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.

Of stories

When we read, we lean into a whole new world. A world full of people, things, and situations that intrigue us, entice us, trigger our agitations, and in the end leaves us in a blissful state of wanting more.

Reading is escaping into a realm that we don’t expect for ourselves. It’s a getaway, if you will, from the harsh realities of our everyday lives. Whether it’s from the kids rattling in their rooms, their joyful squeaks echoing through the thin old walls, wooden floorboards creaking even at the weight of the lightest in the house, or from the pending laundry, unattended work emails, or dirty dishes, we all use stories as a way to avoid facing what we eventually must. 

After all, the imaginary world is so much more interesting than our melting, sweltering real world.

As I marvelled this, I realised that not only readers ignore the piling mound of boring routine. Writers do too. Perhaps that’s why they are writers in the first place. Not only is writing a way to avoid the rest of the world, it’s also an intense form of empowerment to create your own.

When I write a story, I often don’t deviate from the way things are around me. I draw inspiration from people I see every day, from paths I wander, from music I listen to, and the conversations I engage in. However, these references don’t always reflect on the story. Instead, I twist it to my fancy. Even something as simple as the shape of a cup could be wildly incorrect—improper. That doesn’t mean a tea cup could be as impractical as a trophy cup, but it’s still the writer’s choice.

When you think o fit that way, the art of reading and writing stories is an act of going against what humankind has made acceptable and natural. 

It’s a way of rebelling, of protesting against normality, against the agreeable. Sometimes it’s as basic as a black man walking down a white neighbourhood, and sometimes it’s more aggressive as big brother watching you.

Stories are more than just stories.

Latest reading

I’ve been trying hard, and failing, to read a book.

It’s not the first time. It doesn’t happen often, and so when it does happen, these books remain in my mind vivid, as the Sydney Opera House in June.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a couple others.

Not that these books were complex in language, but they featured elements and situations that bored me. However, I did finish One Hundred Years of Solitude and mentally kicked myself for putting it off for so long. It took me a good nine months to finish that book because I kept forgetting I was reading it. That’s a great book—I admitted when I did read it.

But the dragon tattoo was too much for me. It went into such gruelling detail about sex that it threw me off. I don’t mind descriptions that add value to a story, but as I was reading it, it felt as if the author could’ve edited away some of the detailing and still achieved a crisp narrative. But that’s just me. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about the book was surprised that I quit halfway through. I got tired of waiting for the exciting part of the story.

That happened about five years ago. Perhaps I was too young to digest it. Perhaps what was casual description for many was too gory for me. That’s when I realised I could return a book without reading, and not feel guilty about it after.

Except, now, after all these years, I’m reading a book that I don’t feel like finishing. It’s a lighter-hearted than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s non-fiction. But it’s still too much detail. It’s a semi-biography of an American-Australian author. It’s the first full-length comedy book I’m reading, and although I appreciate the author’s ability to laugh at her faults and shenanigans, some of her anecdotes aren’t funny—they’re just silly.

It feels as if I’m too old to laugh at these stories. Some of them are too personal—stuff that I’d take to the grave. Of course, there’re learning opportunities in every embarrassing situation, but sometimes, lessons are personal. Writing about the time you strutted around the school in sex-stained jeans thinking it was cool, isn’t cool. Now imagine an entire book of stories like that. Of course, not every story is about sex, but the embarrassment-level is quite similar.

I’m certain there’re some stories in there about good things that happened to the author—like winning a game or passing a big test.

I’ll know for sure when I get there. If I get there at all.

That’s what I’m struggling with now. I know it’s a popular book. It may even be a good one, according to most readers. But perhaps it’s just not for me.

Ever been there?

Stories

Lights flickered. Like a butterfly out of a cocoon, fluttering gingerly, like a new born testing their blurry vision, in a soft, delicate motion the street lights flickered, and with it ran a shiver down Anya’s spine. It was a warm spring night, and the little hand of her wristwatch crept towards twelve, mere minutes away.

A pin drop would’ve thundered. So quiet was the street, the last car having wizzed past the bus stop, where she now stood, over an hour ago. A dreary downside to living in a small town of a few thousand. In the dim yellow glow of the street light, Anya shuffled closer to the pole, looking up again to check if her bus would stop there. It would.

She looked at the watch. A knot churned in her belly, tightening with every breath, twisting her empty stomach. Perhaps the last bus was long gone? A warm breeze slapped her face, as if reminding she still had a phone, dying almost, subsisting still. Twenty percent—a lifeline—should be enough to phone a friend. If only she had one. Damn, being a new migrant was hard.

The knot snaked towards her throat.

Just then, she saw in the distance, two headlights heading her way. As hot scoop running down frozen ice cream, tender warmth washed through her. Finally. Safety.

As the bus jerked to a halt, she gasped in glee. A large pair of sunglasses sat on the driver’s shiny head, and he nodded in solemn silence to her toothy grin. No bald bus driver had ever seemed so welcoming.

Snuggled in bed, thirty minutes later, she mused letting the soothing gin drip down her throat. The world didn’t lack stories of terrifying experiences. It lacked good stories of friendly bus drivers.

“My inspiration?” Sitting cross-legged on a raised dias, Anya smiled at her interviewer, having just received an award for her bestselling novel. “Real life.”

Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.