Happy Tamil New Year! Today marks the first day of the Tamil calendar, so wishes galore!
I've been having some epiphanies off late.
Perhaps it's all the sunshine and summer-like weather we've been having this week, or the fact that I read an amazing book titled And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman, or that I read something that resonated strongly with me in the latest issue of the fortnightly newsletter, The Imperfectionist, by Oliver Burkeman of the Four Thousand Weeks fame. Or it could also be this ongoing writing challenge I'm part of, as a result of which I've been writing more fiction and also these daily blog posts alongside.
But the penny has been dropping for me resoundingly loud on several fronts.
In And Then We Grew Up, Rachel Friedman reconnects with friends she made at Interlochen, a summer camp and high school for children pursuing the arts, to find out how their artistic careers have panned out over the past decade or so.
Alongside, she reflects on how at one point in time she used to be an excellent viola player, which is what led her to Interlochen in the first place, with aspirations to make it big in the music world, aspirations that never did materialize.
But she continued to fantasize what life would have been like had she stuck with her 'talent' and explored her 'potential'. The entire book is a study of the fantasy of an artist's life versus the various complicated and nuanced realities that Friedman explores by sharing her own life trajectory and those of the friends she reconnects with for the book.
That is a very simplistic description of this book. It is very hard for me to put in words how seen and liberated and acknowledged I felt after reading this book.
The debate between doing what you love and living a responsible, functional adult life, earning your keep and fulfilling your responsibilities towards family is an endless one.
It's something I've struggled with over and over again, often feeling that writing is an indulgence at best, which sees me spending the bare minimum time at the writing desk and then calling it a day, only to complain on weekends and holidays that I don't have enough time to write ... and so on and so on.
Yes, yes, I can see the contradictions in the excuses I make.
My first instinct after reading the book was to give up on my fantasy of trying to make it as an author earning a full-time living writing fiction. I decided that I needed to look for a part-time job at least, because anyway I wasn't writing more than an hour of fiction a day.
How many times have you seen me ask this question of myself over the past 2–3 years?
And shouldn't I be asking myself the more important question: why am I only writing an hour of fiction of day if, and that's also a big if, I really wanted to write more and build a body of work?
All these thoughts were very confusing for me, and thinking more just kept me more entangled.
So I took a break and started watching The Family Man on Prime Video, just as Friedman decided to go and watch a movie right after learning from her accountant that she owed four thousand dollars in tax, an amount that she didn't have in her savings account at that point in time.
I needed some laughs because I didn't want to be sucked into those brooding thoughts all the time.
Over and over again, I have backed away from writing full-time, worried that all my efforts will be in vain when it comes to earning a living from writing. It's been a rather vicious cycle, with me feeling too paralyzed to give it a go, and then remaining stuck in that place of not creating and not giving my creations a chance to be published.
And, on the other hand, it's not as if I haven't been looking for a job. I have been submitting resumes for the last several months but I haven't heard back from many. The two employers that responded offered me too little, and I certainly think my time and expertise are much more valuable than what they have to offer.
So this other notion that I have in my head of having a part-time job that will give me a reasonable income while I write fiction on the side is also turning out to be a fantasy in itself.
And in all this, I have not been looking at reality with clear eyes to begin with.
I spend an hour in the morning writing, and after that I go for a walk with KrA, then cook something for dinner if at all, then read or watch TV until it is time to go pick up D from school, and then lament that I haven't had time to write because I'm doing all this parenting!
I can't help laughing even as I type these words, because on a day like this when my mind is clear, I know I can write in the morning or even in the afternoons. I have already proven to myself that I can write these blog posts in the evenings.
These days, I go to drop D and pick him up as well from school, we spend some time outdoors in the evenings, I hang out with him before, during and after dinnertime doing random stuff like playing LEGO, listening to music, and chatting about the day.
If I simply look at the time he spends at school, that in itself is quite a lot of time in which I can write much more than I do presently.
Then why don't I?
Quite often it's a case of Critical Voice stopping me in my tracks and telling me that the story is no good and what's the point of writing it when it won't have any audience anyway?
See the vicious cycle I am trapped in? How do I get out of this?
The answer to this I found in this week's issue of Oliver Burkeman's fortnightly newsletter, The Imperfectionist.
Talking about rules to live by, Burkeman says that every weekday morning he aims to begin writing by 10:30 AM.
And then he explains to those of us who believe that 10:30 AM is extremely late ...
(In one of my earlier 'art monster' avatars – and you have to read Friedman's book to understand what 'art monster' means – I used to complain that if I couldn't begin writing by 9:30 AM, then the day was practically lost!)
... Burkeman explains that 10:30 AM is his no-later-than-time, having accounted for life responsibilities such as solo parenting mornings or realities such as waking up foggy-headed and needing to go on a walk or a run.
