When I speak of the art and the craft of writing, I take it for granted that: You have the talent. That you have an urge, a strong urge, to say something and that this is what drives you into writing. That you want to write, not to be a Writer. That you have the required language skills.
Without these, no one can hope to be a writer.
But besides this, you need a few more things as well: an understanding that writing is hard work. That it is not a matter of being inspired and then quickly writing it out. You need to understand that, if the process begins with imagination, the imagination has then to be worked out into words. Which is laborious and can sometimes take a huge amount of time. Because what is in your mind is not so easily transferred on to paper. What seemed so wonderful in your thoughts, can look most inadequate, often pathetic as well, when written down. And then you think – but this is not how I thought it would be! It is the transferring of your thoughts on to paper that is the most difficult task. It can be the most disappointing, even despairing part of writing. It is also very hard work. Sitting at your table for hours and having, perhaps, a blank page to show at the end of it. Yet, there is no choice but to go on until you get somewhere close to what was in your mind.
You also need the three P’s.
Patience: What you are trying to write may come, it may not come. You can’t drive it, you can’t push it. You have to wait for it to come to you. Therefore you have to sit at your table every single day, whether you write or not. It also helps to have another occupation. Depending on writing alone is slightly fearful; if things don’t work out you are left with nothing. Having another life helps.
Publication: Without publication the writing is not real. It is like acting before a mirror, not before an audience. It is of no use putting your work into a drawer and imagining yourself a genius. And when the rejections come, thinking you are a misunderstood and wronged genius. The approval of a publisher matters because it is the publisher who decides whether a book is worth publishing or not. So, however confident you are about your work, look at it again. And again. And, maybe, again.
Yes, rejections will come; all authors, even the best of them, have the experience of their work being rejected. And therefore the third P.
Persistence: Only persistence can help because writing does not yield instant results. It may not yield results for a long long time. How, then, do you keep going day after day with nothing to show for your work at the end of the day? How do you keep going when there is no money coming in? (Money is, after all, the scale by which one measures work.) How do you keep going when everything you send out comes back with a rejection slip?
The only thing that can keep you going is faith, faith in what you are doing. The belief that what you are saying matters, that you just have to say it. This confidence in your work is what will keep you going. Specially when you have to constantly fight against doubts. There is, of course, the doubt that comes with rejections: Am I good enough? Is my writing good enough?
And there are other doubts. I remember how in the early years of my writing, I often asked myself: why am I doing this? Am I right in giving so much time to something that gives the family nothing in return? There was guilt when I tried to write at the cost of my home and family, specially the children. There was anger and resentment when I just had to do some chores though ideas were crying out to be expressed. Guilt again at the anger and the resentment.
I had no contacts, no circle, no one I could talk to about my writing. I was determined not to let my work intrude into family time, so I kept them in two sealed compartments. And to add to this, critics regarded my work as ‘only a woman’s work’, they labeled my writing as ‘writing about women’, both of which make any work move into the less important category. So how do you go on when you are told that your writing is not significant, that it is marginal? But I did not look at my writing in this way. It was writing and writing has no gender. And I knew I had to go on writing; I had no choice. I don’t know whether to call it persistence or cussedness! It took me nearly twenty-five years, if not more, to achieve a modicum of recognition.
Paradoxically, along with the confidence, (which is not arrogance) you also need a sharp self-critical sense. You have to be a stern critic of your own writing. Smugness or complacence is death for a writer, death, in fact, for any artist. Constant doubting of the quality of your work, constant dissatisfaction, is the only thing that will push you on to writing, to writing better. My father, also a writer, wrote in his autobiography that he thanked his worst critics, because they made him feel he had to prove to himself and to readers, that he was not what they said he was. I have felt the same way.
Nevertheless, you have must have a nose for sniffing out something that does not seem right in your own work, a sense of knowing that something you have written is not good enough.
It helps to put away your work, to look at it after a while. It helps to see it more objectively.
Much of this critical sense comes from reading books. It’s like you listen to a lot of music before your ears understand what’s good music and what’s bad. You must read all kinds of books, good as well as bad. You learn from them what is good writing and what is bad. Please read dictionaries, books on language, on the usage of language every time you have a doubt. You can learn much from these books, you can also enjoy them for their own sakes.
I strongly believe that there are only two schools for writers: life and books. You learn about language from books. It is only by reading good books that you will learn the beauty of language as it is used by great writers, you enlarge your vocabulary, you learn about punctuation, you learn about crafting, about technique, about style. If you love language, (and you can’t be a writer if you don’t have a special feel for language) you begin to marvel at the wonderful way writers use it, at the way they shape it, often change it. Don’t believe those who say that language doesn’t matter, that to use correct language is elitist or snobbish. It is fatal to believe in this. Language needs to be respected, (remember we are the only living creatures who have been given this gift) it needs to be handled with care. As a writer, I have a great respect for language, I would try not to distort it, or use it badly. I was utterly shocked when I read a veteran writer say that sales validate everything. Please don’t believe this. For a writer every word, every comma has to be just right. We need to remember that language has evolved through the centuries. It is up to us to value it, to make it work. To be able to say what you want to with the right words, with the right number of words makes for clarity. What a reader wants is clarity, not bad language.
I find that reading aloud helps. The ear catches mistakes, clumsiness and awkwardness better than the eye. The ear is also important in another way. To quote Italo Calvino: It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear. This speaks about the importance of the listener, the reader. I did all my writing in total solitude. There was no one to tell me whether what I was doing had any value at all. (This validation came to me slowly from readers.) Without a listener, without a reader, the writing seems unreal; there is neither an echo, nor a reflection.
I, who believed that writers are born, not made, who believed that writing cannot be taught, now realize that this ear is what a workshop can give a writer. When others read/hear what you have written, when they comment on it, the writing becomes real. Whether you accept their opinion or not, the fact is that you see things you could never have seen on your own. This is a very important factor that goes into the growth of a writer.
Lastly, writing is a profession, yes, but it is also a calling. Something more than a profession. And therefore there is something that cannot be ignored, a moral sense. Each novel, according to me, has its own truth at its heart. I have to respect this truth, I have to be faithful to it. I cannot deviate from it for anything, most certainly not for commercial reasons.
I call this the integrity of the writer, an integrity which makes the writer true to herself, true to her writing.
The writer I most admire, Jane Austen, had this integrity in full measure. I would like to end by quoting her words:
“I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I shall totally fail in any other.”
In this section, we invite writers we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with to talk about the writing process. Shashi Deshpande gave this talk as our chief guest at the inauguration of Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW).
About Shashi Deshpande
Novelist and short story writer Shashi Deshpande began her career with short stories and has by now authored nine short story collections, eleven novels, and four books for children. Three of her novels have received awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award for That Long Silence. Her latest novels are Small Remedies, Moving On, In The Country of Deceit, Ships That Pass and If I Die Today.