The Creative Process

A friend who asked me how I felt coming out of the anti-social networking closet received a grimace. “It’s like a body graft,” I replied. “As though I’m taking a bit of me and putting it somewhere else.”

In a manner it is, and I suspect that is what we’re all doing with every communication on any platform with anyone, and I mean that not only figuratively but also literally. According to Lawrence Krauss, every single atom in our bodies probably came from a star that died a million years ago. If that isn’t grafting through communication, I don’t know what is!

But this grafting is also the bottom line of creativity, as I am finding out. My sojourn from social networking was not intentional — it became so. While I was writing, time quite literally became metaphysical. I existed in terms of scenes; at completion of one, I would emerge from a hermit-like state to contact family and friends, only to realize several months, (mere moments since I’d begun), were passed.

In retrospect, I was a woman possessed. In what I can only describe as the deepest love affair of my life — for no other word can justify such a sentience of existence — my waking and sleeping were aligned to one purpose. Every second was lived with the intention of being useful to my creation.

Three years passed like that; and now preparing to publish, I figured there needed to be some fallow period, a time to rest.

But the truth is you’re not a writer unless you’re writing.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish 2006 Nobel laureate, once said of his creative process that as a young man he wrote everywhere, on absolutely anything. Show him a wooden chair, and he would take out his little notebook and write his thoughts on that. As an adult, though, he plans most of his work, he controls where the story goes.

I love him, and this is good advice, but I’ve decided I am an accidental writer. It’s not something I understand, and each time I’ve forced myself to write I’ve always come up with something less than satisfactory; but it is something I appreciate and am truly grateful for.

I hadn’t planned my book or the characters — I merely let them take over, and they walked me through the story so it was never a conscious act of story-building, but one rather of discovery — and a discovery which, inarticulately, felt right. I knew, without knowing why, that this is where the character had to be; and only much later, when the story took another turn, would that decision truly justify itself.

Writing is not easy, but it is harder still when it is demanded.

Which is why I have never been able to do x number of words a day. There have been times, agonizing times, when I’ve written nothing for weeks and months, and dreaded that perhaps I will never write again (yes, clearly the glass half-full type); yet there have been others when food, sleep and anything else that could potentially be a distraction was seen with suspicion lest it steal away precious seconds.

For me, writing has been a hunt.

A concept or an idea lingers somewhere just out of reach;and patiently, very slowly, without giving it any inkling that I am pouncing to attack, I approach from several directions until suddenly it rears its head up; and that is the moment of pure pleasure. To have grasped what I was always unconsciously heading towards.

I cannot imagine doing this as a job, from 9-5.

For as long as I hold the idea that it is not something I can control, I am in a strange way more confident — if I can feel the awe, mystery and nervousness of uncertainty, I am encouraged to try beat myself, improve thus my art.

Professional writers may tell you this may not work in the long run. In fact, John Cleese blatantly said “Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating.” And the more I write, the more I learn about the very creative process which engulfs me. What had seemed a kind of magic, where the door remained shut, and my footsteps carved a rhythm into the floor, now is an order of which I had been only latently aware.

This blog is an attempt to find that discipline in writing, which, merging all my interests, banishes the excuse of writer’s block, pushes past known boundaries and limitations, so that there is always more to be. The fact that this has been the central theme of my book, and in many ways of my life, is perhaps only fair. You cannot have lived with a singular idea for a long time without it having an impact on your thinking. I can only hope that the pursuit of objective thinking has not in fact made me a subjective observer.

To that end, please return to see a post here every couple of days. Keep me in check with your opinions and take on subjects lest I drift into a self-serving philosophy. Subscribe using the many tabs, and know I would love to hear from you. For a start, how and where do you create? Leave behind a webpage, a blog, photolinks or a comment.

Until then, may the space between your thoughts and words be small.

News, and Pulling a G.R.R

It had to happen, of course. Why wouldn’t it? It grieves me to say this, but I have to push back the date for the book launch sometime until September, while I struggle with the Indian and U.S IRS and Amazon/ Smashwords, trying to figure out taxation which as an independent author I would have to file. That’s what I mean when I say that I am pulling a G.R.R, however unlike Mr. Martin I don’t currently have hordes of fans infuriated at the delay in launch, although I’m thinking to have such fans might not be a bad thing!

But the book cover is out, thanks to my friend Sarat Kumar, who laboured over it and did not complain while I bugged him for re-edits. I have to say I absolutely love the cover, and here’s hoping you do to. Let me know what you think of it, and while I figure out the taxation I will try post more regularly.

