I've been deliberating on this post for more than a month, making mental lists of all the things I've learnt this past year and of all that I've accomplished and of all my plans for the next year.
There seems to be so much to say, yet none of the things that have been swirling in my head these past several weeks seem to be able to convey that one essential thing this journey has so far been: a raw encounter with myself.
Even as someone who has been writing periodically for more than a decade now, I dove into writing and publishing as a full-time career only about a year ago thinking that I only needed to do two things to stay on track: keep writing, and keep publishing my writings.
At the outset, these seem like very simple and straightforward things to do. And they are. The writing itself, once I get to it, is pure joy. And so is the publishing process.
But the key phrase in the previous paragraph is 'once I get to it'. It is where many of us stumble. It is where I stumble often even now.
There are many things that derail me. For instance, D was diagnosed with an infection last week, and it left KrA and me feeling very, very vulnerable even though D himself was taking things in his stride and putting up a brave front. So for D's sake, we had to really put in the effort to be the parents he needed us to be, the wise, calm ones, not the ones freaking out and piling on him the burden of soothing our anxieties by getting well soon.
It was not a day for writing fiction. It was a day for journalling and sitting with my fears and moving slowly and letting it pass through until I knew I could get back to functioning without lashing out. It was a day for coming here and taking the thoughts from my head and writing them down in this post (which I abandoned midway to run errands and got back to only today, a week later).
There are writers who know to take these things in their stride and can churn out their daily word counts while sitting beside their little ones in a hospital, for instance.
It's not me, I've come to realise. Not yet, at least. No matter how much I want to flip a switch to shut off the fear and just focus on my work, the anxieties eventually catch up to me and spill out in ways that are not kind to any of us.
And this is the thing I've realised. KrA and D and both more important to me than my writing. At least, when it comes to short-term scenarios. I can't go more than two days at a stretch without writing. But if it's a matter of one day, I can. That's the time and effort it takes me to remain calm and present in a crisis, to create a place of safety for D in a difficult situation.
And what I've found is that when I put in that effort, the next day I am a different person altogether. The situation is the same, but I'd have made my peace with it, I can go back to writing with the satisfaction that the situation, while undesirable in that moment, became an opportunity for me to practice lovingkindness, being kind to myself and the two people I love so much.
It wasn't always like this.
In the pursuit of a daily writing practice, I set out to adopt a model of austere discipline that leading professionals in many fields swear by. Write every day, no matter what. Even if the world around you is about to fall apart.
The only trouble with this was that on days when I couldn't write, I'd feel like an utter failure.
I'd almost always castigate myself for not showing enough dedication to my work, fill my head with doubt as to whether or not I have it in me to pursue this as a profession, decide that something was wrong with me because I had managed to convert the simple, joyful task of making up stories and writing them down into something that had become like an addictive drug: it gave me immense exhilaration when I was high on it, and terrifying crashes on days I couldn't write.
It's not hard to tell that such a see-saw swing is neither sustainable nor desirable.
When I was much younger, only a school-going kid, I used to draw up a daily schedule for tackling my schoolwork. I could precisely divide the hours of my day into efficient time slots allotted to each subject I needed to tackle. And I was really good at drawing up that schedule and sticking to it.
Even now I'm amazed at my past ability to have been able to estimate the time requirements of each study task so well; it's a skill I've long lost.
Life, now, is so so messy.
Of course it was messy back then too but the support system my parents so efficiently delivered, rendering it quite invisible, ensured that I was shielded from the messiness of it all and could single-mindedly focus on my goal.
I didn't have to account for things like suffering from a poor night's sleep or having to worry about illness, mine or that of someone else in the family, or figure out what to have for dinner, or even wonder where all that studying was going to lead me (because of course at that time I knew without doubt it was taking me to a great future).
Now, KrA and I are called to be support systems for ourselves and for our little one too, and more often than not I feel we're just winging it, bumbling along, well-laid plans have gotten awry so often we've more or less given up on plans altogether. In the past year, I've seen plan after plan pertaining to writing fall apart and simply not go the way I envisioned them.
More often than not, I turn up at the writing computer, just wanting to stop thinking, wanting to stop aiming for high word count goals, and sometimes wanting to stop dreaming of carrying on along this path because that is the one question I hadn't been able to answer for the longest time: where is this going to lead me?
And so far I've found only one answer to this question.
Everything that I do – writing, being a mother, being a partner and friend – everything is only leading me back to my own self.
It is all a homecoming.
