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The difficulty of conscious writing

Writing is taxing. Writing lies at intersections. Writing is lonely. Writing is misunderstood. But writers write, consciously.

While there is much that can be communicated by words, only a writer who has expended much time on the craft can tell a story. Photo: iStockphoto Premium
While there is much that can be communicated by words, only a writer who has expended much time on the craft can tell a story. Photo: iStockphoto 

Nobody takes it for granted that they can get on a tabla and play it with the virtuosity of Zakir Hussain. For that matter, nobody claims they can stay on the crease as doggedly as Rahul Dravid can. Or drive an F1 car like Mika Hakkinen.

But to write is dreadfully easy, is a fondly held assumption. What muscle may it need, some ask, to write?

One narrative has it that writers offer opinions. And that to opine is easy. In any which case, everybody has an opinion on all narratives in the wind. If tutored in a language, some literature can be read on any theme and an opinion can be authored around why a narrative may be desirable or undesirable. The facts be damned.

Then there are writers of another kind. These are the ones who think all that is needed are reservoirs of imagination to draw from. Their output, when put to words, they claim, are works of fiction and poetry. Here again, popular narrative has it that to create works of such kinds, people sit someplace quiet and contemplate, until inspiration strikes. They then hammer away, in solitude, until they think it presentable.

“Quaint" is a charitable word that comes to mind to describe these world views.

Some perspective is needed here. When that legendary physicist Richard Feynman pays an ode to a flower, why is it that he sees much beauty in it? So much so, that he can offer an opinion on why it matters to the biological ecosystem around it even as he thinks of it as a work of art. What gives him the mental muscle to be a physicist who can morph into a botanist to dissect a flower, an ecologist to survey the landscape, and an artist to appreciate the beauty in it?

Convention has it artists are the kinds who can see beauty intuitively and place a premium on it over others. But Feynman can see beauty in a flower because his mind can appreciate it from more perspectives than an artist, as convention defines these creatures, can ever imagine:

“I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower."

Implicit to that assertion is that a scientist is an artist as well. If he can articulate it as clearly as that, he now morphs into a powerful story teller—or a writer in the purest sense—the kind of creature who can live in multiple worlds and embrace ambiguity.

The writer’s dilemma

While there is much that can be communicated by words, only a writer who has expended much time on the craft can tell a story. Because stories, much like Feynman’s metaphorical flower, must be examined.

Who may the various protagonists in it be? What may be the various motivations that drive them? Where may their allegiances lie? When did they make up their minds about where they are? Why do they stand where they are now?

Questions of these kinds are asked by people who probe, like detectives.

When questions such as these are asked, a writer finds himself staring at not one story—but multiple stories. How then is a writer to fuse it into a cohesive narrative that does justice to all the protagonists? People who attempt to synthesize narratives and comprehend the essence of what outcomes may emerge are leaders.

Because real stories come from real people. And when probed sincerely, people tell the truth. Any good writer knows everybody’s truth is a function of the world they reside in. But writers also know, that the world a person lives in has much to do with where their subject lives in. The world, writers also know, is not linear. But it resides on a continuum of time. The question writers then have to ask when listening to a story is, which part of time is the subject’s story emerging from? They may be telling the truth. But it is their truth. To look at it dispassionately then and holistically, a writer must step back and look at the subject in perspective, dispassionately, even as he offers a compassionate ear. How different may that be from a mental health professional?

What may have been true yesterday in City A and as witnessed by Person X may sound like a falsehood to Person Y in City B—both of whom may claim to be witnesses to the same event. The fact is, both are telling the truth, but offering different perspectives. How may a writer then weave through their stories to stitch a cohesive narrative and ensure it has beauty woven into it as well?

This is ambiguous territory because whose eyes is the truth to be looked at from? This is what those in science and religion have been at loggerheads at forever.