:)

BOOK LAUNCH — 50 DAYS TO GO!

Image courtesy: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I know, it has been more than a couple of days which is why no casual observance of the world will suffice for this special blog post.

A little more than a month from now, I launch! And I couldn’t be more excited!

For a variety of colourful reasons, I’ve brought forward the date of publishing to August 11th. The final edit is being worked on, and in a couple of days I receive the first draft of the book cover — another reason for all the bubbling excitement. In the following weeks, I’ll put up the prologue and first chapter right here, and the cover, of course, when it is finalized. So despite the absence of these days, I hope you visit the page and share this excitement!

That’s THREE excitements, in about hundred words!

Nethi Nethi, not-this-not-that in Sanskrit, is a literary philosophical novel, which is first of the trilogy The Ancestors of God. A young bladesmith living in a violently transforming empire begins every man’s quest in search of himself.

Compelled by radically evolving science and the constant threat of terror, never before has humanity argued the existence of God on the scale it does today.

Yet The Ancestors of God takes no stand on supremacy of either God or Atheism. It is aimed merely to remind us regardless of our beliefs  — even the most innate — we are human beings, and that is our largest identity.

Essentially a satirical look at our world where believers far outnumber Atheists, it dares to ask — what if we lived in an Atheistic culture, with an Atheistic history to be proud of, replete with Atheistic art, architecture and music? It examines what occurs to an individual when he’s attacked by the intimidation of a thousand influences telling him who he must be, what believe.

You can see why I mentioned it might be controversial.

And this is just the first of the three.

I’m extremely nervous, even as I type this, because to put this information out – what the book is about – is a big step for me. It’s been a rollercoaster, the writing, the being, and it’s been a secret I’ve guarded closely, because the book became too precious, a part and extension of who I am.

It took a while to detach from that, but I cannot deny the upsurge of emotion even now. But wait, you don’t need to know all this!

God is banished. The world is united under Atheism. Definitions have changed.

For freethinkers society is amoral, rampant with debauchery; for traditionalists, near utopia, peaceful and free. Soldiers know it for medieval barbarism, academicians for futuristic science. The Empire under an Atheist king is not one, but all of these.  

While street musicians chant the Atheists’ Anthem, and scholars indulge in dialectics, twenty-year old Amartya is trapped in a political conspiracy and a much harder identity crisis.

Navigating a legal trial (the crime: to believe in God), he attempts to unite belief with skepticism to discover he is none of the costumes the world designs. He questions: if we no longer define ourselves with limitations, can being human imply being divine?

But answers require the price of blood. And war brews in an Empire where loyalties, beliefs, and the very meaning of life are challenged.

I don’t want to say too much and spoil it, so for now this is it.

Until then, wish me luck!

Getting Into School

Yesterday I received a mail from Coursera that the Sociology course I applied for is due to start Monday.

I’ve been ridiculously excited about this – universities like Princeton, Stanford and Yale have been introducing courses for students online for a long time, at itunes, youtube, at Open Culture and Udacity — and at Coursera, you get to take part in discussions and send them essays as well. There’s no certification, but if you ask they will send your scores at the end to any college you wish to apply to later on.

This has been on my mind for a while, actually.

About a year ago, I was almost averse to the idea of studying further to the quiet alarm of my parents – how would I get a job, make a career, earn, without studying any further? At that point, all I wanted to do was write — that hasn’t changed today either — and the only course which seemed to fit was an MFA in Creative Writing.

But I belong to the school of thought that doesn’t believe writing is something that can be taught.

Oh you can become better, and learn the craft, I’m sure, but couldn’t you do that anyway the more you wrote? Did any of the greats of literature really have a MFA in Creative Writing? And frankly, does an MFA guarantee a job?

As Ezra Ziesk mentions in her article at The Millions, her friend Rebecca did her MFA, “worked with a couple of writers she admired, and met a lot of other (younger) aspiring writers/teachers of writing. She got the credential the academic marketplace apparently wants. What she didn’t get out of her program was a job.”

Creative Writing was the last thing I wanted to do.

I was afraid that instead of discovering my original voice I would stifle it, learn of other writers not to admire them but to copy them. How many of these fears are mere superstitions and how many valid, that is difficult to say, but after a bit of trial and error, from thinking about Anthropology, Sociology and, even in a detached manner, of Music, I zeroed in on Literature.

