Note: This was first posted on my blog at work.
Dear Budding Writer,
I must confess that I am not a writer. Neither am I, a scholar of literature. I also feel that it is absolutely imperative that you are aware of the fact that I haven’t read any of the usual Page 3 diet of fiction and non-fiction, none of the Booker prize winning books and “Five Point Someone”. I must also confess that my reading of non Page 3 literature is also highly restricted. All these facts would make me grossly unqualified to offer any sort of advice.
Yet, I write this letter for two reasons. Firstly, I feel that the rules of excellence are the same, no matter the field. And for this matter, this could be a letter to a budding whatever. Secondly, I chose to write to you, the budding writer, because I see many of your kind in this forum. While people read your work, offer their comments, no one has taken it upon themselves to address issues that every writer faces. I feel that these issues are important and those who did address these issues before, have left this organisation and those who can now, don’t want to. And therefore, I take it upon myself to address them.
Before anything, intentions are very important. I believe nobody here, in this forum, is writing to put food on the table. And so, nobody is under the pressure to pander to a paying audience to sustain existence. In a way, this provides a lot of freedom. The boundaries of your imagination and thoughts are limited only by the frontiers of your own mind and not by the frontiers of your paying audience. You are free to push these frontiers how much ever you want and not be bridled by the unwillingness of your audience to push their own boundaries. So sit down and ask yourself the question: “Why do I write?” Do you write to express your thoughts, ideas and imaginings through the medium of the written word? Would you continue to write even if no one were to read your work? Or, is your writing simply pandering to an audience for some ego maintenance?
Technology has allowed mediocrity to be showcased and worse, appreciated and hailed in unprecedented ways, much more than it has helped in unearthing hidden talent. The natural human yearning for recognition coupled with the ease of technology has ensured that this vicious epidemic grows exponentially, proportional to availability and access. Familiar scenes of two-year olds being hailed as the next Picasso for a few random lines and circles with their first set of crayons or four-year olds being hailed as the next Mozart after they manage to press consecutive keys in an octave are now being played over and over again on cyberspace. Only now, we have twenty year olds and forty year olds and seventy year olds vying for page views, digg hits, comments and being hailed as “the next big thing”. It is a delicate structure of ego maintenance for everyone in the game.
It is easy to get lost in phony praise and unsubstantiated criticism. But there is also the grave danger of ignoring genuine comments. How does one make the fine distinction? I would suggest that one should look for the maturity, in one’s critics, to understand at the meta-level. It is at this level that one agrues not on the merits of the outcomes but on the merits of the procedure or process that produced the outcome. This is the level where one is willing to be unshackled, even if it were only for the purpose of criticism, of identities that we possess – inherited, thrust upon or assumed. These are the people who will tell you not just their beliefs but why they believe. And it is these people who will tell you not only what they liked or disliked in your writing, but why they think so. Find fault,if any, in how they tied their whats to their whys but be gentle to their whys and whats.
Of course, not all are capable of providing such criticism. Keep a look out for the ratio. If the ratio is too large for comfort, it is time to move on. Move to another forum. The signs are tell-tale. Work which you think is mediocre get fabulous praise. Recently, I had a nice laugh with a friend who posted something on his blog, something that he thought was mediocre, and got great comments. He was later subject to a sound thrashing from his wife for the quality of his work. Is the number of readers who fail to grasp the central theme of your work or the complexity of ideas, growing each time you post something? Are you consciously exercising a constraint on your vocabulary? A friend of mine shared a quote that is often attributed to Einstein: “You can make things simple but not simpler.” Not often used in the context of literature, I feel it is appropriate for writing as well.
It all comes down to priorities. If you think that writing is important to you and that you need to continually improve, be ready to move and move when the time comes. You are bound to feel a tinge of guilt and question yourself of elitism. No. There is no issue of superiority complex here. And, hell no! By moving on, you are not classifying people as lower mortals. We all have our places in the grand scheme of things and it just happens that you are in the wrong place. For your own good (and probably for everybody else’s sake as well), find the right one. The human race could do better “if the square pegs found their square holes and the round pegs found their round holes”!
Last week, I had to review some code. I was shocked to find that the programmer had stuffed the entire application into three classes in the default package. My first thought was to locate a link on the internet about code maintenance and share it with him. But, I had never read anything about code maintenance! It was almost natural. Thinking back, I figured that I was exposed to a fair amount of good code (unlike the programmer who was new to the art) that it became second nature. I learnt a lesson that day: You can’t write good code if you haven’t seen good code. This hold for almost anything that one does. You can’t excel in anything if you aren’t aware of excellence.
Applying this lesson to writing, one must read much more than one writes. Read post-modern. Read the classics. Read Shakespeare. Even read the King James. Trace the history of the written word. Love the language in which you write and learn its history and evolution. Read and learn. Read and learn. Yes, be careful to not let the study influence you to an extent that you become a scholar of literature instead of being a writer. Remember, the problem is not that you started with “Five Point Someone” but that you stopped with “Five Point Someone”.
My last note is about something that is anathema to the SMS generation: spelling, grammar and punctuation. These attributes of writing and language are now detested by a generation suffering from attention deficiency disorders. These three constitute the aesthetics of writing. They complete the art, just like a final polish, a final coat or the final crescendo. If your writing is to be read by anyone other than you, due respect is to be given to spelling, grammar and punctuation. They enable the reader to concentrate on comprehension rather than reading. More importantly, they avoid ambiguity and allow clear transfer of ideas. If your thoughts gallop while your writing tries hard to keep pace with it, try free writing. Roughly scribble down your ideas first. Pay no attention to sentence construction, grammar, punctuation or spelling. Once the ideas have been jotted down, expand them. Make sure that you check and recheck. Get your work reviewed. This would be the least that is expected of any writer. While comparing oranges to apples might be inappropriate, we all expect something common from our oranges and apples – to be fresh and clean.
Have fun writing.