A note on bad reviews

I recently attended a panel discussion about going and receiving criticism. The panel consisted of writers, reviewers, and art critics. It was an hour-long showering of insightful opinions and ideas that I had to note down and mull over. As I mulled over, an incredible urge to write them down gnawed my brain.

One of the points that a writer of over 30 books, brought up is that in this age of social media, writing as an art has taken a massive turn. People can now share their opinions with the greater world even as they watch a movie, read a book, or wander through an art exhibition.

And that got me thinking.

From being a slow, iterative process like a stewing stump of steak, creating art has now become quicker, like pre-packaged chicken caesar salad, to offer instant gratification for souls so eager to tweet out their amusing reactions to a book as early as five pages in.

Since writers and other artists are aware of the instantaneous effects that the audience’s opinions will have on their work, they tend to take safer strides in their writing. Afraid of being criticised by people who don’t see what they see, artists adjust their art to satisfy the audience that happens to see their work. As a result, art becomes tailored for a specific audience, instead of reflecting the artist’s being.

Bad reviews and harsh criticism isn’t always about the artwork. In most cases, especially in today’s social media-powered world, adverse reactions come from people who didn’t necessarily enjoy the work. This also means that the art hasn’t reached those who would enjoy and appreciate it. When put that way, any review becomes mildly questionable. Sure, this reader hated the book. But there may well be other readers who’d love the book but haven’t read or reviewed it yet.

That’s a good reason not to rely too much on reviews.

The thing about routine

November is National Novel Writing Month. That means, aspiring novelists, and even established ones, spend an entire month feverishly writing a full-length novel of at least 50000 words. NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) is also a non-profit organisation that mentors participants, keeps them motivated with pep talks, and organises group meet-ups across the world for people to write together and make the most out their time this month.

November is also National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). For the less motivated and less ambitious than the NaNoWriMo participants, this month is all about posting at least one blog post a day. 

About five years ago, I tried NaNoWriMo and finished writing my first full-length novel. I was thrilled. Over the moon, to put it in figurative terms. The following year, I took up NaBloPoMo. And to my utter surprise, I managed to succeed in that as well.

Since then, though, I haven’t officially participated in NaBloPoMo or NaNoWriMo. I did challenge myself to finish a shorter novel (of 30000 words) during Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and I did. However, I have lost interest in joining others as they declared their big goals for November, of writing at least a little everyday so they can meet their goal. I have my goals too, but I no longer feel the need to broadcast them. And the reason for that, I think, is that ever since I did the one blog post a day challenge, I’ve been posting at least once a day. For over two years now, I’ve had a blog post go live every day at the same time. To do this, I’ve had to often force myself to write something every day. Some days it flowed easily, but some days it didn’t. Some days, while travelling in particular, I’d schedule a bunch of haikus to go live even if I couldn’t publish them myself.

Therefore, for the last three or four years, I’ve written and published every day. Some days I don’t do too well, but some other days, I impress even myself.

During this practice, I’ve learnt that writing something, anything, every day is a great way to keep the brain muscles oiled and nourished. I’ve now developed a certain itching in my mind whenever I don’t write. It’s become part of my routine to sit down for a while every afternoon, regardless of how busy I am, and write a few words about whatever strikes my fancy. 

You never know what such habits will lead you to. For me, it got me hooked into the art of telling a story in 14 syllables. I started writing a lot of haikus. I found stories in people I observed and translated them into short stories and 100-word flash fiction pieces. After all this time, these random pieces of work have become my life. Now, I’m making conscious efforts to submit my work to online magazines. It’s been a great journey so far, and I can only see it improving.

Routine life can be tiresome, yes. But sometimes, it can also be rewarding.

Is it real?

Reflection of trees on a puddle of water - Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I write quite a lot of non-fiction. Stuff that’s based on people I meet, places I visit, personal experiences and opinions, and such. So often, I also use my own life incidents to fuel my fiction pieces. 

After all, it’s easy to write a story calling upon your own emotions. There’s even a word for it in literature: ethos. 

Not only do such pieces flow easily, but they’re also genuine and factual. They need minimal research—just a Wikipedia entry to cross-verify dates or an opinion blog to confirm that you’re indeed talking about what you think you’re talking about.