Next year I apply to UCL, Cambridge and Edinburgh amongst a few others. They’re very competitive of course, and the likelihood of getting in without a background in English is slim, but I suppose I must give it a shot.

There’s a lot of self-inflicted pressure to get in.

I know many brilliant people who didn’t get into the school of their dreams come away believing there must be something wrong with them, and generally spiral into ruts of low self-esteem. Yet an article by Malcolm Gladwell, which is part of the introductory reading material for the Sociology course from Coursera, reminds me of the social logic of Ivy League admissions.

“The endless battle over admissions in the United States,” he says, “proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in — that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed.

“If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed.

“But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience–an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite — and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.”

I’m actually not applying to the U.S for all the difference that makes – but it was a relief to learn that sometimes there are more factors which go into an admission process than either your academic ability or your intelligence.

I have about eight months to prepare for the entrance exams and essays, during which I must study what would normally take three years of undergrad, begin the second book, actively market the first one, and work; but university learning, at least today, has really lesser to do with the school and more with inclination.

Until the next time, I really hope you click on the hyperlinks above.

Confidently Uncertain!

I love to argue of things I know absolutely nothing of.

Just yesterday, a friend and I were debating heatedly the merits of an automatic vs. those of a manually geared car. I’ve never driven an automatic, and she doesn’t even know to drive, but that didn’t seem to stop us — for about twenty minutes, we passionately defended in rising voices why one was better than the other, and to hear us talk the innocent bystander would have been forgiven for thinking us auto experts.

Man, it was so much fun.

It wasn’t about the subject at hand, of course. Open up a car and we wouldn’t be able to tell the carburetor from the fuel tank. It was about the psychology of the debate, of scoring a point, and briefly stunning the other into silence with our eloquence. Even while she made a statement, I calculated ways to refute it, looking for gaps in her logic — (“If manual was so much fun, why would so many people employ drivers, why?”; “Because they’re idiots?”)

Confidence is such an understated quality, it’s incredible how much you can get away with if you use it well; the sheer brazenness of the approach is likely to leave people in doubt of themselves, respectful of your authority.

Oh, I’ve been a fool of this game.

Especially after I’d finished writing, and started to take an intelligent interest in other matters of the world — (“What, you mean the Earth did not stop revolving while I was writing?”) — I wondered how people could speak with so much conviction. Didn’t all knowledge base itself on a knowledge of themselves, and wasn’t all knowledge of themselves acquired from perceptions, and weren’t all perceptions flawed and incomplete?

How could they know?

From where I was coming, it was difficult to understand this certainty of being.

I’d spent a lot of time thinking of it — in my book, the protagonist, a young bladesmith is looking for himself in a violently transforming empire; and very early into the story he understands that everything he is, is a contrived combination of all people he’s met, all encounters he’s ever had.

This year, Bruce Hood, the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol, released a book about this too — but frankly, this is no new concept. Poets, writer, scientists, singers have talked about the myth of the fixed personality since ages; and yoga says this too — that the sense of ‘I’ is mistakenly attributed to sense-perception, to our surroundings and experiences.

Which was why half the time, I didn’t speak at all.

The certainty of opinions and ideas was a scary, intimidating thing.

I figured I was surrounded by experts, who knew what they were talking about, and I couldn’t even create an perspective because in my head, I’d always track it to its source — I knew I was thinking this because of that conversation, and how accurate was that? Already I’d countered my own argument. So I’d just like the record to state, my general silence during all that time was not from shyness, it was from not having an opinion.

Which is a very dangerous thing to admit, frankly.

I don’t think today’s world has much sympathy for people who do not have an opinion. We’re encouraged at every point to either approve or disapprove of an idea, to take a stand, be responsible citizens of the world, so it’s difficult to admit you just don’t know! The only thing I did know of was my book, I was an expert on that, but for some strange reason each time I tried diverting conversation toward it, voices of friends would soar over my plaintive bleats.

But how can we create opinions, I demand to know, when we know nothing in accuracy?

We live in a world where information is always lost in measurement. If you’re observing it, you’re changing it. If you’re not observing it, you’re changing it anyhow, but you’re unaware of the change because you’re part of the picture.

Most arguments, I realized, have lesser to do with being understood and more with winning.

In his 38 Ways to Win An Argument, Arthur Schopenhauer, states how most debates are designed to intimidate and prey on the insecurity of the listening audience. It’s not facts which impress, it is the charisma! There’s an actual rush of blood to the head experienced with winning an argument similar to that in adrenaline sports. And you cannot deny the awe of intimidation — like it or not, it breeds respect.

