From the short stories and poems to the first attempt at writing creative fiction in the form of the Spyglass, many occasions made me realize that writing took me even before I took to writing. Writing has shown me that both as a vocation and a profession, the fullest one can achieve is still unknown. Perfection remains more a pursuit, a journey, than a destination. For this post, I will take you along back in time for the backstory.
As a kid, I was never a dull boy. Yes, I was not good at studies, especially mathematics, physics, chemistry, but that was not because I was dumb. I was exceptionally good at all languages, including Sanskrit. I was also good at other subjects and extra-curricular activities. I neither disliked my teachers, nor did I hate learning. I still don’t. In fact, back then, I could not define what I now can. I hated the way people taught. This still remains with me: I am equally sensitive toward what is being taught and how it is taught.
The learning process needs a mentor and student. The mentors, I assume, have not changed. The student is still the same: equally hungry to learn. So, what made this student find his own identity? What happened that a kid who just about managed to pass the tenth grade and was made to accept a specific set of subjects turned out to be one of those students that outshined everyone else in almost every department before passing out of the same school?
It was during the eleventh grade that I began developing a reading habit. Or, I’d say, a few books called me to pick them up. It was a connection I cannot describe. Amongst the first few—and I want you to pay special attention to the selection here—were Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and The Glory of Puttaparthy by V Balu. I must have read both of those books at least a few times. While neither the books nor their respective genre has anything in common, both had the same effect on me. I became a better person after I finished reading them. It wasn’t enlightenment, but it wasn’t too far either. The same seagull that once had dreamed of flying at 70 miles per hour had transformed. It no longer needed to understand the rules, the aerodynamic flow, the wind direction, or wait for their turn in their flock of birds to get to nibble around the fisherman’s boat.
This small change then helped me graduate from being a mere reader to beginning to write. I penned hundreds of poems and short stories before I wrote my first non-fiction book on a writing pad. I called it the Ingredients of Success Recipe. Although I never published it, I did share it with my family and friends. They liked it. Or, at least, they pretended to. I won’t get to find out. But, that doesn’t matter, for I now have this priceless gift called writing. Now when I look back, I find mathematics rather interesting. And, so do all other subjects that I once hated of being made to sit and learn. Writing gave me the logic to decode the way to decipher through those dark clouds of thunderstorms called mathematics, physics, and chemistry. But, was that alone enough?
During my years as a freelance writer, I accomplished quite a bit, for I paid off my education loan even when I did not have a regular earning. During the same years, I had also enrolled for an MBA, which was exclusively for working professionals. Eventually, I figured that to be able to make a family and to sustain it, I will have to earn myself a job. Around the mid of 2011, I had completed a translation project that had drawn me some substantial appreciation and accolades from local representatives. I had completed that project in a mere 15 days—the project would normally have taken over four months of my schedule. But for a practiced hand, translation was a mechanical job. I wanted something more creative, more original.
It was during the last quarter of that year that someone suggested I pursue pranayama, the breathing technique. I researched it and settled on doing Nadi-Shodhan, a breathing technique that purifies the blood and mind. The first month of my breathing exercise wasn’t easy. While it resulted in some magical experiences within the first couple of weeks, it also gave me terrible back pain and other emotional turmoils. Words struck faster, so my efficiency improved, my earnings increased. But, at the cost of my health. The reason was that I had not taken the Deeksha (initiation) for its practice from a guru. So, I suffered from acute back pain for almost two years. But I persisted. Eventually, the pain subsided. Now it is gone.
Why do I tell you all that today? What is the reason I open those chapters of my life to you? What is it that I wish you to take away as the vital thought? The life of a writer is that of a generalist. We are the jack of all trades. And that itself has lent me the most potent insight: to be a learner, I just have to take the next logical step. As a proud generalist, I have broken down complex topics into simple terms and simple terms into clear messages, and clear messages into actionable, understandable items. One careful step, every time. I have moved from clutter to clarity in everything I have ever pursued as a writer.
William Zinsser, of On Writing Well, says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” I can only elaborate on his thought. If writing is pouring down your thoughts on paper, then re-writing is choosing which ones continue to stay there. In one of my previous posts, I said that if one of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it, then the reverse of it—to teach a subject, learn it first—is equally valid. I have used writing to wayfinding my way into the core of complex topics. Writing, for me, is like a map, which I use to navigate subjects and thoughts, much like city roads.
