Interests

photo of a model of the character Dalek from Doctor Who along with a cut-out of the character Davros in Dalek form and another smaller model of Davros in Dalek form

Stories capture time,
loved by one generation—
amusing others.

Book of Colours

Who doesn’t love a determined, self-sufficient heroine? One that doesn’t need saving from her male counterpart. Or even from herself—a common theme in feminist novels nowadays.

Tangent aside, a female lead who knows what she wants, accepts her hurdles, and yet still strategically perseveres towards achieving her passion is someone born for that. We often say talent is inherent. But everyone is talented in some way or the other. What matters is how much they invest in honing that talent. That’s the difference between Van Gogh and Random Dude. I bring this all up now because I’ve just read Book of Colours, an excellent historical fiction that celebrates a woman artist—or in this case, a limner.

Cover of 'Book of Colours' by Robyn Cadwallader

I know how that sounds, but it’s not what you’d expect. It’s not the story of a young girl who finds her passion for art, grows up facing many challenges, and finally gets the recognition she deserves. That’s the equivalent of the ‘damsel in distress saved by the hero’ narrative—the typical, proven theory that satisfies the masses on any given day. Though such a plot has its place in novel writing, this one is way different.

It’s about a woman who’s painted all her life—from childhood, assisting her father, also a limner. Everyone around her knows her capabilities. However, she’s a 14th-century woman in England. Women of that period weren’t even allowed to read, let alone paint. This is the story of Gemma, the brilliant artist, and her husband, who’s also a brilliant artist, except he’s known nationwide for his talent. They receive a project to design and create a Book of Hours (an illustrated book of prayers) for a wealthy landlord far, far away.

But this is not the story of Gemma. The writer never once tells the reader that Gemma is the main character. You either realise it, or you don’t. Either way, you’ll enjoy the book.

As the story begins, we follow Will, a young artist running away from his hometown. He ends up working with the master limner and his wife, Gemma. From there, we watch as Will’s life unfolds—as he works with the couple on their project, how he becomes essential for the book and its owner, and how he blends into the family.

Our introduction to Gemma comes through Will’s eyes. And so we see her as a cold, doubtful woman who clearly hates him from the moment her husband invited him in. He’s shocked when he realises she paints, torn between her knack for translating words into pictures and the unacceptable reality of her being allowed to paint. And yet, between them grows a friendship that’s unlike any other. As highly-gifted artists, they spend a lot of time in each other’s presence, heads bent low, each immersed in their own battle.

Like all good characters, Will also evolves from a typical man who looks down on a woman painter to accepting her skill. But that transition is so artfully done—he doesn’t run into a raging feminist who changes his mind about women doing other than housework. He doesn’t have a flash of understanding about patriarchy that completely changes him overnight. Instead, it’s a gradual change of mind, a progression that’s incomplete even as the story ends. As a skilful limner himself, he admires Gemma’s talent.

For a long time, he believes she’s protected only by his and her husband’s silence. As someone who enjoys realistic characters, it was refreshing to see that Will still had a lot of room to grow. He’s not perfect, and that’s a perfect place to end his story.

Though Gemma herself goes through many changes as the story progresses, her situation largely remains unchanged—quite an unexpected ending for a character of that magnitude. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Only the characters who knew about her passion for the art at the beginning know about it in the end—plus Will, of course. And yet, we see her evolve into a more complete and aware person. She’s another example of a realistic character—no drastic, dramatic incidents to topple her underlying beliefs. Every good change happens gradually. And that’s why this book is such a good read. The author has done one hell of a job, and I’m glad I read it.

I admit

For the last few weeks, I’ve struggled with my reading and writing.

I’d borrow an interesting-sounding book, riled up and motivated after scanning three of a five-line blurb, smiling at positive words that jump out at me, only to set the book down a few pages in, never to pick up again.

Like most of us would, I too blamed the book. It was dull and monotonous. The pacing was off, the print was too small, the page too tattered, or the story unrealistic—

Excessive excuses rained in my brain, as I told myself lie after lie for why I couldn’t get through a book.

