The Pains and Pleasures of Writing
I am delighted to be invited to deliver this year's Dr. EC Antony Memorial Lecture of Sri. C. Achutha Menon Government College, Thrissur. Allow me to pay a tribute to Dr. E.C.Antony, who has been recognized as a "great academician and social activist." My respects also go to Sri. C.Achutha Menon, an outstanding Chief Minister of Kerala, whom I had the privilege of meeting in Moscow many years ago.
I rarely get invited to speak on literary topics, as my long career in the Foreign Service and my present assignment in Higher Education have diminished my academic background in English Literature. Having got this opportunity to speak in memory of a legendary teacher of English Literature, I have chosen to speak today on the pleasures and pains of writing, as all of us, at one time or another, have experienced both, whether we are students, teachers, professionals and most of all, creative writers. When I speak of creative writing, I refer not only to poetry and fiction, but all writings, which contain thoughts, feelings and emotions, not just information. We engage in creative writing at one time or another and experience its pleasures and pains.
Every educated person carries ideas for creative writing, whether he ever puts pen to paper. Someone said that there are only two kinds of people on this earth, those who write and those who think they can write. Indeed, we believe that any of us can write a novel, short story, poem or autobiographical reflections if only we tried. But it is like imagining that we can play the sitar like Ravi Shanker, if only we tried. We need extensive reading, intensive imagination, a compulsive urge and specialist training to create any kind of literature. A famous writer prosaically remarked that a literary creation is a piece of furniture, which has its own requirements. We have to learn the laws of construction before we go about creating it. "Just because I had read plenty of novels did not mean I could write one, more than I could make a chair because I had sat on enough of them", said Nigel Watts. On the other hand, the Director of a creative writing program in a University for many years said that all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law, as creative writing cannot be taught.
Writers have their own reasons to write and many of them have explained why they write. Some do it to create a revolution. Friedrich Nietche believed in the old dictum that the pen is mightier than the sword. He said, “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” I suppose Martin Luther King would have been reading Neitzche when he inspired the masses by exhorting them: “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Mahatma Gandhi brought a mighty empire to its knees by writing. Others write for their own satisfaction and pleasure, but not without pain. According to Thomas Mann, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writing is pain and pleasure in parallel proportions like the two sides of a coin. A young researcher collected for me what famous writers had to say as to why they wrote. Some remarkable explanations worth noting include poignant ones like Albert Camus, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself”; philosophical ones like Maya Angelou “A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”; “psychological” ones like E.L. Doctorow “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”; prudent ones like F. Scott Fitzgerald “You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”; pragmatic ones like George Orwell “I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose”; matter of fact ones like W.Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are” and simply practical ones like Toni Morrison, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." George Bernard Shaw is credited to have suggested that he writes for the same reason as a cow gives milk: "It's inside me, it's got to come out, and in a real sense I would suffer if I couldn't.” The pain of milking is compensated for by the pleasure of giving. The most fascinating and simple reason for writing was given by my own guru, Prof. Ayyappa Paniker, who wrote: "I cannot but bloom, as I am a flowering tree." (Pookkathirikkan enikkavathille, kanikkonnayalle)
Writing is the simple exercise of translating a thought into an action through the chosen medium of words; though finding the right word is often a difficult task. Mark Twain says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Nonetheless, the writer must set his pen moving constantly as perfection is like chasing the horizon. Words leave behind indelible impressions that can be restrictive or resurrective in nature. The reader should be able to visualize a world of his own, rather look for real images in the mind of the writer To sum it up, allow me to borrow these prescient words of Marcus Fabius Quintillions, a Roman rhetorician of the first century AD who wrote “We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”
Needless to say, reading is the most essential requirement for writing. Some writers say that one needs to read a thousand sentences before writing one sentence. Reading gives you language, thoughts and experience, not to be copied, but to be imbibed to ignite your imagination and to express your thoughts in elegant language. The war with words ensues only if one has conquered the first battle; which is the drive to initiate writing. Blaise Pascal once prophecied, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I would say that the solution to it is to engage in the art of writing. The ability to embrace the self in solitude and empathize with fellow human beings either directly with the characters created or indirectly with the targeted reader is essential for creative writing. Starting to write is often painful, but finishing it is pleasurable. It may be tedious, but the pure pleasure of writing is priceless, just like it is for a bird that sings in the wilderness. The sense of fulfillment that one derives out of writing is often compared with that of motherhood.
Language was the earliest and the best invention in human history. It arose not only from man’s absolute necessity to convey his ideas, but also his enthusiasm to communicate in the best possible manner. Creative writers molded the language, in its many manifestations, to change the world itself. The voice of the writers ought to be the voice of change and the collective voice of the society should bring about progress and betterment. The voluminous novels and scholastic tomes have determined the course of history in the past and micro writings on twitter and facebook create revolutions today.
Turning to my own experience of writing, which consisted initially of professional analyses of political events and personalities and now of newspaper columns and autobiographical narrations, is prompted by an urge to share experiences and shape opinions. I would not call it creative writing, but the sense of fulfillment in seeing my writings published gives me immense joy. Even after many years of public speaking, producing television programs and blogging, the thrill of seeing bylines in the leading publications of the world is unparalleled. Today, the writer has been liberated from the clutches of editors and publishers, as blogs and electronic publications are not subject to the scissors of editors and publishers. But the traditional interaction with editors before a piece sees the light of day is an exercise I enjoy most. Most Indian publications carry columns either as they are written or edited for brevity or acceptability, but writing for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Quarterly involves a dialogue with gifted editors, who do not leave any fact unchecked or views unexamined. The final product inevitably has the stamp of the publication in both language and content. The partnership between the author and the editor embellishes rather than diminish the value of writing.
The pleasure and pain of writing, I imagine, is more in poetry and fiction, but any writing that goes beyond conveying information carries the exhilaration of creation as well as the frustration of inadequacy. Like many others who believe that they can play the sitar like Ravi Shankar or sing like Yesudas if only they tried, I too dream of the day when I can create a masterpiece of classical proportions. But for the time being, I must be content with the lesser experience of expressing my thoughts in words for the pure joy of it.