In school, one of the literary exercises I found most unpleasant was précis writing. My mind wanted to run away with the words. Make big brush strokes. But here she was, my teacher, asking me to do the opposite. Edit down. Compress. Pack it into a paragraph. For the first time in English class, I broke into a sweat. Suddenly the words I loved so much weren’t my friends anymore. I couldn’t waltz with them. Instead I had to pass some of them up. Distill five hundred words into a hundred. It was painful. But more than anything else, it was intimidating.
And that’s the emotion I am interested in because I think it is every writer’s biggest inner antagonist. Fear. Befuddlement. The kind that leads to creative stasis. If you’ve experienced these emotions while writing and if you’ve abandoned a piece midway in quiet defeat more than once, then you know what I’m talking about. You probably have a long line of unfinished stories in a word document titled ‘Ideas’ that’s sitting on your laptop. What’s happening is your mind is like that paragraph in English class which you have to précis. It’s wide, it’s deep and it’s teeming with a million angles and possibilities that jostle for space inside your head like bees in a hive. And now you need to filter that gargantuan miasma onto a page. It’s a little like pouring the ocean into a glass. Too intimidating. Don’t know where to start. Can’t wrap your mind around it. It’s slipping away as you think. Can’t do this. What were you thinking?
Distillation. Every writer’s nemesis. And necessity. Also, in my opinion, the most frightening thing about writing. Getting the ocean in your mind to sit inside a glass. The glass is your story. Maybe today it’s just your page.
The other day, I watched a video on You Tube featuring celebrated Jewish American author Philip Roth in an interview with a TV channel at his country home, the place where he does all or most of his writing. In his writing studio, there stands a wooden plaque with two alphabets inscribed on it. It is reminiscent of exercise note books in pre-school where one first learnt to write the alphabet in a cursive script. When asked about the plaque, Philip Roth, in probably the interview’s most illuminating and poignant section, explains that the alphabets help him tide over the hard times. Like all writers, he says, I hit a wall many times. I don’t know what to say next. Or how to say it. And I’m frustrated. When that happens, I tell myself to forget about the book for one moment. I am not writing a book. The book is not important. It’s not relevant. All I need to do right now is write one good, clear sentence. And then another sentence after that. And another one. And in each sentence, all I need to do is write one good, clean word. And within each word, all I need to do is join one alphabet to another. This is all I need to do. Break it down. Learn it all over again. Like a child.
I showed that interview to a lot of my friends who write. And I am going to show it to many more. I think that’s something to live by if you’re a writer. When you’re sitting in front of that blank page and you feel the onset of intimidation, forget about writing a book. Or a story. Think about writing one sentence. It can be very reassuring. The fact that all you need to do is write one sentence. What’s doubly reassuring, even heartening, is that a writer of Philip Roth’s stature faces the same road blocks that the rest of us face. And he writes his way out of it. One sentence at a time.
Being a fan of Roth, I couldn’t help think about his slim, quiet masterpiece, The Ghost Writer (1979) in which Nathan Zuckerman, an aspiring writer, is invited, unprecedentedly, to spend a weekend with his literary idol, E. I. Lonoff at his Berkshire home. Lonoff has been a patient and successful practitioner of the short story for nearly forty years. How does he do it? In a conversation over drinks, Lonoff lets Nathan in on the big secret. But there’s no flash of revelation. Nevertheless both the reader and Nathan are struck by the purity and the simplicity of Lonoff’s art. “I turn sentences around,” Lonoff says. “That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.”
Open that list of unfinished stories. Pick any one. Stop thinking about how to précis the ocean. In fact, ignore the ocean. Write one sentence.
In the beginning, even God had to start with the word.
– by Philip John
Philip John from the first batch of Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW) has now joined BWW as a facilitator. This is his first post after joining us. Read more about Philip here.
Watch the interview with Philip Roth.
What do you think? Do you agree with Philip John about ignoring the ocean? Leave us a comment.