The writing bug

It happened one night. A writing bug bit me in the middle of the night. I woke up from my deep slumber. Some odd thoughts crept in my mind. I wanted to freeze those thoughts on a piece of paper. And I did that. I then edited it in the morning. Such a thing never happened to me before. That night, I enjoyed the bite of the writing bug. The writing bug is with me since that night. It has taken me to the places I have never been to before. It is now my responsibility to keep the bug in good humour. Writing is both nature and nurture. For me, it is more nurture. Often, I am a mechanical reader. I read fifty pages, but can’t recall a thing. Often, I read a passage in two minutes, but ponder over it for the rest of the day. I want both recognition as well as anonymity. I believe it is recognition by the self what matters the most. I am often in a hurry. I sometimes read summaries, not details. I often become impatient. I lose my sense of mindfulness. I often try to read more than I should. Often, I write and then make changes. Untouched spaces often look better than done-up spaces. I often go back to what I wrote before. I have been reminded time and again that what was worth has already been written, then why am I writing. I am not writing to replace something or someone. I am writing, maybe the same thing, with my thoughts. Perhaps, I write a familiar story differently. Have I not read different versions of the same story? And as Andre Gide said, everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since no one was listening, everything must be said again. An unknown writer may not necessarily be obscure. It is difficult to judge your work. When I judge my work, either I am overwhelmed, or overcritical. Only the spectators can see most of the game; players can only play their part. It is said that writing about the self perhaps is a colossal act of ego. If I don’t write my stories, who will. If satisfaction is my aim, why shouldn’t I follow a well-known writer's advice - Don’t try to be a ‘writer’ when you are writing about yourself? We all love to put people and places on the pages. We like to write about unusual things, what is forbidden, what is tempting. We wish to express as stalwarts express. We wish to say, as the Rabindranath Tagore said, “You smiled and talked to me of nothing, and I felt that for this, I had been waiting long.” More and more I am realizing that the ecstasy of influence never wanes. Writing is a celebration of life in all its complexity. Complexities will remain, and celebrations shall continue. Sitting among thousands of books in a library, I often wondered, who will read something written by an obscure writer like me when so much has already been written about so many things by well-known writers. A parallel thought also occurred - despite so much already written, so much is still being written, there is so much still to be written. And so many writers and readers are getting added every day. This gave me the confidence to write. Every writer has some limitations. For a writer, 'I want to write' is, perhaps, the most important motive. A writer knows what to keep and what to throw away from the things that he has seen. Many writers respect the imagination of readers. They believe that imagery is not achieved by over-description. Some writers believe that "Readers must be given room to play their role in the act of writing - to discover for themselves what is surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic." A writer knows for whom he is writing. Many a time, he can see the whole story, much before it is written. He often writes impromptu, not knowing what is in store at the end. Depending on the genre, he adds imagination in realism. If one mixes reality with imagination in unrealistic proportions, the resulting mixture can be ruinous. A writer writes and then wants to tell others what he has written. Without a medium of expression (like a stage as an actor) and reader (audience), a writer (an actor) is incomplete. A writer simply writes as per his persona and convictions, keeping aside the burden of recognition. We grew up with larger than life mythical stories and fairy tales. It started with cautionary tales and then moved to tales of triumphs and disasters. These describe the striving of people, the pomp and splendour of empires, and rise and fall of civilisations. The world of stories helps us to develop our power of imagination. They help us to learn the customs and rules of our as well as other societies and, in some ways, help us to develop our social skills. Stories bring us closer to our family, particularly our grandparents. A gossip is a form of storytelling. Gossip is an important part of our social life. There was a time when every family used to have a storyteller, generally grandparents. Now it is different. Electronic entertainment has taken the place of storytelling. Children prefer to know about mythical and fairy tale characters through TV serials. Grandparents don’t retire and have little time to meet their grandchildren, and much less to interact. As Scientific American suggests, “people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mindset,” and “stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.” One interesting future scenario is somewhat like this: The storyteller will be your computer. Computers will have a built-in capability of understanding your needs, identifying the storyteller from the existing archive, and then delivering the story to you. “No more looking for information. The idea of developing the Media Lab of one of the most prestigious institutes is to make storytelling more interactive, bridging the real and virtual world, and allowing everyone to make their unique stories with user-generated content on the web. It hopes to make movie production more versatile and economic. In this age of IT and communication, I hope and wish that both grandchildren and grandparents will continue with their one-to-one communication. Computers can never acquire the feel of a storyteller. Storytellers of the past were our grandparents, and they should remain so in the future. The