Opinion | Why writing is harder than you think
In the latest instalment of Sabbatical Chronicles, Swanand Kelkar describes his foray into short story writing
I love writing. Or so I thought. Over the month that I wrote short stories, I realized, though, that I had never written at all. Not in the true sense of the word. I started liking “writing" in middle school. Fortunately, I was born in a family of bibliophiles and had easy access to good books. Blessed with good memory, I could remember new words and even entire sentences. I was made to read editorial columns, underline words I didn’t understand and then look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Most newspapers carried “quotable quotes" above the editorial column. I had a small notebook in which I would write these quotes every day.
Armed with an arsenal of big words and quotable quotes, I started carpet-bombing. Nobody was plain hungry in my essays, they were always ravenously hungry. George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein appeared regularly. And it worked. Teachers loved the writing, my grades improved and I scored the highest marks in English in the Mumbai Board. Buoyed by this validation, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. In response, they invoked images of Khadi-clad, jhola-swinging people to scare my 16-year-old self. So we settled for commerce and then I opted to become a chartered accountant. I learnt a lot about numerical creativity but literary creativity, if any, was relegated to Notes to Accounts.
Once I took up investing as a profession, I was resigned to the fact that my writing dreams were buried, till I discovered some excellent investment writing by the likes of Warren Buffett and Howard Marks. My colleague Amay Hattangadi and I started writing an investor newsletter called Connecting The Dots and the then managing editor of Mint, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, was kind enough to grant us op-ed space. But that wasn’t “writing" either. A typical column would have a hypothesis followed by arguments for and against it, weighing their relative merits and a conclusion. One could insert a couple of charts which spoke for themselves and they anchored your piece. It was left-brained and clinical but it wasn’t “writing".
When I green-lit creative writing as one of the activities to pursue during my year-long sabbatical, I thought it would be a breeze. A mutual friend introduced me to the US-based author Manjula Padmanabhan as a potential writing guru and although I have never met her in person, our wavelengths matched.
Just as hibernating sportspeople go through a training camp before tournaments, we decided to do three weeks of warm-ups and stretches before I plunged into short-story writing. Padmanabhan sent writing assignments that seemed cute but took half a day to complete. “Imagine a conversation between two shadows that meet on a wall (500 words)" was one such.
As the camp progressed, I practised writing contemporary Indian adaptations of classic short stories. We started with O. Henry’s The Gift Of The Magi and graduated to Somerset Maugham’s Rain. I started my version of Gift of Magi with “Dilshad looked pensively out of the little window". Padmanabhan was brutal with it. “When does a character not look pensively out of a window?" she asked. “Lose the adverb and the adjective."
“It was the time of the year when shop-owners appropriated the footpaths outside their shops for displaying their wares and irate pedestrians and honking cars jostled with each other on the narrow street," my story continued. “Why the suspense?" asked Padmanabhan “Just say what time of the year it was and let the reader imagine...and shorter sentences please."
Adapting Rain proved harder. Getting the five central characters right and transporting them to contemporary India was difficult for me. I faced two challenges: not to reduce the characters to a caricature and not let my bias as a writer creep in. Even after three days and 2,000 words, I couldn’t finish my version of Rain.
Since boyhood, Ruskin Bond has been my favourite writer and thanks to him, I had this romantic notion that creativity abounds in the hills. I headed to the beautiful Taj hotel in Rishikesh for a month of writing, confident that plots and words would flow as freely as the Ganga. I can read 30 pages of fiction in an hour with a variability of 10%. I used a similar input-output approach to conclude that I could write 15,000 words in a month. I estimated that I could also continue my yoga practice and finish reading Ray Dalio’s Principles. Eventually, I eked out less than 8,000 words, managed to do a few sun salutations and didn’t read a single page of Principles.
I realized that no matter how picturesque the setting, creativity cannot be summoned. I stared at the blinking cursor for hours before giving up and scrolling down the rabbit hole of Instagram. There were days when I could not manage even a tweet’s worth of writing. I had assumed that if you sit for 5 hours in front of a screen, you will produce 2,000 words like clockwork. It doesn’t work like that. At least for me it didn’t. When it comes to writing or any other creative pursuit, showing up is a necessary but not sufficient condition for output. I struggled to accept that for a while but eventually made peace with it.
The idea for the story which eventually became Khushroo’s Canteen did come to me in a bathtub. I let my imagination run wild and egged on by fragrant bathing salts, I had a six-part series ready in my head. I wrote a short sketch and shot a breathless mail to Padmanabhan, hoping for her to say that this was going to be better than Sacred Games. On the phone that evening, she said: “There’s a lot of masala there but no meat. Where is the story?" I felt deflated and angry but took her advice. I reworked the story, including the point of view from which it was being narrated. If I may say so myself, it made the story smoother. Khushroo’s Canteen will probably be published as a multi-part series soon.
Writers are frequently told to “Kill your darlings". You fall in love with a character, a sentence or just a phrase and force-fit it into the storyline. It does nothing to take the story forward. Most times it actually detracts. In the short story Nostalgia, I had one such darling. “Food and sex—What else does a man live for! And if there is a severe shortage in one department, the other has to compensate." It was a loose end but I had fallen in love with it and persisted till the fourth draft. I could see that it was unnecessary but didn’t have the heart to chop it. That’s where an experienced mentor helps. Padmanabhan recognized it was a darling but never said it in as many words. She just kept asking, “How are you going to close the loop on that one?" With a heavy heart, I edited it out. I had to eat two dollops of ice cream that night (you can read Nostalgia here).
In one of our sessions, Padmanabhan asked me whether I wanted to be writer. It sounded like a loaded question and I asked her what she meant. “Being a writer," she said, “is a life-long occupation. You observe all your experiences. Consciously." I wasn’t sure I understood. But once I started writing, I realized that I was actually tapping into a reservoir of experiences I didn’t even know I had recorded. They came back as I wrote about characters, places and situations. I don’t know if it will become instinctive but I look forward to experiences now, knowing that even the bad ones could have an upshot; the germ of a story. Nobody had told me that is the first step to becoming a good writer. I wouldn’t have wasted my afternoons underlining editorials.
Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.