voice.

My voice, my voice. It had stopped speaking to me.

But I liked the aspect of hanging around other writers. They used to talk about hearing voices all the time, even the ones who had written 50 novels. Fifty novels! Ten even! I couldn't even write one. I couldn't write anything. I was not a writer, just someone whose grammer and punctuation was clean. I wrote 4 books for a US publisher later, my first book coming out on my 28th birthday. My publisher said that I was the best writer they had ever seen, and that their staff would take first dibs on assignments that involved working with me. They said that they never had to make any major changes to my manuscripts. I had a couple of stories appear in two major US magazines that were founded by Norman Vincent Peale. I even dropped by their office and met their staff in New York City, right across from the Empire State Building. I got a couple of fan emails because of the stuff I wrote. But it was all non-fiction. I was not a writer. I had half a dozen stories and a novel, all unpublished or abandoned in the early stages, sitting in my computer. But I lost count of the number of people who'd told me that I should never stop writing. But writing what? I couldn't write anything. I had evidence in my PC. The pressure inside me was growing, so I gave in and started a blog. For myself, for my sanity. I used to write a personal diary when I was a little kid in school, but I'd lost the habit once I'd started university. I picked that habit back up after I read about Anne Frank in a book about influential women in history. Her writing sounded like mine.

Nobody was more shocked than I when my writing assignments were praised at the NDTV media institute in Delhi. Praised a lot. By people I thought were smart. But it didn't add up. I'd given up trying to sound talented by then. I'd been blogging and writing my diary for a few years, and our writing assignments were supposed to be personal reflections, so I would just write on. It frightened me and disturbed me when I was appreciated. I had no talent, I wasn't even using big words or thinking too much about something great to say. It was upsetting. It was confusing. I wasn't sure if I was being mocked. It frightened me. It was cruel. I hated being introduced as the 'trained writer'. I hadn't even figured out how to be a writer, let alone a trained one. I don't think there is any such thing. I had no talent at all. I knew so many people who had written so many novels, they'd churn them out the way my mother makes rotis. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. Punch, whack, slap, fire, and roti. They were the writers, not I.

But now I can't stop writing, I have so many diaries full of words, I can't stop reading, I can't stop writing. None of it is about the human condition. It's just about me and what I see. I don't know how other people feel. I don't know how someone in post-apocalyptic France would feel. I just don't care about being talented anymore. It's tiring trying to become Salman Rushdie. It's tiring trying to be fascinating. No one's writing a book about me or making a movie based on my life. I'm not famous, and I don't have famous friends. I don't think I would trade my oddball collection of friends for famous ones anyway. I have always liked Stephen King's writing a lot because he talks straight, and it feels like he's talking to me. I'm talking to you, I'm talking to you now. I've been hearing whispers in my head lately, visions of images that need to be described, people whose stories need to be told, bits of life that will haunt me forever and show up at the edges of my dreams unless I tell you about them. I'm not doing it to expand my resume, I don't care for the talent. The voices are talking back to me again, they're showing me pictures again, and you need to see them too. I don't care if people don't agree with what I have to show them and even if they get offended. That's their right. But if the voices stop talking to me again, I will have no one to take dictation from. And then I'll just be useless. Like a forgotten pencil lying at the back of the dark closet of your childhood.


Priyanka S said...

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant post, Khadija - I would like to add more but I seriously do not have the right words at my disposal at the moment to do justice to *your* words. Honestly. Rather, I feel that whatever I will have to say will sound so trite and platitude-laden in comparison to the stark honesty, beauty, and pathos of your post.

I shall merely end with - please don't stop writing, please don't stop talking. I will be forever listening, at least...as will be many others, I am sure.

Anonymous said...

A voice lost and found is a precious thing. And not likely to be lost again...not when someone is so brutally honest with oneself. I too will be listening. Good luck!

Khadija Ejaz said...

Where's the heart emoticon on this thing?