It’s an important lesson of survival, and I’m learning quickly.

No more silence simply because I equate self-assurance of speech with accuracy. In fact, I’m thinking of swinging to the other extreme, and making like G.K. Chesterton. “Whenever he said something that nobody could understand, I said something that not even I could understand!” So now, just for kicks, I’m going to look up automobile terms.

Until then, may your insecurities be legitimate, and your confidence approachable!

Hope, And A Shift Of Perception

I must admit the second half of the year is turning out to be more promising than the first.

Most people would agree that finding what you love to do is one of the hardest things in life, but I’m ready to argue that knowing what you love, but being unable to do it comes a close second.

For nearly all of 2012, I’d been actively looking for literary agents who’d help me publish. The process works a bit like this. You look from amongst several agents those who you think would be interested in your work. You mail them with a letter and a sample. And then you wait for them to reject you.

I’m not being funny — rejection is something every writer has to deal with, and nearly everyone who has approached a literary agent has been rejected. All of us hope to have the J.K. Rowling like success, of course, but that’s more a rare freak phenomenon than the norm.

For writers, the fear of failure is so accentuated we thrive on it, we create some of our best work because we’re so neurotic, and are never truly satisfied with ourselves. But we also fear we may not be good enough, that we’ll die without making the kind of impact we’d hoped for, and worst of all that we may never be able to write again.

I’ve only completed what is the first of a trilogy, and for a very long time while I wasn’t writing, I was frightened I’d forget how, which is ironic because I don’t truly understand how it happens anyway.

Responses from literary agents are not designed to keep these emotions in mind.

If you’re lucky you get a polite standard printout saying No. If you’re very lucky you get a personal printout saying No, which means they really were interested but didn’t think it was right for them. But most times you get no response at all, and you just have to move on.

The past year has taught me much and more both of life and the publishing industry.

Of the industry I’ve learnt new authors have it tough — to grab the attention of a literary agent, you have precisely 4 seconds (during which they read the first line of your cover letter and decide), and 6 months of waiting. And without an agent, it’s impossible to approach publishing houses. But I’ve also learnt trade publishing is slowly giving way to epublishing, that even established writers are pursuing this, and the elimination of the middleman is in fact better for the writer.

To be honest I was never truly convinced with these arguments before.

I was wary of the direct marketing I’d have to do. I knew the traditional book industry hadn’t worked this way, publishing in this manner had been looked down upon, really.

And yet a conversation with a friend changed much of what I was thinking.

Ever since I’d started to write, I was pestered to let her read my work and I habitually refused. But after I’d exhausted the agents I’d been targeting, I started to reconsider.

Because that is when I realized it was not the lack of interest from agents which hurt, it was that this work wasn’t out there being read.

It had nothing to do with meit was the idea, my god, the idea, I figured if my readers would get even one-fourth the joy from reading as I did from writing, it’d be a task well done, and I was impatient because I could not wait to share it.  

I suspect somewhere after finishing I’d lost sight of the intent I’d begun with; that it was not the result, but the pure joy of writing — I wrote because I had to write, there was no choice or control, and the risk was not in leaving behind the alternative of a conventional life, but of not attempting this at all.

In fact there were times when instead of being grateful, I’d be angry — physically, violently angry that I had no choice in the matter; because the choice was so obvious, the very question of choosing did not arise. I had not asked for this, I’d shout to the walls. The reaction is such a cliché of an indulgent, anguished artist that even while I behaved so, a cynical part of me mocked the sentimentalism.

In a way, yoga talks of this as well.

The entire philosophy of yoga is grounded in the unification of the individual soul to the universal soul, and one of its paths, karma yoga, speaks of being unconcerned with the result, to be immersed in the process, the fruit of your work is the work alone. Art, in short, for art’s sake.

Considering in so many ways my book is about this philosophy, and I’m a yoga teacher myself, you’d think the lesson would have been obvious. But some lessons in life need to be reiterated because the anxieties we create never truly leave us; I’m learning the very act of perfecting ourselves is not an end but a constancy.

My perspective has changed — or perhaps is re-discovered. Of course, cynicism is tempted to point out I had to change my perception in order to survive, I’d been dreaming too big, I ought to have kept my expectations lower to begin with.

But perception, as the witty Rory Sutherland reminds me, is everything, that the circumstances of our lives may matter lesser than how we see them.