Except, there’s a problem with using too much ethos. 

It’s a strange thought, but it hit me when I was in the bus one day. I found myself thinking about a topic to write about and realised I’ve written about almost everything that I ever thought mattered in my life. About moving to Australia, being an insecure teenager, exams and stress, growing up in India, and even about my absolute disregard for the useless education system I had the misfortune to follow.

I’ve written about my family’s challenges as well—about all the stories I grew up listening to when my mother didn’t know how else shut me up.

Now, it’s as if extracted so much from myself and incorporated into my writing that I’m short of life experiences to write about. It’s ironic too, because I still have a lot of time (hopefully!) to accumulate memories, thoughts, and opinions. There’s still so much of the world that I haven’t seen, and I want to. There’s so much left for me to do, and yet I can’t write about any of those until after I’ve done them all.

That’s the problem with using reality as a reference. You can also run out of reality.

Good challenge for imagination, though.

Image credit: Markus Spike on Unsplash.

Joy, unexpected

“Happy Wednesday!”

She called out to me, clicking her mobile phone off. We passed each other outside the shopping mall—I was going in, and she out. Her leggings, shirt, braid, and hat mostly comprised of pink—which often is an immediate turnoff for me. However, that bubblegum look did catch my eye, and she caught my eye for a quick second, enough to smile widely and wish me a great day. 

Instinctively, my face broke into a wide smile, and I responded with an enthusiastic “You too!”

This was new to me. And as I turned back to face my path, the smile on my face was fixed, ecstatic for no good reason. Perhaps she sensed it, for “Pass it on!” she waved after me.

“I will!” I meant to say, but it came out as “Thanks!” instead.

Regardless of what I said, for the next few moments I felt elated, as if I’d won a competition and nothing could bring me down. All of a sudden, I wanted to yell at the couple and their two children walking ahead to have a great day. I didn’t, though, because a lot of folks I’ve seen in my neighbourhood aren’t too receptive to strangers addressing them.

That said, my good mood continued throughout the day. I remembered that woman and her flip phone, and imagined her wheeling her travelling bag down the street, cheering up many other people’s lives. 

It was a small gesture, negligible some might say—a smile and a greeting. But it made such a difference to me. And it made me think. 

It costs us nothing to be friendly, and yet so many of us walk the streets with impassive expressions, eyes cast down, afraid to look at the person walking past us. We meet new people and mechanically say “hello” and “how are you,” not even looking at them. As they speak, we nod but don’t listen. We converse and co-exist without knowing or understanding the other person. 

Not everyone’s like this, I admit. However, I have come across a lot of such people. Enough to know that that’s what makes the lady in pink so special. She stood out from the masses—she was bold, and became an encounter I cherish.

It’s nice to be nice. It’s contagious.

What should poetry be?

Art, creativity, rhyme, rhythm, rule breaking?

Or perhaps… starving artists, writing blocks, free verse, and prose poetry. 

When I think of poetry, I think of moments.

Instances and distances, captured in crisp clean words, sharp as a sword, slicing through inhibitions. Swerving around discomfort, sliding into its oil-smeared language sheath. 

Poetry resounds.

Echoes through chambers, giving voice to gassed creatures, tongueless beings, tortured souls. 

Poetry nurtures.

Comforts the pained, strained, and the maimed. Speaks to innermost feelings, gently, as lathering lotion on sun-scorched skins.

Poetry heals.

Remembers the forgotten, acknowledges slaps and punches that broke the bones.  Respects with solemnity—a bandaid for moving on.

Poetry lives.

Smiles at similes, accidental puns, and misheard metaphors. Thrives in you and me, in sharing of friendship even in darkest of times.

Poetry loves.

Gives a piece of one to another, faithful, unfailing. Opens doors and arms to worlds only believers can imagine.

Poetry… is.

Over the weekend, I attended a poetry festival called Poetry on the Move. One of the panel discussions was what poetry is and what it should be. This is my response, inspired by many interesting thoughts. Some more of my musings from the festival: What’s the value of poetry? and Labels.