Because we live in a world that loves lists and actionable items, I've attempted to put some of my learnings together in that format.
- It takes time.
Gosh! It takes a hell of a lot of time. Creating a body of work takes time. Editing it takes time. Formatting and publishing it takes time. And it always feels like there aren't enough hours in the day or that I'm not working fast enough.
I am certainly writing faster and more consistently now than I could three years ago. It took less than three seconds to type 'three years' in the previous sentence. In reality, those 'three years' felt like an eternity packed with more days of wanting to throw in the towel than with days of doing the work.
Author Kristan Hoffman calls it being in The Gap, 'the distance between where you are and where you want to be'.
As I was reading her article, it occurred to me that because of the nature of our consistently moving goalposts, we likely spend almost our entire lifetime in The Gap. There's no escaping it. When we reach a milestone, The Gap moves with us and we once again find ourselves in that nowhere land.
But we can always look back and see how far we've come. It takes time. The longer we spend before we turn around for a backward glance, the farther we would have come, and we'd be able to better appreciate the distance travelled.
I find it especially hard to remember this on days when I don't get any words down. For such days, I refer to a wonderful insight by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits in a post titled Practicing with Zero, a practice that he says, and I agree, is even more powerful than the consistency of a streak.
Consistency and things going to plan are amazing. Practicing with what happens when things fall apart — that’s probably the most powerful thing we can learn.
~ Practicing with Zero by Leo Babauta, Zen Habits
- The blank page is a mirror. It holds both your greatest desires and your greatest fears in it. Which one will you look to for guidance?
Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. He labels it an enemy we have to war against every single day.
Dean Wesley Smith calls it Critical Voice. His advice for dealing with it is to not attach importance to the product (the book or the story) itself but to simply have fun in the process of writing and not make it any more important or difficult than it needs to be. (I took DWS's workshop on Killing The Critical Voice – it's a 6-week program and I found it immensely useful in addressing various aspects where I was self-sabotaging my writing.)
Our cherished Bhagavad Gita also instructs us to focus on our deeds and that we are not entitled to the fruits of our labour.
After trying different techniques and approaches, I have personally come to adopt Julia Cameron's wisdom of acceptance and compassion. Her book, The Artist's Way, written way back in 1992, has been a constant source of insight and safety for me, especially this past year.
Cameron likens creativity to a spiritual process, and I find myself drawn to this analogy because it is when I write that I find myself facing up to my most cherished longings (wanting to write words that move the reader) and also my greatest fears (that no one will ever read or like my works), and it is my choice at this point whether to persevere or to abandon this pursuit.
"Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control."
"In order to work freely on a project, an artist must be at least functionally free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear)."
"Creativity flourishes when we have a sense of safety and self-acceptance."
~ Quotes from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
I like her approach of accepting that for most of us, it is quite a frightening process to step into a creative life.
The reasons are many. Perhaps we were advised to hold on to stable jobs and dabble in the arts on the side. Perhaps we bought into the false belief that only 'great' art is worth doing. Perhaps we want to create something that the whole world will love; only, it is impossible for the whole world to like something unanimously.
There are probably as many reasons we hold back from pursuing the work that matters to us as there are stars in the sky. But identifying many of them, taking the time and breath to acknowledge and accept them as longstanding parts of my psyche, and then moving through or around them has been immensely beneficial to me.
The process doesn't yield immediate results in the sense that sometimes it takes me an entire day to put aside issues, such as D's illness, and come back to the work on hand.
But I've found that over these past 3–4 years, I've been straying away less than before from what matters to me, and even when I do go astray, I bounce back faster than I could earlier.
These results would have been less evident a year or two ago. I started and gave up on Morning Pages several times in the past four years, and it's only in the past few months that I've stuck to it, which brings me to my next point.
- It is never about your art. It is about the person you are becoming in the process. What kind of person is that?
When I wrote and published my first book, In Search of Leo, it was a project intended to fuel my ego.
I didn't realise it at the time, but looking back I see now that I was driven to publish a book partly out of love for writing but also partly because I thought the world would treat me differently once I became a published author. By writing and publishing a book, I'd somehow become superior to countless others who never dared pursue their dreams; this is what I thought back then, I'm ashamed to admit.
The years since have proven to me over and over again how naive and haughty my initial impressions of this trade were.
Thousands of books are published on Amazon every second. Take any topic, any story, and you'll find it has been written in countless different ways. Where I once thought writing a book was such a feat in itself, I've now had the opportunity to see countless authors who have worked in this industry for more than a decade and have written and published more than 100 books.