never-retiring grandparents must retire, if for nothing else, but for telling stories to their young awe-eyed cross-legged listeners. Can computers convey happy endings with the same feelings that our grandparents did? Our world has both, fiction as well as non-fiction. Our reaction to fiction is almost the same as our reactions to non-fiction. The world of fiction involves visualization. The thought is always accompanied by an image. The moment we hear or read a story our mind visualizes the scenes and the characters. The process continues even after the story has ended. Although we can freely roam in the visual world, the visual world is limited. Our visual world is limited by our imagination, and our imagination is limited by the size of our head. We don’t want to go far away from our comfort zone, and that also limits our visual world. The fiction world we create is based on reality. In our fictional world, we like to introduce some amount of logic. We like to put some amount of emotional complexity and elements of surprise. The story we want to tell must be sufficiently complex to engage attention, achieve suspense and surprise and excite emotion, but not so complex that the unity, clarity, and coherence of its parts are lost. “The story must be probable, but it also must be a story,” says Mortimer Adler. Fiction is like history, but it is not history. Imagination is important as it plays a crucial role in the acquisition and growth of empirical knowledge. It is the reader of the story who creates the ‘meaning’. “It is the reader who bridges the gap between ‘conception’ and ‘execution’ by engaging the reader’s memories and experiences,” writes Tilottama Rajan. Our brains, unlike computers, work more efficiently when more software is loaded into it. More the software one loads into the brain, more internal connections are forged. The evolutionary psychologists say that the pay-off from such fictional investments is greater earlier in the life cycle, when competing opportunities are lower, and adaptations less well developed. Fictional experiences provide opportunities in which adaptation-organising experiences can occur. A writer uses emotions, more than reasons, to write a story. Often, a writer only knows how the story will begin and end. Often, the writer knows the whole story. The writer knows how the story will unfold. The writers live with the characters they have designed, try to understand them, and then put on paper what they tell. Often, the ideas come faster than one can move the pen or the cursor. Often, there is a complete blank as far as the ideas for a story are concerned. More the writers become successful, wider become their playgrounds, and more they can experiment with the players. Success allows the writer to exercise greater freedom. The spectators are also more flexible in accepting the successful. Each story is unique in the details of its telling. Many writers have a lot of faith in their readers. They respect the imagination of their readers. They know that imagery is not achieved by lots of descriptions. They leave a lot of room for the reader. Stories are our neural reward for curiosity. Our brain becomes more active when we convey a thing in the form of a story. The synchronisation of the brain of the writer and the reader better conveys the theme of the story. Stories also impact our learning. We all love to be recognised and rewarded. We all want to write a ‘breakthrough’ book, expect a flattering review, and possibly a literary award. We like to think that our work deserves recognition. When the ‘due’ recognition is denied, we feel the reviewers and readers were unfair and indifferent towards us. Apportioning self-blame is a difficult proposition, and often undesirable. The paradox lies when we think our work is good, while we have more faith in what others think about our work. Are the reviews and honours a reflection on the writer’s ability? “There seems to be no logical pattern in the honours, fellowships and glowing reviews it bestows or does not bestow on writers, who have achieved a respectable level of professionalism.” In this context, I am reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Taraprasanna’s Fame. It is about a writer who writes all the time. He has no time for anything else, and thus knows very little about the world around him. But the stuff he writes is never published. Naturally, others don’t think very highly of him. Finally, Taraprasanna’s work not only gets published, it is even praised by critics. The reviewers are highly impressed by the complexity of the book; a book so complex that they couldn’t understand a word of it! Can we say that Taraprasanna could write his story because he ‘achieved a respectable level of professionalism’? Writing can be an unusual obsession. Writers write as per their persona and convictions. The motive behind writing could be the desire to articulate experience. The purpose could also be the desire to alter peoples’ ideas. It could be a sheer desire to be talked about. It could be for posterity. A writer writes and then wants to tell others what he has written. Howsoever simple the story is one feels happy when one can tell it to others. I did not know that overwhelming urge to write can be a disorder, until I read an account on hypergraphia by Alice Flaherty. Flaherty used to write more than normal when she was in medical school. Writes Flaherty, “When my attention wandered during medical school lectures, for example, I would furiously write whatever thoughts came into my head.” She experienced hypergraphia as a result of a personal tragedy. Hypergraphia is triggered by changes in brainwave activity in the temporal lobe and is associated with bipolar disorder. Schizophrenics can also experience a compulsive drive to write. Manic and depressive episodes can intensify hypergraphia symptoms. Some hypergraphia symptoms include: Writing on everything and everywhere, carrying pen and paper everywhere lest some important idea gets lost, meticulously chronicling daily events (even mundane ones) too frequently, making useless lists of everything and copying the same thing over and