Does that mean if writing helped me understand the world and make it my own, it would do so for you, too? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly would give you that perspective of your own to understand the terms of the world as you pen them down in your own words. Each one of us has their own learning methodology. Writing is mine. What’s yours?
Memoir writing is as easy as accepting what made you you.
If there is anything lesser difficult, it is admitting to your mistake when you haven’t committed any. But life throws surprises and shocks at you. Which is what brings forth this series. On the surface, what looks like a recollection of the countless moments that make up life, each moment has a life of its own. These cherished moments, put together, are more than their sum called life.
An account of what I recall as history, my history, is what I cover through this series of posts. I can hardly blame anyone for anything that has happened to me. No one can. No one should. We would be at fault if we were to look at our past with regrets, guilts, or shame. It is despicable of us to blame our destiny for everything that made us us. If anything, we must accept everything as a part of our lives—if it were easy, like I mentioned in the beginning. Every new experience has brought with it a lesson that made me my better version.
A memoir is a bellwether that signals the arrival of storms of recollections; it is the lighthouse that witnesses tsunamis that unearth gems of wisdom from the depths of the past.
But I wish the memoirs to enable you to look at me beyond the boundaries of bone and flesh. Everything I’d henceforth share as memoirs would be dear-to-the-heart, thick-and-textured experiences. I wish the memoirs to:
Be natural: Show complexities of emotions and relationship
Be human: Show vulnerabilities and imperfections
Be impactful: Leave you with a message in a friendly but an affirmative way
Only then will each memoir smell unquestionably myself. Its whiff will fill the air around me with an aroma of warmth. It will break the time barriers by teleporting me into a familiar world of emotions. I will then be looking back, moving forward, and yet standing still.
I usually keep my feelings to myself unless I wish to write about them. Whether good or bad, this habit of writing looks like one that’s here to stay. Also, I cannot wait for another year to convey her what I feel for her: the person in context, my maternal grandmother.
It is easier to decide on your inspiration than to become like one. I, however, am finding it hard, for I have a little too many of them around. The trouble is, I can and do learn from each one of them with every passing day. This post is about the one who’s each day is a happy-sad challenge in her now salt-and-pepper life of intermingled experiences.
She is from an age (read era) where women were hardly considered powerful enough to have full education let alone running a family competing with husbands on the salary part. But, credit must be given where deserved. She has led her family well enough after her husband’s departure in 1976.
From the Second World War, India’s struggle for Independence, and the 1965 and 1971 wars, she has stood firmly beside by maternal grandfather. But, after these hard phases, the worst ones for her have been losing her family members—first husband, then my father (in 1993), and then her son (in 2011). In January, this year, she brushed past death after a series of heart attacks (two of Mild and one of the Severe degree) in a single day. On one occasion, doctors told us later that they couldn’t detect her pulse for as much as 10 minutes.
In April, she turned 88. But, if only that was enough for her to think that she needs to stop working. She still does everything on her own, which I find amazing. Did I tell you that she performed stage shows of Violin in the past? And that she learned to play synthesizer about 10-12 years back and plays it every day since then? She reads a chapter from Bhagwat Gita every day and has been doing that for as long as I remember. In the process, she has learned all the shlokas from all the 18 chapters from the epic.
If that is not enough, cooking interests her. So, she takes mental notes from the cookery show on her favorite television channel. Then, she experiments in the kitchen to prepare that for all of us. Yes, even today. It is because she thinks that the ready-made clothes don’t give her the required comfort and fitting, she stitches her own gowns that she usually wears every day.
Here is my message: We are and will be yours. Why this message? That too, after four months, you may ask. I don’t need an occasion to write about Aaji. You are an inspiration for people. But, you are much more than that for your family. I have come to conclude that if old age were to add numbers to people’s lives, it added wrinkles and stories to yours’.
The thing is: experiences disguise themselves as sometimes scars and sometimes as wrinkles. But they leave their marks on all occasions. And then, you don’t remain the same anymore. In the same sense, people are no more than wrinkles in the fabric of your life. You can iron out some; but, some just don’t go. They are there forever. They make you. They remain a part of you. You are as wrinkled a fabric as them. Have a healthy life ahead, Aaji. Your wrinkles and stories are a part of my fabric. They make me who I am.
At first, I wanted to compose this post as a poem. But, that would mean another poem on my blog. And, I have had a little too many poems on my blog within the last one year. This, in one way, diverges from the original contemplation on writing. But, wait. I don’t wish to begin this post with a negative thought. That’s is how much writing means to me.
