Why writing fiction is like engaging your core
Journalist Nisha Susan muses on the addictive process of writing fiction and waiting for readers to savour her first book of short stories
A boy and I were in the glimmer of a smile stage. It was evening and we were standing on a tiny decorative bridge on his college campus. As we turned to each other to say something, a group of students clattered past us. A law student I had never spoken to was among them. He turned and saw our glimmer of a smile. Without any ado (the one that comperes at every event swear there will be no further of), he stopped in front of us and began. No hello. Just, “What is the difference between Philip Glass and Mahatma Gandhi?" I felt terror and clutched the bridge. “What is it?" I asked. “Philip Glass was a violinist. Mahatma Gandhi was a non-violinist." I groaned and laughed. I felt the boy shake silently next to me. The law student walked away. His job was done.
So much informs the successful telling of jokes and stories. The timing. The details. The backstory. Sometimes it’s about who is telling the joke. My friend George Mathen (better known as the graphic novelist Appupen) and I have argued in the past about a long and involved joke about Jesus, the apostles and a Chinese restaurant. We both love the joke. He thinks the punchline works only when women tell it. I have avoided eye contact and said that *cough* perhaps it only works when I tell it.
I have tremendous success in delivering really sad and bad jokes. One of my favourite travel memories is of telling a joke in the Cajas National Park in Ecuador to two new acquaintances. Both fairly serious and both Tamil-speaking. My speaking Tamil is toddler-like but there I was in a natural wonder of the world, surrounded by evergreen cloud forests, and I immediately unleashed my one Tamil joke. It involves the great violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan (a violinist joke theme seems to be emerging here that I need to examine later). I remember the two men laughing loudly and that always makes me smile.
I feel tremendously lucky about many things in my life but mostly I feel lucky to be able to make my living from writing, the one thing I feel naturally gifted at, the one thing I practise very hard at, the one thing that I feel compelled to do. While I have never quite Ancient Mariner-ed strangers on decorative bridges, I understand the impulse of that law student. Sometimes, you just have to tell someone a story. Or? Or you would be okay but you would be a sad sort of okay.
Most of my adult life, I have made a living from journalism and writing non-fiction of other kinds. This month, my first collection of short stories has made an appearance in the world and I am hugely pleased by it (this is an essential personality trait for compulsive joke-tellers. You need to be what a friend used to call a humour ecosystem. You make the joke and you only feel pleased. I am pleased to have a work of art out in the world. I am pleased by the extra-alluring book jacket. I am pleased to do many Zoom events in which I will work hard at sounding like I have hidden depths (I do). But mostly I am just pleased that the book is an extended version of a moment I live for. That moment in which you are rattling through your old story or bad joke or new piece of gossip and you are watching the other person’s face and wondering how it will land. And there! There it is, the understanding and the laughter resounding through the cloud forests and the high grasslands and the snowy mountains and the giant hummingbirds. Sometimes, I am not gonna lie, it doesn’t land. You told it badly and you wish a giant hummingbird would eat you and spit you out. But it is that risk of becoming avian regurgitation that makes the process worth it.
To avoid crashing, you have to get the story right but not quite get it right in the way non-fiction works. Contemporary non-fiction is ambitious, experimental and often so ridiculously stylish it is easy to understand why many people only read non-fiction today. Sanam Maher’s 2018 book on Qandeel Baloch, for instance, is so brilliant it will make any self-conscious writer want to look for other work. So it isn’t that journalism has not expanded its aesthetic horizons or ambitions. But that extended moment I enjoy in the process of writing fiction is different and addictive. You write it, plot it, rewrite and edit and spellcheck and do all the boring bits that you do in every kind of writing. But all along a part of you maintains a delicious kind of tension that you know you must not focus on.
It is the mental version of trying to engage your core while doing planks and mountain climbers. Half of you is like, where is my core, is it engaged, or am I just sucking in my tummy? And then you realize you have fallen on the mat. It’s a con you pull on yourself, much like when you first learn to swim and figure that if you think about sinking, you will end up drinking a lot of water. But if you keep swimming, you will get somewhere dry. Only a peculiar blend of attention and forgetfulness allows you to plough through the process of writing fiction.
The law student who just had to tell us the Philip Glass joke. I know now that two things were working there that evening. One, the compulsion to share a violinist joke and hear us laugh. Two, as he turned he had seen in the two of us that open vulnerability that our glimmer stage had put us in. We were oh-so-willing victims.
While writing fiction, when seeing my stories reach readers all over the country this week, it isn’t the freedom from fact-checking or “quote regret" that I am enjoying. What I treasure is the openness of readers standing on bridges, waiting to fall in love, waiting for pleasure, alert to glimmers.
So here is the truth. You can ignore everything I have said before in this essay. The truth is that I wrote those stories only for you.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook And Other Stories, released this month.