And optimism, I’ve realized, works as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not only related to success, it leads to success. This isn’t my claim — neuroscience shows you change not merely your subjective reality — your perception — by being optimistic, you also change your objective reality, for when you’re optimistic, you try harder, never daunted by what comes your way, and success when it arrives is not attributed to chance, but to your own self.

Until the next time, may your vision be hopeful and hope visionary!

Is The Internet Limiting You?

An application on my Facebook page bothers me immensely.

The Insights tab essentially informs of how many people ‘like’ my page, how much reach I have, but in a manner of speaking it also is a tool to manipulate my content so it has more hits.

This could be an opportunity, and clearly it is meant to be viewed so — but I haven’t the least idea of how to please people. I’ve genuinely believed it is more rewarding to be yourself, find yourself through experimentation and curiosity, than to be a product of the environment — and that is why right after acquiring my Bachelors degree, I began a novel which is so controversial it may never see the light of publishing through the traditional way, and which may make me more infamous than famous.

In fact, Facebook is no different from any other search engine.

Stripped of all decorations, it is designed to track the popularity of a certain idea and spread it. To that extent, it seems democratic. But the trouble is, each time you click ‘like’ you’re leaving a bread-crumb trail for the internet to follow, which the next time will show you results based on your previous hit, and so on. Anything not deemed relevant to your profile does not get generated on your News Feed at all!

If you think this is convenient, and exactly what you wanted, think again. Chillingly, Eli Pariser points out, “As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

I cannot get over the anxiety that statement has generated.

Because what it tells me is that even though I may comfortably believe in my own independence, each time I log on to the internet I am being fed that which a few robots dictate I should eat. Who controls that?

In the three years I took to write the book, I suffered a paralyzing identity crisis because I was haunted by the very question of control and freedom. It was an affront to my existence that I was being limited — not by anyone else, but by me, and my own expectations of what I am capable of.

Without revealing what the book is about yet, I can mention that in many ways it deals with this very limitation we as the most evolved species on the planet inflict on ourselves. Using irony, it turns our current world on its head, by replacing some of its constructs with their exact opposites to reveal what we have become.

Need an example? Think democracy. It is so patently the very best system of governance, equated with what is good and developed, that it negates thinking alternately about it. But democracy once failed in Ancient Rome, and to this day it has several anomalies which its adherents turn a blind eye to.

Please understand. I am not against democracy. If it weren’t for democracy I doubt I’d be able to write this or my book at all. My point rather is just when you think you’re free, check. John Stuart Mill who is one of the founding fathers of democracy himself warned against what the tyranny of the majority could do if we weren’t careful.

I’m starting to associate a lot of what goes on in modern culture with this tyranny.

We’re increasingly in the danger of becoming conformists to our own ideas, no matter how liberal they may be, and thus paradoxically being more fundamental in our thinking. The internet was supposed to be a tool to discover infinite points of view, but if any search creates an idea of your personality and caters to that unceasingly, where does growth arise from? If we’re being reassured of our opinions, caught in our own web, how do we truly discover who we are?

And this brings me right back to the Facebook Insights page.

I worry we may suffer the tyranny of majority in media by subscribing not to those ideas that are necessarily enriching us, but those that are advertised well. I worry mediocrity may be exalted and the good stuff go unnoticed simply because it does not agree with the majority’s point of view. But most of all I worry that one day I may have no choice but to compromise — because in many ways, a part of me views my return to web interaction in just that manner.

For as an artist I shy from the blatant marketing of my work.

Until a while ago, believing very naively that if the work were good enough it would market itself, I sought the traditional routes of publishing. If someone else would take care of the ads, it wouldn’t ring so…scheming. It could perhaps even be an art form: marketing for marketing’s sake, which intended not to create a perception about a work but inform people of it.

Yet lately I find myself having discussions with close friends about how to generate traffic onto my page. This is so unlike me that it has begun to frighten me. People have of course suggested everything from writing about what is currently hot to conducting opinion polls, and my mother, I blush to admit, has taken to mailing her friends to encourage young enthusiastic writers.

But in the end I think I take comfort from the fact that I am deriving far too much joy from the blog to buy into its commercialization — especially because I seem to have become a content farmer even as I write freelance. This is the kind of writing I’d hoped never to do, but I’ve learnt even an idealistic writer must earn a living; and to pacify myself, I’m wishing the net effect gets nullified by blogging about what I truly care.

Who knows, perhaps in the future I may not have to compromise at all.

Until then, may what you hold worthy be dictated by its worth alone.