My writing is my ambassador to you. It means so much to me because it is how I express what I feel. Usually, I don’t speak much. Yes, for a lot of my friends, I am an out-and-out extrovert. But, deep within, I am an ambivert who leans, in fact, toward introversion. My words convey what I can feel but can’t express, can see but can’t report, and can write but can’t speak.
Writing is my textual meditation. It is the way I introspect. Just like one must close their eyes to see within themselves, one must pen their thoughts to sieve through to the core. The clearer they think, the clearer they write. And, the other way around. My writing is my soul disguised as words.
Writing for me is like composing verses in prose. It is a melody. A song. There are sentences of all compositions and lengths. Some are long. Some, longer. A few, like this one, shorter. True! The long and short sentences convey the long and short of it—and everything that lies within—to the readers. Mentally listen to yourself when you read varying lengths of sentences. It sounds good. Good, because it is rhythmic. Good, also because it means that the melody is as important as the messages conveyed through the melody. My writing is a lyrical composition that I can hum, listen to, sway along with, or fall asleep to.
Writing is like a mirror. It is that sense of contemplation that adds a dimension of meaning to reflections. It isn’t only the reflection of oneself, but also a cause to reflect onto oneself. Writing is that catalyst without which the inner and the outer selves don’t equate. No reaction, whether it is chemical, is ever complete without a word of thought. It is that skillful, scientific art; it is that masterful, artistic science.
Writing is that folklore that records, refers, and rekindles life. It is that act of play where you are both the actor and the audience. Writing is both the pen and the ink that scribes your acts, with or against your will. It is both the cause and the outcome of your performance. It is also the background score that amplifies emotions without your knowing.
To me, writing is the means, the medium, and the end. It is as nameless, formless, and transparent as water. It originates with a spurt, from within. When it begins to flow like a stream of thoughts, it seeps and snakes through people’s minds, one after another, finding its way to you, who after traveling for miles has got down on their knees to enjoy their glittering reflections. When it flows from my heart to yours, it becomes a burbling river. When it becomes an ocean of emotions, you can watch it hug the limitless skies at the horizon and experience it wash-off the rare conch shells of revelations to the shore.
The most rewarding writing, however, often trickles down your cheeks as pearls of love. What does writing mean to you?
I would be amiss if I were to begin without defining the word content. That’s because it gives both a purpose and a premise to the topic: being content is feeling satisfied with your possessions or situations. But why this play of words in the title, you may ask. Here is why I rant…
Let us go back in time. Not far back into the world of typewriters and hand-written manuals. A couple of decades ago: when the concept of single-sourcing originated. I hadn’t joined the technical writing workforce then. Back then, the requirements were simple: get a single-sourcing tool to create everything from within one source. Then, use that source to generate the content for all formats. A lot has changed since. Yet the idea is to have a single repository generate the content. Just that we have complicated the process of creating and managing that content.
When I first single-sourced my product’s contents, I felt the need of creating a central repository for storing and generating the content—the likes of PDFs and CHMs. With that was born my organization’s server where resided the content. But, my requirements didn’t stop at that. I continued to remodel (or so I thought) my work processes to redefine the way I maintained that content. Then came XML, which helped me to tool-proof the product’s documentation.
Who knows, someday I may even put my head into Application Programming Interface (API), Internet of Things (IoT), and others. Did you notice how the story is becoming more about the tools of the trade than about the traded content? Sooner or later it will be about some other “hot” technology. As I continue to choose a (better) combination of tools and methodologies, I continue to steer farther away from the focus on the content. This could be your story, too.
A side note: a seamless user experience is easier to put on to paper than to put into practice. Agreed. Also, agreed that these days we have tools that we can use to instantly connect with our users. So, we can know which sections of our documentation get the most views. Or, which ones are the most or the least helpful.
From where I look, tools and methodologies originated to save our time and effort. But now, it looks like we have lost ourselves in managing them rather than the content. Let us not focus only on creating a content-management ecosystem. Instead, let us create a problem-solving ecosystem. Let us not forget that the users’ requirements are progressive and cyclical: the target for usability changes frequently.
It all starts with answering “why” and ends with exploring the answers for “what’s next”. Such content that continues to bridge this gap of “why” and “what’s next” is truly satisfying. A tool will only enable us to create quality content. It isn’t an end, but surely a means to an end. Let us solve users’ problems and be content with (the focus on) content.
