Friday, June 01, 2007

When Our Writing Becomes Us


"Develop a Thick Skin," Norman Mailer

It’s afternoon, I am writing boring content for my website. The job is interesting but I am getting a bit restless. A thought, a nice thought, um, epiphany, no less, strikes me.

Why do we write? What’s the need we have to talk to other people? I am reading Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sysyphus, which discusses in great detail, Franz Kafka’s existentialism and other thoughts in literature. To clarify things: Camus, Kafka and Jean P Sartre et al belong to the same school of existential thought in literature that was the rage when I was a boy being tutored in the literature of the twentieth century by my venerated English teacher - Shankaranarayan. This beloved teacher and writer who inculcated in me an abiding love for literature and poetry has since turned to non-literary things like managing a foundry that makes casting for furnaces. How un-literary!

What I am waffling towards is this. Kafka et al formulated the existential thought in literature based on the absurdity we feel everyday in our lives. Kafka’s novels like The Trial deal with the absurdity that strikes one when one is in the process of doing what one usually, and, routinely does. For example, today, when I woke up I felt the absurdity of life and, prompted by the book I am now reading, thought immediately of writing this article. We all have such attacks of “absurdity” described, rather shown, by Kafka in his novels. Camus’ essays, which I am reading, deal with thoughts of intense absurdity, which leads us to thinking of suicide as a way out of our misery.

Suddenly we feel life is meaningless, absurd. We want to communicate, share, feel one with some people, belong to a sect of people who mean something to us, but we can’t because the listeners are lost in their own worlds of meaninglessness and absurdity. That leads us to thinking of suicide, ending it all, so that we can get back at the people who ignored our pleas of listening to us. I may also venture to deduce here, rather facetiously, that a person who is ignored in a forum also has similar thoughts. However, this morning the thought of sharing my thoughts with some people on a forum made my life seem meaningful. And maybe they will remember me for this essay. Who knows, they might prescribe it at school level as a must read. That’s the power that communication has over us. That, I think, is why we write, at least, that’s why I do.

We all have this inexplicable, uncontainable, and unmasked need to connect to others, or, communicate. Why is chatting the most popular medium on the Internet? That’s because you can work and chat and communicate on the sly at the same time. The boss won’t even know. When I catch a train back home there is this great disgorgement of people from the station who look so earnestly into my eyes, asking me silently, “Will you listen to what I have to say? Will you please listen to my side of the story, and not theirs, those enemies of mine? Will you tell me I am right, and they are wrong?” I am sort of, like, you know, “I gladly would, but I have no time.”

The need to communicate is that strong! Just as the need to communicate is strong, so also is our need to listen to communication. That’s why people lurk on Internet fourms! That’s also why you find people on trains with their noses buried in books and newspapers, oblivious of the beautiful world passing by.

As humans, we need to communicate more than anything else. We need to share more than communicate, and make a difference in others with whom we are sharing. Therefore write we must. Or, as one wit said, “Write we must, or, burst.” Look at those blabbering idiots who preach obscure cults, meditation, and such like. They are famous because they are good sharers and communicators and have convinced people to believe in their words, which have made them appear superior.

Such is the power of communication. But, then why write? Why not just talk all the while? This whole process of sitting down with a pen and pencil, scratching one’s head, making foolish attempts to string together words is part of this urgent need to communicate and share, and be known to have contributed something to the world of letters.

The way we communicate is also important. Printing and publishing evolved because of the need to communicate to a larger audience across centuries and across oceans. The British Raj is so vivid in our imagination because of the literature they left behind. When I was working for a British multinational in the Persian Gulf, I would see these reams of reports written by our British project manager, detailing every aspect of the project. These documents were so accurate that, as his assistant, it was a pleasure typing them. Through our writing we are communicating our ideas, our personalities, leaving our impressions and judgments to those who may need them in future. This is what I, rather ambitiously, intend for this article, this written communication. Well, we all are entitled to our illusions of grandeur!

And there are people who write, write, and write. Unstoppable. They have so much to communicate that they would go mad if they didn’t. Recently at a meeting of Caferati I was told by the moderator to cut short my story into half. I don’t know if I can. How can I cut something that has become as precious as my own limb? As I read the story to the audience I felt there was, indeed, a lot of fluff that was crying to be excised.

I feel my words are precious; I think of them as my own; the writing has become me. How can I cut my hands, legs, nose, ears, and tongue? Now, that’s a difficult proposition. If someone criticizes what I write, I feel hurt, just as I would if my tongue is pricked.

It’s like, we have so much to communicate that we feel our communication is us, our writing becomes us, the need becomes us. When my writing is rejected, as happens many times, I feel very hurt. Rejection even threatens me, the one who wanted to communicate because of the absurdity one felt, just as Kafka must have felt in his life when he wrote The Trial. When we feel our life is absurd and meaningless and we say so in as many words, it hurts to think that our critics are laughing at us. That compounds the absurdity of it all. That’s why Norman Mailer says in this interview to Kavitha Rao that writers should develop a “Thick Skin.” Developing a thick skin, a sense of absurdity, a sense of irony, would help a writer more than anything else. Except, of course, learning the tools of good writing like grammar and sentence construction. When your writing has elements of absurdity, self-mockery and irony, it would seem sweeter.

To quote Kavitha Rao in her interview with Norman Mailer, “His advice for would-be-writers – develop a thick skin. “Writers must rise above despising themselves. If they cannot, they will probably lose the sanction to feel like a God long enough to render judgment on others.” He also advises writers to “climb high enough above their egos to see every flaw” in their work.”

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