The wait

I don’t believe in co-incidences. But I also don’t run away from them. Unable to write much today, I jumped from one tab to another on my browser trying to locate an idea that’d spark and open up my well of thoughts. It almost never works—I often read random things for hours before giving up on finding inspiration. I end up rambling or publishing a quick haiku.

Today, however, as I read through last week’s newsletter from the ACT writers centre (while this week’s newsletter lay open on the next tab), I stopped at this quote.

Waiting for inspiration to write is like standing at the airport waiting for a train - Leigh Michaels

I’ve heard it, or something like it, a hundred times before. It’s the standard advice any writer offers a wannabe. I’ve said it plenty of times too, to myself and to others. 

Waiting for a lightening bolt of inspiration to hit you is like taking the bus south and hoping it goes north. I know because I’ve done them both. Waiting is an excuse not to write. It’s a way to get around the larger fear that encapsulates your being, the uncertain possibility of an outcome you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. And I think that’s how writer’s block comes about. It’s a reason to avoid seating yourself on that chair and getting work done. That’s what happened to me.

This afternoon, I arrived at my local co-op ready to write. It’s a great co-working space—they sell bulk foods, snacks, and have free artisan (sourdough!) bread. The best part? It’s almost empty after lunch.

And so I propped my laptop on an empty desk, wandered around the shop, bought some onion and sesame seeds, got coffee, nibbled on some bread, read through notes from a panel discussion I attended two days ago, and got distracted at least ten times before the newsletter came as a slap in the face.

The only reason I kept avoiding the blank screen is because I wasn’t sure what to write. And yet, the moment I started, I knew what I’d write. That’s the biggest hurdle most people never cross—they linger at the beginning for too long, and give up just before they discover that a world’s waiting to unravel underneath their fingers.


If you’re interested: Read the full newsletter.

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.

St. John’s Wort, a review

St. John's Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin. Published by Animal Heart Press.

It’s hard to say what Alexus imagined when she titled this book, St. John’s Wort. It’s the name of a European medicinal shrub known for treating depression. Like most of the world, if you consider the book at face value, you’ll think it’s therapeutic, that it calms and elevates your experiences. 

It does. 

However, as you read through the poems, over and over again, to make sure you don’t miss a beat or the depth of meaning folded neatly in between lines and stanzas, you’ll realise that Mayo Clinic was perhaps right. As one of the top possible side effects of St. John’s wort (the shrub), it lists agitation. Which is what you feel when you’ve read these poems.

Alexus doesn’t look at the world around her and burst into flowery language. Instead, her poems are deliberate. Each line, each syllable rings with meaning, and whether or not you directly relate to it, you feel what she sees, and you see what she feels.

Imagery is for the ear as much as it is for the eye, you learn as she describes in Laughter,

“I know God laughed
when night bathed tabletop-
tabletop cradled the New York Times, a pound cake. I sang carols over the brushed, high-hat hiss of a Vanilla Coke can.”

Alexus’s poetry isn’t simple. Layers upon layers of complexity lie in each poem, and she makes you work to reap the sweet benefits of the sadness lingering in those hard words. 

“When I learned my father had an aneurysm, I thought about the day his brother had the aneurysm.
I thought about Plath, then Hughes
then about how suddenly I needed to buy pudding
from the grocery store.”

When referencing a father dying of aneurysm, not everyone draws a parallel with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“, where she confesses struggling to forgive her father’s involvement in the Holocaust and his lack of self-care that resulted in a gradual demise. Alexus cleverly matches the Plath reference with the seemingly related Hughes, while instead, with a subtle streak, alluding to pulmonary artery aneurysms, a rare autoimmune disease first described by British physicians Hughes and Stovin.

Good poetry resounds though your being, leaving blotches of reality, like ink on paper, marking you for life. This collection of poems takes it further—you have to marvel at Alexus’s wordliness, the way she’s melded poetry with dark reality, and the way she’s dejargoned medicine, revealing it in bits, like droplets on whiskey, just enough to hit you with a boldness that momentarily disarms you.

It’s not, however, a book you need to pair with a high-edition dictionary—although a nice Riesling surely complements. Scattered throughout the book, in snippets that speak the truth as it is, are poems so simple and so pristine that you can’t help but pause to inhale the beauty of words.

“What among us won’t, one day,
Be turned inside out?”

She asks in such tepidity that it strikes you, slices through your pretence, as intense as hot knife through cold butter.

Alexus ends that poem, Year of the Rabbit Hole, hinting at self-help, while artfully voiding her voice of the unworthiness that comes with such books.

This collection is a chain, flaunting a range of topics, all bound by the string of tragedy. Every poem is an ode to an incident in life—sometimes personal, often not—leaving you with a shudder, questioning you, and enticing you to question the world you see.


Musings from reading St. John’s Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin and published by Animal Heart Press.

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.

The undeniable cycle of writing

I’m a marketer. Even though I have no formal degree in marketing, over the last six years, my work experience has taught me many things. One of those, which is also regarded as the most important, is knowing your audience.

I write marketing copy for the web. And that means I need to know my audience. I need to identify who exactly I’m talking to and speak to them in their language. My tone, choice of words, and even the length of my sentences depend on the capacity of my audience. Absolute precision in words and messaging is necessary. No compromises. Every piece I write begins with an audience analysis.

But then, I also write poetry. And poetry doesn’t have an audience.

Curious contrast, eh?

I attended at a poetry festival recently, and while discussing about who they write for and why, a group of panelists unanimously agreed that they write for themselves. At least at first. And that’s the underlying truth for all forms of art. No one starts creating art because they have an audience waiting for it They start because they can’t keep it in themselves any longer. 

I write short stories, poems, and random ramblings (like this one) because I have to get them out somehow. Creative writing is an outlet, a necessary drain to flush down the overflowing ideas and thoughts that’d otherwise clog my brain and leave me a walking pile of stink.

Therefore when I write, I write for myself. I write to make myself feel better, to clear my chest, and to put my mind at ease. And through that inane need to pop the bulging bubble in my head, I end up creating an audience that relates to whatever I put on paper.

Still, even though I write these poems and stories to satisfy my own needs, they also need a platform. Sometimes I’m happy to tuck my work away from the rest of the world, but more often than not, I want to share my work with others, to thrill them just as my favourite writers thrill me.

As long as I only want to write stuff and don’t care if anyone reads them at all, I don’t have to worry about marketing. But the moment I let my ambition get the better of me, the moment I crave acknowledgement and recognition even, I need to start thinking about audience and how to say what I want to say in a way that makes them want my work. Therefore comes marketing.

My point: Marketing is everywhere. And we all have to market ourselves at some point. Can’t say I like the idea, but can’t deny it either.