A lot of writers say they write every day. Some set daily goals, and some, weekly. A few may tell you to skip the weekends, but the idea is the same: write something every day. While the technique might work for them, it doesn’t work for me. Here is why it doesn’t:
Mostly, my full-time work takes the precedence over anything that relates to my non-work time activity. I do pen down thoughts that strike me during my work time. But, I don’t build on them at my work desk. I re-read the drafts and build on them later. This also means, for close to half of my writing effort, I am away from the keyboard.
Yes, I Don’t Write Every Day
I get why some of you might not agree with me: after all, I am a writer. If I were a wrestler, wouldn’t I invest time practicing and building muscles every day? I second the logic. But, writing doesn’t earn me my bread. My job does. I may be a writer at heart, but I am much more than just that. I play many roles, only one of which involves writing.
There is another reason: I’ve found that by not writing, I help my writing to be more productive. Yes, you read it right.
When I am not writing, I:
Create a list of what and how to write
Edit existing first cuts
Improve the flow of the story
Invest time in other activities, like photography
Refine the plot
Reorganize the site
Structure the content of a post
Think about my composition
Either of this if I am not working on a fiction plot. I cannot push myself to create something every day even if that means wasting my readers’ valuable time.
The Flip Side of the Story
I agree that writing every day helps. If you are new to writing, noting down something and looking at it in days that follow helps you in improving your writing. Science proves that if you continue to repeat what you do, you sooner or later get better at it. Spending even as less as 15-30 minutes every day can improve your writing. This sounds logical.
Still, it fails to account for one thing: passion. The origin of this logic is that you train your brain to work into and follow a pattern until that becomes either a habit or a regular task on your work calendar. But, can you train your brain to generate passion? From where do you generate the self-motivation for you to give your best? The flaw here is that it is not practical for those who are not earning their bread out of the writing effort.
Most people write every day because they wish to get better at it. It makes sense for them to invest a part of their daily schedule toward perfecting this art. I am more bothered about the pleasure of writing than the result it generates. I do edit my work, but I am least interested in the ripples it creates in the mental ocean of creativity of others.
The primary purpose of rules—like writing every day—is to help us become more efficient. But, if the rules hinder the very path that leads us to raised efficiency levels, we must break them. Good writing, as I conclude, is not a destination, but a journey. Enjoy it while it lasts.
I always thought that it takes the knowledge of places, a camera, and later some quality storytelling to create a good travelogue. But, here’s what I found I could add to the list: a friend. I was lucky to have Geoffrey walk me around Cambridge (Cambridgeshire, the old name). And, while we did enjoy the day tour, the chilling wind and the last five minutes of Rugby (Six Nations, 2018) blew the wits out of me.
Let me start with the windy weather. The Saturday morning I underestimated the wind and wore my sleeveless jumper. Though the Sun shined bright throughout the day, the winds kept getting the better of me. And, for the creative sake of it, I will say that for all the while I kept walking my nose kept running.
We began the day strolling through Jesus Green Lido. The park shares its borders with the river Cam on one side and the Jesus College on the other. We walked on the quayside until we could, then we broke into a part of the city. Walking is the best way to experience any city, especially this city.
In Geoffrey’s words, the name of the city is a combination of the words Cam, which is the river that flows through the city, and bridge, which connects either side of the river. Oxford comes from oxen and ford—ford means a shallow river.
Just a thought: what if the word “shire” in Cambridgeshire has any connection with the Hindi word Shahar, which means an urban settlement?
There are a lot of old buildings in the city. Most of the old buildings have plaques that display the year of their construction—an age-old style; even Indore, my hometown, has buildings like that. Some buildings are as old as 1754. Maybe even older. The good thing is, the new buildings follow the design principles of the old buildings. This maintains the architectural aesthetics of the place.
After the Round Church, we decided to step into Caffé Nero. Over the coffee, Geoffrey and I compared the photographs we took—for an inspiration from the other’s works. Given that it was windy outside, a hot brew served its purpose reasonably well.
After the break, we walked past the Trinity College, which has the Newton’s Apple Tree. [Spoiler Alert: It is not the same tree under which Newton discovered the idea of gravity. Though seeds from the same Apple tree have planted this one here.]
While strolling the local weekend market, we stopped by a souvenir shop. We didn’t intend to buy anything, but we weren’t expecting what came next. The lady shopkeeper sat there soaking the gleaming Sun. She was getting only a little share of sunshine from between two buildings. She looked at us and said, “Enjoy the sunshine while you can. Don’t blame me later for not telling you.” True that inspiration can come from any source.