He goes on to explain that if we were to try and emulate writers such as Haruki Murakami or Kurt Vonnegut who woke up at very early hours such as 4 AM or 5:30 AM, then we'd only be setting ourselves up for disappointment if our current reality does not allow for it.
Wasn't it only a week ago that I was telling myself that I should try and wake up at 4 AM to get in some writing before the demands of the day begin to pile up on me? How conveniently I forgot that I don't go to sleep before 9 PM or 10 PM, and that quite often D wakes up in the middle of the night, disrupting my sleep in the process!
Burkeman calls this a 'forcing function', a set of rules that we try to impose on our messy and imperfect lives to try and elevate it to some vision of perfection. The only outcome we achieve in this study of contrasts is a feeling of utter disappointment with our real, complicated lives.
Another example that Burkeman gives, and one that hit me smack in the face because I am so guilty of doing it, is this: if we're convinced that we need to do three hours of deep work every day and find that our current reality cannot accommodate that but set it as a rule to follow and strive to meet anyway, then we're only setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The solution is to have rules that serve life – such as getting to the manuscript by 10:30 AM because that is doable and practically achieveable – instead of having rules that life is forced to serve, which only ends up killing all the joy and fun.
Which, I believe, is precisely what has happened with me and writing.
In not being able to wake up at 4 AM and write, in not being able to spend three hours doing deep work because there's something pertaining to D that's occupying my mind, yet continuing to strive to attain those ideals because I got it into my mind that that is the only way to write, I converted writing into a chore.
I became all bitter about it, and all this striving and trying to live up to the idealized, fantasy version of author life I had built in my head completely killed all joy in writing for me.
I love Burkeman's newsletters, and I've loved his book Four Thousand Weeks too, but what he wrote in his newsletter this week came as very timely reality checks for me.
All these rigid rules I was trying to impose on my life – that I must wake up at 4 AM and get my words in, that I must build my backlist at a breakneck speed, that everything that is not related to writing is a drain on my time and energy and resources – all of this feels like such bullshit I've been filling my brain and life with.
Whereas all I really need to do is so simple. Wake up, hang out with D, write after he goes to school, go for a walk with KrA, write some more before and/or after doing chores, pick up D from school, hang out with him, have fun, get him to bed, read or watch TV, and call it a day. A day that is entirely mine, filled with writing and spending time with KrA and D!
In the end, after all, the concepts aren’t what matter. Developing habits and achieving goals don’t matter in and of themselves. They matter to the extent that they lead you more deeply into a spacious and vivid and fulfilling experience of the reality behind all those concepts. It’s not worth bothering with the ones that drag you away from that reality, into a futile quest to become someone you aren’t. That’s no way to live.
Oliver Burekman, The Imperfectionist, 13 April 2023
So here's a resolution I make today. No more dithering on whether or not I seek to make a living writing. This is what I wish to do. This is what I love doing. This is what I will dedicate my time to.
Truth be told, I am incredibly lucky that we can manage to live well enough on KrA's salary alone, so there is really no reason for me to allow financial anxiety to seep in and prevent me from writing.
In fact, I think my financial anxiety as well as all those anxieties I have pertaining to family and D's health, all of those are simply attempts at self-sabotage, just another of Critical Voice's insiduous ways to keep me away from the writing desk.
Yes, all those thoughts will continue crop up.
Fantasies about having held on to the lucrative job I had back in Singapore, when KrA and I had enough in our accounts to spend on holidays without worrying about money, all those what-if questions – what if I had held on to that job, what if I was still earning today, what if I didn't have to rely on writing to earn me an income, what if I had had family to help me bring up D in the early days of motherhood, what if ..., what if ..., what if ...
I have a very active mind, and the best use for it is in the writing of stories.
I am a writer of stories. This is how I make a living. I may not be seeing a short-term income right away, but I am slowly building to something bigger and very sustainable.
Every time an iota of doubt arises, I will label it as a thought or a worry, and carry on with my life's work.
No matter what disappointments arise, I can face them. I can face all the rejections and difficulties. I can face doubts and questions from others, and I can also hold contradictory emotions of longing and certainty within myself.
Most importantly, for me, parenting does not take away from my writing. I have plenty of time to write in a relaxed and joyful way. My stories are richer as a result when I bring an energy of creativity and positivity to them instead of angst and anxiety and fear and worry. Those are not the modes I wish to operate in.
I am on cloud nine now as a result of these realisations. May I never forget this day's epiphanies. May I trust myself and the universe that I can and I will make a living by writing and selling fiction.
This is the path I have chosen, and I will no longer stray from it.
It is amazing what a clear, positive mind can believe in and achieve.