As for writing an article, a poem, or a short story—stuff I used to do daily—I got nowhere with them. My mind drew blanks every time I determined to roll up my sleeves and create something worth sharing with my writers’ group. And for every meeting, I’d turn up empty-minded, to sit there and listen to wonderfully strung words, tap-dancing in my head even hours afterward.

It wasn’t the block—reader’s or writer’s.

I was just lazy.

I spent so much of my time volunteering, having fun, chatting with people, laughing, baking banana bread and cookies and muffins for no reason, and whiling away all day doing anything but reading or writing.

In other words, I was avoiding doing what I had to do. Reading and writing, my greatest passions, had become more strenuous than before. It was hard to sit down and focus my mind on one thing. As a result, I began using volunteering (which I enjoy just as much) as an escape mechanism.

The reason: I’m starting to understand the difficulties in writing meaningful work. When I’m in the groove, writing is easy for me. It feels so natural that I get a lot done without feeling tired or worked up. However, I’ve also come to see that it’s not always the case.

Effective word chains don’t always flow from the mind and ebb through the fingers on to the screen. In reality, writing is a draining, time-consuming task. You need to be active and present in the situation. Reading is the same. It demands more energy than thinking about baking or looking up random, irrelevant recipes.

We all go through this phase. It’s not that we’re no longer dedicated or involved, but it’s just that sometimes, even our most innate hobbies and interests can overwhelm us. To run away—or at least trying to—is common. But we should, at some point, admit it to ourselves.

I love writing and reading. But sometimes I don’t want to read or write. I’d want to watch a crappy TV show instead. That doesn’t mean I no longer love writing or reading. It just means there’s temporarily a screw loose in my head. Accepting that allows me to fix it and come back, strong as before.

Patriotism

Bayfront park, Miami

Pride for the nation

fluttering, soon decaying

print and piece of cloth

— — —

Photo: Bayfront Park, Miami

Unblock

The muse stops.

The screen freezes.

The block appears. And you’re stuck.

It’s so common nowadays to claim a writer’s block. Professionals do it all the time. Even amateurs often find it hard to go further than the first few scrawny lines they managed on their big novel.

I’ve felt the same so many times. However, I don’t think it’s valid to name it writer’s block. No one’s blocked in the literal sense. Writing is a habit. It’s practice.

Even art isn’t art without practice.

The problem is, we often define writing as a creative job. People stereotype writers as wearing big round glasses, as sleep-deprived, coffee-fueled, alcohol addicts. I don’t think so. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of great writers who match the description as much as twins look alike. Nevertheless, writers are different with varied perspectives and tastes. Not every writer writes only when they’ve gulped a pot of coffee. Not every writer needs alcohol to keep them typing.

Some writers just sit at the computer and write.

The reason is that they approach writing as a part of their life. It’s not an impulsive muse that needs to hit them at the right time at the right spot. It’s, instead, a ritual they go through because they choose to commit to it.

Writing in its pure sense is communication between the writer and the reader. It should be simple and straightforward if the reader is to glean anything at all. There’s no place for showing off there. Sure, poetry and fiction need a creative streak. And, yes, readers often enjoy an occasional wordplay or the clever turn of phrase. But all that comes from editing, and not the writing itself. For the first draft of anything is often us telling the story to ourselves.

When we approach our everyday writing like it’s verbal diarrhoea—or logorrhoea, in technical terms—there’s no way we’d get blocked. Whether we’re a professional non-fiction writer, an amateur, or a novel novelist, at the end of the day, we’re just a writer. It’s our job.

And when we have a job to do, we can’t afford to slack. No other job gets the block. 

Hospitality is a huge industry. Thousands of staff work day in and out throughout the calendar to ensure the rest of us are comfortable. I’ve never seen housekeeping personnel claiming they’re blocked. They get tired and even bored at their job. But that doesn’t mean they can’t, and don’t, finish their work.

Writers get tired, too. It isn’t easy to put words to thoughts on a daily basis and do it well, too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It only means that we’re too bored or lazy to keep going. We just need to take a break and carry on. 

Calling it writer’s block is just a lame excuse for not sucking it up.