over, among other things. Hyper graphics enjoy writing. Hyper graphics write for their pleasure or to deal with their sorrows. The obsession to write, however, can alienate the writer from friends and relatives. For Flaherty, overindulgence in writing was a blessing. When asked, why it is called a disease, her response was, “I call it a disease, in part, because of the way, my writing sucked me away from everything else. I hated to think that writing — one of the most refined, even transcendent talents — should be so influenced by biology”. Proust, Lewis Carol, Vincent van Gogh, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Issac Asimov, Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Agatha Christie, Anthony Trollope, John Updike, Herman Melville, and Joyce Carol Oates are some of the famous authors who are considered hypergraphic. Some people have a writer’s block. They don’t write despite being intellectually capable of doing so. They suffer because they’re not writing. People who can but don’t write are most unhappy. Writer’s block can go hand in hand with hypergraphia. One can be blocked in one genre but not in another. For example, it is possible that a poet, when under the spell of a block, can’t write poetry, but at the same time, can churn out excellent prose. In extreme cases, some blocked writers view their work as inferior or unsuitable, when, in fact, it could be the opposite. The reasons for this condition are lack of creativity, inspiration and writing on subjects that are alien to the writer. We all are somewhat blocked, only the extent varies. Books are our best companions. In books, I find my ideas, convictions, identity, and language. I am aware that some people have an obsession to possess or hoard books. We collect books but don’t read them. We collect books to decorate bookshelves. Some say bibliomania is a disease. Bibliophilia, on the other hand, is love for books. Lending a good book is almost like losing a book. Some bibliophiles go even to the extent of stealing books. “People who are scrupulously honest in all their other dealings don’t think that failure to return a book to its owner is theft in the usual sense of the term,” writes Theodore Dalrymple. If one appropriates a book of someone who merely keeps it, but doesn’t do justice to it, should we call it misappropriation? One doesn’t deserve to keep a book if he doesn’t know how to use it wisely. Research says that students are reading less these days. What might be causing it, says Keith O’Brien, is the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them? Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, researchers suggest, is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible. It is generally accepted that self-motivated learning results in a more productive worker and more fulfilled citizen. Perhaps, it is possible to improve study habits by refining the teacher-student relationship. According to another study, our attention span is decreasing. We don’t like to read lengthy texts. We are becoming good collectors, but bad contemplators of books. These are two very different states of mind. A better balance is needed between collection and contemplation. Soon I shall start reading Complete Works of Tagore that is lying in my bookshelf for quite some time. I will read it slowly. I am beginning to understand that slow reading makes a lot of sense. Another big issue is a digital challenge. We keep our emails and documents on distant servers. Similar future awaits books. Libraries will not be collective bookshelves, but documentation centres where books will be available digitally. Rather than contemplating, we would be spending time on downloading. Some of us will miss the smell of a new book. Life has sped up, but we haven’t. Speed reflects modernity and modernisation. It is a reflection of work, efficiency, utility, productivity, and competition. It offers exhilaration as well as stress. It creates as well as closes the gaps. It rejuvenates as well as kills. It gives pleasure as well as pain. Now in nanoseconds, we want to know what we want to know. Does speed increases or decreases our efficiency? Does speed adds or curtails our time for leisure? Does speed liberate or enslave us? Is speed bringing people closer or creating deep divisions? Can’t imaginative ideas emerge in a moment of idleness? Speed has exponentially expanded our endless desires. Slow is a nuisance, cognitively speaking, but that is what is also needed for our cognitive health. Speed is distance divided by time. Speed can’t be measured in time terms alone, as value. Speed is relative, as are distance and time. Because of speed, people have begun to regard many useful things as ‘impractical luxury’. They can’t see the beauty in slow-moving butterflies or the colours it spreads. Does slower always means less useful? Thanks to technology, we should have more time for ourselves, but do we? Technology promises to match the speed of our thought, but can we? The life we are creating for ourselves is rushing towards ‘a quarter of a second’. The ‘now’ time (“the minimum amount of duration which we can distinctly feel”) seems to increase as one goes up the ladder of complexity. The speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100, the speed of communication rose by a factor of 10 million, and data transmission has soared by a factor of 10 billion. But are we not forgetting a vital fact that there is a difference between barely registering an image and actually seeing a thing. Does not speed bring a crisis of attention? Are we losing “our ability to endure the long shot, the slow dissolves, the sustained monologue?” Are we entering into the age of shock and suspense? It is important to enliven the memories, but it is equally important to live memorable moments. Amidst plenty, we should not miss the subtlety. Everything can’t be done quickly. Acceleration is not sustainable in all situations. We read more but reflect less. We are writing more. Perhaps we are making lesser errors. Perhaps we are writing less thoughtfully.

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© 2017 by Dr Purnendu Ghosh