But all these are the domains a writer must navigate. There is much work that goes into it not evident to the uninitiated eye. That is why exasperation creeps in when I hear talk about how “content is now a commodity". 

Much of this has to do with the rise of the internet and an extremely popular story of how it has helped create a democracy in publishing. Apparently, this democracy ended a tin pot dictatorship run by publishers, writers and editors. In this lovely world, people can walk into public parks called the world wide web, create their own domains where they may park blogs or personal websites, and populate it with prose and poetry that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. If they may choose, there are social media platforms of all kinds to choose from as well.

There is much merit in this story. Because for too long, large parts of published content were controlled by a community that lived in gated communities. Their arrogance stays intact and they remain snooty. What hasn’t dawned upon them is that they now look like clowns posing as gatekeepers of all things libertarian.

But it is equally true that when walls of any kinds are broken down, democracies allow masses of mediocrity to come in as well. And the din created by the claps and coins mediocrity embraces, outshouts anything the polite interruptions that subtlety and nuance valiantly attempts.

To listen in to their voices takes much work and effort. But us humans are wired to be lazy. It is inevitable then that mediocrity rises to the top.

So, how is to one look for a good writer and skim past the mediocre? 

Why writers ask

Before I delve further, two disclosures must be made: 

1.I gave up on God a long while ago.

2.I did not choose the following passage. It chose me.

The passage appears in Night, a book by the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. He survived the Holocaust. It stuck as pertinent when thinking of what kind of questions make for good questions.

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fibre in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because he kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?"

That passage doesn’t read like a question. It contains much anguish instead. But those familiar with Wiesel know he had a tortured soul. And that this passage emerged from his days after having witnessed the Holocaust as a young boy. It was a question he had grappled with in his head and is a theme he engaged with in much detail for all his life.

When looked at by the naïve, it is the kind of question anyone can ask. But when read closely, it is of the kind that can be asked only by somebody who may have seen horror first-hand.

Bluntly put, if I wore my editor’s hat, this is the kind of question that can emerge from a reporter who has done “been to the grass roots". Because what is clear to a trained eye here is that when framed in this manner and articulated with as much passion, believers may be rattled.

Their responses it may evoke from them may be of two kinds.

The milder ones may respond with “The Lord behaves in mysterious ways".

The aggressive will insist anyone who asks a question like this be gagged for questioning their God.

Non-believers like me will find their biases confirmed in this question.

But writers do not stop at having reported on the horrors they witnessed. They insist on exploring if other views may exist. Because they know multiple answers may emerge. Who is to know where the truth and their answer may lie? For them, the question marks the beginning of the journey to tell a story and it is too early to offer an opinion of any kind.

Writers choose to listen

Writing begins when you start to listen. Because the full story cannot be told or a firm opinion formed basis a single conversation. Because when multiple world views are sought, it challenges a writer to engage with worlds he had never imagined possible.

By way of example, in thinking of Richard Feynman, the easiest assumption to make of him as a scientist is that he places a premium on falsifiability over faith. I had imagined him in my mind as the kind who may suggest, I don’t believe in miracles and other such assorted phenomena.

But in listening to his Ode to a Flower, he asserts something else altogether I never thought could have emerged from him.

“It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man—as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate."

This was a challenge to my belief that science must discard all faith in the idea of god to progress relentlessly. Because “God knows" is a thought-terminating, lazy and clichéd answer to all fundamental questions. If this be introduced, it can kill the scientific mind. How can the two possibly co-exist?

When probed some more and poring over the conversations of Krista Tippet in that marvelous book of hers that is Einstein’s God, one of the many pages in it include her interaction with the biologist Carl Freit. He describes his clinical pursuit of cancer as religious study of the Talmud as “dual intellectual quests". 

Science asks penetrating questions of “how", he explains, yet, “the physical universe doesn’t come beset with values…. From the scientific perspective, everything that we can discover we should discover. The problem comes up once you’ve discovered it."