My point is this: Publishing a book changes nothing. It is like creating a small ripple in a lake that settles down quickly enough as if the ripple didn't even occur, so fleeting and insignificant its influence is.
It is like a wave in the ocean. Nothing to distinguish it from all the other waves that came before. Nothing to set it apart from all the other waves that will come after. Sure, this little wave may bring tremendous joy to the child waiting close to the shore, waiting for the big wave to come and break on his legs. But he will wait with just as much excitement for the next wave, and the wave after, and the one after that.
So what's the point of doing all this anyway if there's no meaning or significance to it, I hear you ask. I've asked myself this question many, many times. It was a question I asked myself especially when I felt low and lost and confused, completely unsure about why I was writing, what difference my books would make to the world, who the heck do I think I am to tell these stories and to voice my thoughts and opinions.
And the answer came to me a few days ago and more clearly now in the writing of this post.
When I write, I learn about myself.
About how I think. About what I consider just and fair, or less desirable and evil.
About whether I can empathise with the characters, and whether I can see their flaws and their virtues too without judgement, and transfer this ability to my relationships in the real world.
About how I feel on days when D falls ill and is at home for a week, and my best-laid plans for smashing through writing goals dissipate into smoke. Can I learn to live with the disappointment and do what needs to be done – because haven't I been telling myself that my child is more important to me than my writing? Can I enjoy the additional moments I get with him, trusting, knowing that I will eventually get to my writing and the words will not desert me then?
When I publish my works, I learn even more about myself in relation to this world.
About how I react when someone tells me the book did not resonate with them. Do I take that as a reflection of my self-worth or merely accept it as a case of misaligned interests and move on?
About how I react when I see another author making sacrifices I wouldn't make and going on to achieve heights of successes I want for myself. Can I accept my limitations and work with what I have instead of exhausting time and effort in fighting my reality?
About how I face up to the page every day, never knowing whether that day's act of writing would yield any rewards in the future.
We all face the consequences of our actions, but we also have no control over how those consequences will come to transpire. So in a way we have the power to shape our destiny while also not having any control over it whatsoever.
It's a paradox.
Like a koan.
But so is life.
Which is why fiction is so desirable. Everything makes sense in fiction in a way it simply doesn't in real life.
The real world is how life is. Fiction is how we want life to be.
Where justice is served. Good triumphs over evil. The mystery is solved. There are no loose ends. Character motivations are neatly explained in a way that renders them palatable, acceptable within our moral and ethical frameworks.
In working with the methodical orderliness that is expected of fiction, I find that I'm expected to accept and put up with the messiness of life, confront the limitations of reality, and yet strive to take them in my stride or at the very least not let them stop me in my tracks for too long.
And I think therein lies the true value of my work.
In the ripples it creates in me.
In the ocean wave it causes me to become. Rising and falling, rising and falling, delighting a little child – my inner child – without looking around to see what other waves are doing, whether they are cresting higher, whether their crashing puts a bigger smile on the face of the child waiting for me to drench him.
The way it makes me want to be a better human being, a better friend to myself, a better mother to D, a better partner to KrA.
The way it makes me want to respond consciously both to my needs and the needs of those I love and of the world around me.
By that measure, I'm already reaping the fruits of my labour every single day, every single moment, whether I'm writing or not.
In parting, I'll leave you with the words and a poem that Julia Cameron ends The Artist's Way with.
When Mark Bryan began cornering me into writing this book, he had just seen a Chinese film about Tibet called The Horse Thief. It was an indelible film for him, a classic of the Beijing school, a film we have since searched for in Chinese video stores and film archives, to no avail.
Mark told me about the film's central image: another mountain, a prayerful journey up that mountain, on bended knee: step, lie prostate, stand and straighten, another step, lie prostrate ...
In the film, this journey was the reparation that a thief and his wife had to make for damaging their society by dishonouring themselves through thievery. I have wondered, since then, if the mountain that I see when thinking of the Artist's Way isn't another mountain best climbed in the spirit of reparation—not to others, but to ourselves.
WORDS FOR IT
I wish I could take language
And fold it like cool, moist rags.
I would lay words on your forehead.
I would wrap words on your wrists.
"There, there," my words would say—
Or something better.
I would ask them to murmur,
"Hush" and "Shh, shhh, it's all right."
I would ask them to hold you all night.
I wish I could take language
And daub and soothe and cool
Where fever blisters and burns,
Where fever turns yourself against you.
I wish I could take language
And heal the words that were the wounds
You have no names for.
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way