If you and I have made plans at any point in time you’ve probably heard the refrain “I have some writing to finish” or “I have a deadline” multiple times. You’re also probably tired of hearing it.
These days, life revolves around stringing words to make coherent sentences.
Every other day, I fall into research rabbit holes, wrangling with academicspeak for my studies, emerging with garbled theories and thick footnotes. I barter words for a pay check (and not always the fat kind. The kind that you look at, sigh and wonder if you should just listen to your dad and get a proper job instead). At night, you’ll find me in rumpled pyjamas, swatting mosquitoes and squinting at hieroglyphic handwriting while transcribing interviews. Or tiredly trying to sidestep words like ‘game-changer’, ‘number one’ and ‘unique’ in adjective-padded press releases.
Often, I switch from corporatespeak, newspaperspeak and academicspeak while grappling with deadlines. Most days, I enjoy it. On other days, I wage wars in my head.
There’s a kind of false grandiosity perceived about writing. There’s also this myth that writing is easy and that anyone can write. Both myths are irksome in equal proportions.
The myth that anyone can write? Well, of course, everyone can write but there’s a vast difference between writing and writing well. Writing well requires a fistful of talent and a truck load of hard work and is refined over time – much like any other skill.
Perhaps there is a fortunate breed of writers who have a muse they can summon on command and produce a cascade of beautifully crafted sentences. Perhaps writing really is an effortless activity for some people or a form of catharsis and joy to others. For some of us, writing isn’t easy
I have a pleasure/pain relationship with writing – I enjoy writing but I also struggle with it. My undergrad years left me with a voice constantly self-criticizing and scrutinizing my writing. Often, a certain percentage of the work I do is paid per word. When the rates are low there’s a tendency to fall into the dreaded freelance trap – when you spray your writing with needless adjectives and adverbs just to fill up the word count (…perhaps I shouldn’t be confessing to this). On these days, I have to chloroform my self-critic or I’d never get any work done. I’m not proud of this and the opportunity cost is terrible because either way, your writing suffers or your back balance suffers. When the voice of reason which dictates my finances takes precedence, my writing pays the price. Sometimes to my utter dismay, I find myself wading miserably in bloated, voluble paragraphs when something half its size would have sufficed.
But the self-editing and criticism prevail on most days. Often I delete more words than I type and during a deadline crunch, exacerbated by stress, my productivity is 10 words per biscuit. There are times when all I have to show for hours of work is a frail paragraph which sways, sighs and dramatically collapses after the third read. The perfected procrastinating also doesn’t help things, but that’s another malaise altogether.
And the perceived glamour associated with writing? What most people see is the manicured finished product – not the work in progress. Not the frustration of multiple dead ends or the back-and-forth editing loops with clients, monosyllabic interviewees and the inability to find the right hook. It’s easy to take a finished piece of work at face value and to forget what goes on behind the scenes before the curtain call. We’re all guilty of doing it.
I can assure you there’s very little glamourous about transcribing interviews at 2 in the morning, being forced to hear your nasal voice and polite laugh slowed down, while stress-eating your way through a 1000 word article, knowing that you also have an early meeting the next day.
In the middle of all the work-writing, I soon realized that I had gradually forgotten how to write for the sake of writing. Little bits of solipsistic prose which only I would read. To selfishly write, not for an audience or for client approval, but for myself – for the sheer love of it. To remind myself why I started writing in the first place.
Like all unhealthy relationships, it was easy to ignore my own imperfections and evade responsibility for my dearth of non-work writing. One self-perpetuated myth was that it was hard to get any writing done at home and so I began making my way through coffee shops in Colombo in search of The Perfect Writing Spot. I’m not sure what I was expecting – multiple epiphanies? A muse who would magically appear and dictate my swan song? Shockingly, I didn’t find what I was looking for.
My favourite coffee shop is great but is so small that everyone can hear everyone’s conversations. I would rearrange my features into an expression which befitted a person who is working on important things, order an iced coffee, type a few throwaway sentences and then promptly (and unintentionally) drift into other people’s conversations. I would listen to earnest visiting scholars use words like ‘impuissant’ and solve the world’s problems, armed with theories and linen pants. Aunties would come and gently grumble about their children over plates of butter cake while nervous entrepreneurs pitched investors (“This is an idea for a start-up… ”). Disappointed, I traipsed in and out of more coffee shops in search of the elusive, perfect location.
I didn’t get much writing done but my foray into all of Colombo’s coffee shops taught me three things:
1. I’m not a very sophisticated coffee drinker
2. I’m definitely a tea person
3. Drinking tea in a coffee shop is a terrible idea. Have you tried it? Who spends Rs. 300 for a tea bag floating half-heartedly in a mug of hot water?
Determined, I briefly expanded my scope for the perfect location. The beach was also futile – the notebook was pushed away, a bag of manioc chips were devoured and I proceeded to have a nap instead. Then, I flirted with pen and paper in place of the laptop (rationale – let’s go old school, back to the roots) but that was also just a fling. After developing a dull neck ache from lugging my laptop everywhere, I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a shiny, sleek Macbook – because when have you ever seen TV shows where the earnest writer character slaves over a bulky HP Compaq?
Today, I am in one of my more unconventional locations – a lopsided bench in a mall, waiting for a cab. Every time someone sits on the other end, the bench seesaws upwards and we exchange awkward smiles.
Here’s the thing. It’s just so easy not to write. It’s easy to be paralyzed with disillusionment and lapse into long periods of stasis in the fear that what you are writing is absolute rubbish. There is no editor or client on the other end, awaiting your writing and no deadlines. There is no sense of urgency that what you are producing is needed out there in the world (is it ever?). There will always be a vortex of excuses. The weather will never be right, you will never have enough time or the right tools. There will always be distractions and you will never, ever have your mojo.
I wish I could tell you that by now, I have neatly packaged answers for this dilemma. I don’t, but I’m always trying. So here I am, sitting in a crowded mall, on a broken bench, writing about writing.