To place that into perspective, he offers the dilemma researchers were confronted with when exploring the potential energy of an atom. The original intent was to exploit the energy embedded in it. On the other hand, it can also be used to create a bomb that can annihilate humanity even as cure’s cancer. What ought atomic energy be looked at from then?

Between Feynman’s assertion on appreciating awe and the dichotomy Freit present’s, a writer now stumbles upon that the answer to Weisel’s anguished question is not a simple one. What intersections may it lie at? Is it possible no answers exist? Does the joy in writing lie in the quest for answers?

Writers live alone

There are no answers to questions like these. It is a dilemma every writer must wrestle with. Must the story be given up on? Ought it be told as it is now and left for the reader to imagine what the outcomes maybe? Or is this the time to offer an opinion?

There is a dilemma Freit the scientist has grappled with as well, and shared with Tibbet.

“The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer these questions we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?"

In attempting to resolve this question, he broke it down into two parts.

a) Should I do this? Should we do it? Should the government do this?

That is a scientific question. Because you won’t know until you try. And science insists you try. Who knows what outcomes may emerge out of it?

b) But once I know what will come of it, how may I, or we or the government use it?

That is not for science to answer. It is a moral question and requires much deliberation. Who is to decide what is right for whom and in what context? Is there some divine intervention that can be called in for here?

These are questions to which there are no answers. Whatever emerges can challenge both the believer and the non-believer.

It is inevitable then that a writer retreat into loneliness. Because all of what has listened in to, must be absorbed. Some sense of it must be made so a story can be told. How is he to answer know after all his investigations if god exists or not?

Embedded in Weisel’s question is an insinuation if there is a god, it must be an evil creature and must be revolted against. But if that be taken at face value, and as articulated by Feynman, perils exist that we may miss what may be magnificent. But the magnificence in it must be given much thought as well cautions Freid, because of the dichotomies in the answers caution Freit.

To offer an opinion now, a writer must go through gut-wrenching loneliness. This is a story that goes untold.

Writers never stop

When loneliness of this kind stares at a writer, it can be terrifying to take an informed position. One choice they have is to abandon the mental ask that it takes to form an opinion and stick to telling the narrative as it is. Or they can continue to search. Who is to know where a pointer may lie?

It is entirely possible that it may lie in the soul of the subject who asked the question. When Wiesel is read closer, he offers what lenses does he look at god from.

When he was as anguished as he was, he turned to the scriptures. ironically, it led him to Moses, the ancestor of his forefathers as described in the scriptures his forefathers had handed him. On close scrutiny, it turns out, Moses had felt the same loneliness that Wiesel had at one point. It compelled him to study Moses in much detail and answers on leadership started to emerge for Wiesel.

“Naturally, a true leader cannot function without those whom he or she leads. By the same token, the leader cannot work or live in their midst as one of them. Hence the ambivalence of his or her position. There must be some distance between the leader and those being led; otherwise the leader will be neither respected nor obeyed. A certain mystique must surround the leader, isolating him or her from those whose servant he or she is called upon to be or has been elected to be. Is there a leader, here or anywhere, who does not find time to complain about the terrible solitude at moments of decision?"

And so, Weisel concluded:

“Here is Moses’s singularity. A man of the situation, he was always there when needed, and then he gave himself completely to his task. He had no ambition to become a prophet, but once he became one, he was the greatest. He did not seek the role of political or military leader, but once he took it on, he was the best. Philosophers would say that if a human being is what he or she becomes, Moses was a human being par excellence."

It was some of the finest lessons on life and living a tortured soul could get. The outcomes of which were books and a life dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy.

Writers, then write

After all of this is done, a writer gets down to write. Consider this passage that follows that was created by Gary Provost.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important."

Why is work of this kind different from the music that emerges out of Zakir Hussain’s tabla or the flourish with which Rahul Dravid crafts a century?

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Published: 20 Jan 2018, 11:35 PM IST
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