Throughout the city, I could find people taking photos. I even got a compliment for managing with a sleeveless jumper in that windy weather. This Southeast Asian guy didn’t realize that I wasn’t a local.
A side note: I am not a shopping person. But, I did visit places like the Poundland and Primark. The variety of products and the price range suit the budget of the middle class. That’s a given for any city. What’s special for Cambridge is that all major shopping destinations are about 15 minutes to half an hour of walking distance.
All major colleges in the University of Cambridge face the small area from the Fellows’ Garden to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Quite logically, the other side of the colleges is the Backs. The view from the rear of the buildings is comparably picturesque. [In the week that followed, Chris, a friend-cum-lead, helped me tour the Backs. We took some nice pictures there, too.]
Facing the Backs is Clare College behind which stands the Cambridge University Library. Yes, the same place that has a copy or record of every single work published from Cambridge.
I must say that I felt alive even as I walked past the colleges of the University of Cambridge. The energy that flows through the streets over the weekends is noticeable. If I were to compare it with India, I would say that it is Kota of the United Kingdom. But then, why compare!
When we walked past the Cambridge Corn Exchange, Geoffrey shared the history of the place. It is interesting how even after money becoming the medium of exchange it is still the word “Corn” that continues to be the term coined for it.
The word “interesting” reminds me of something. If you are in the local market, don’t forget to buy “gifts for interesting people”. See how those words make you think that the gifts are as interesting as the receiver of the gifts. I got some yogurt-coated candies for my daughter—not from the same shop though. The ones that have dried Banana or Cranberry are mouthwatering. If you are in Cambridge and wish to munch on your way through the city, get yourselves some. They have a reasonable shelf-life, too.
It is a British tradition to say sorry even if someone bumps into you. Chris says that in Britain you notice people singing their way through the crowd “sorry… sorry… sorry… oops… sorry… sorry… sorry” in rhythmic high-low-high-low notes. I must have caught on this habit because I remember saying sorry… only to realize a split second later that I had bumped into and was apologizing to a chair. Yes, I know!
Every country, every city has its own way of greeting people. Cambridge greets people with a combination of colleges and pubs. Other than university education if there is anything that defines Cambridge then I’d say it is three “Ps”: parks, pubs, and punting. Mathematical Bridge, where we stopped next, is opposite to the Anchor pub. And, most likely, there too, you will see people punting over the Cam river. A short walk down from the Anchor pub is the Darwin College of Engineering. It is notable how so many prominent personalities have had a part of their lives spent in this city.
We spent the longest time of our day-long tour at the Anchor pub. We initially chose to sit outside to enjoy the weather, but in due course changed our minds. That way, I got some relief from the weather, Geoffrey got his much-needed Rugby dose and we both got the food. I even gave my expert opinion as we watched the post-match analysis.
After the lunch, we set out to walk through Grantchester Meadows into the city walking past the James Dyson University of Engineering, the Judge Business School on the Trumpington Street, and Grand Arcade. As the dusk began to set it, we chose to skip two stops: The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Fitzwilliam Museum. I still managed to get some pictures around the areas.
While neither of us wished to end the day by spending time in a city mall—all malls are the same—we ended up at Costa Coffee, in Grand Arcade, because most of the coffee shops were either full or about to call it a day. I am not sure why we refer to it as “calling it a day” while it isn’t even a day anymore after dusk sets in. Quite a funny observation. Anyway, Geoffrey had ordered for large coffees. So, we continued to talk until the coffees lasted.
With the dusk setting in and the temperature beginning to steep further down, we decided to curse the weather—another British tradition—and “call it a day”.
This memorable, short tour of the city has a lot of for me as a takeaway. Let me summarize the day-long tour:
Best guide: a friend
Best time to visit Cambridge: any, particularly February-March
Best companion: a camera
Best munchies: yogurt candies
Best food: any, as long as you top it with a beer
Best modes of transport: walking and punting
Best gear: well, surely not a sleeveless jumper if it is windy and February
Much like me, you too wouldn’t feel an outsider in Cambridge for long. Not because it is a global city. But because of the faces that smile back at you, prospering local markets, tourists looking for authentic local flavors, and the welcoming giggles of toddlers that attracts you as an outsider. The city grows more on you if you know a “local”.
I didn’t cover everything. I couldn’t. But then, I realize that if I cover everything in one visit, what will I plan the next visits for? Considering that I meant business when I flew into Cambridge, the city has intrigued me enough to shift the target of my next visits. As I head back home, I remain a travel bug hungry for more.