by Sunil Badami
Who am I? Reading the excellent, eloquent, engaging entries on this blog before me by much better writers and performers, you’d be forgiven for asking the question. I’m always surprised when people recognise me and my work; the most common response when I admit I’m a writer is ‘have I read anything you’ve written?’—which, I suppose, is a question that answers itself, much like asking a bouncer turfing you out of a nightclub ‘do you know who I am??’
For years, I never actually said I was a writer; given how little I actually wrote in comparison to how much I talked about writing, that was fair enough. Still, when my first short story was published in Meanjin over ten years ago, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was.
Unfortunately, the fee didn’t quite match the thrill, and so, when, after giving my mother a copy, I asked if I could please borrow fifty bucks to cover the electricity bill? she looked at me quizzically, and as kindly as she could, said ‘Why do you persist in living this writer’s cliché of drunkenness, dissolution and debauchery, only to become famous a hundred years after you die? Why don’t you break the cliché and start a family? I’m not getting any younger, you know.’
Even now, I demure when people press me about what it is exactly that I do, what kind of ‘stuff’ I write. ‘I’m really just an adequate speller,’ I sigh. At least on that count, I suppose, I’m not making anything up.
I never imagined I’d ever be a writer. As the son of Indian parents, it’s kind of expected you’ll become a doctor who marries a doctor who puts their sons through medical school. As a child, I’d always assumed—because most of my parents’ friends were doctors too—that that was what you did when you grew up. I’d always been fascinated by medicine, by the body, by its myriad miracles and variations and deformities. It’s amazing to think a veterinarian can treat goldfish and dogs, cows and monkeys, yet each part of our bodies requires a specialist (what makes someone decide to devote their lives to colo-rectal surgery, or sinuses? It’s something I’m always fascinated by as my specialist prods me; the answers are always enlightening).
But I digress! You’ll have to forgive me—and watch me.
As I say, I never imagined I’d ever become a writer. I’d always been a reader: when I was a child, according to my mother (who, if you ever read the story of my name in Alice Pung’s wonderful collection, Growing Up Asian in Australia, can tell a pretty good story), when we when we went to an especially sacred temple in India, in which the gods would bestow any boon you wished for, while my brother asked for toys, I asked for books, books and more books. A lonely, weird, lost child, my only friends growing up were books and the people in them.
But writers seemed so clever and talented and remote from me: growing up in a bookless, broken home out in Sydney’s Outer Western Suburbs, where all you’d hear in the yellowing heat was the faint moan of trucks on the Great Western Highway or the plaintive call of crows, out on the bare, flaccid trees by the stormwater drain. It was easier to imagine I’d become an astronaut when I grew up, rather than a writer.
Despite my fascination with medicine, I never ended up a doctor, after my father told me in no uncertain terms that not only was my education an investment he wasn’t seeing much of a return upon, but that I lacked the drive, the intelligence, the character to become a doctor (it’s always fascinated me, though, how many writers I love and admire were once doctors or the children of doctors: Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Bulgakov, Blake Morrison, William Carlos Williams, Peter Goldsworthy).
Still, just as I’d always read, I’d always written. Although I was always coming second in English to someone different every year, I always did very well in ‘written expression.’ Given how I’m always regretting something I’ve said, writing enabled me, as Rebecca Solnit put it so much more eloquently in her recent, powerful essay on reading, The Faraway Nearby:
‘Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?’
But although I wrote stories from time to time, usually when the inspiration struck me—which was naturally not very often at all—I never thought I’d ever become a writer.
Before I became a writer—or at least when I thought I might like to become one—I always assumed the writing life would be much like Graham Greene’s: writing 500 words in the morning, going out for a long, lubricated, literary lunch with clever and talented people, seeing where the night took you, travelling to exotic places.
Even now, I read of other writer’s routines with great interest (collected recently in Mason Currey’s sometimes chastening, occasionally inspiring and always fascinating blog, Daily Routines, also published as a book, Daily Rituals; or the Paris Review’s excellent The Art of Fiction series). Writing is such a singularly solitary pursuit, in which you must allow your imagination to run wild, it’s easy to let it get away from you, especially when the page is still blank and the muse is missing in action, and imagining that everyone else is having a better time of it somewhere else.
And it’s easy to wonder what you’re doing wrong, when you—or at least me, who’s spent more of his life writing his novel than he ever didn’t—read that Aravind Adiga (whom I grew up with, making it even more painful) wrote his Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger in six febrile weeks, or Andrew McGahan his moving, Vogel-winning classic Praise in three. I’d always written at night—it’s still the time I find my mind racing with ideas, images, plots, quotes, so much so like many writers I have to drink sometimes just to get to sleep (a phenomenon chronicled by Olivia Laing in her book, The Trip to Echo Spring, on the relationship between writers and alcohol).
Still, when I first started writing—or rather, when I was still someone who wrote, rather than being a writer (a distinction I’ll elaborate on a bit later)—it came so easily. Reading that first story (which was recently republished in Sharon Rundle and Meenakshi Bharat’s lovely collection, Only Connect [Brass Monkey Books, Melbourne, 2014]) I’m struck by how fluent it is, how daring, how fearless. I remember I wrote it in all of a couple of days; I changed a couple of adjectives here and there after I’d drafted it, but it came out in one assured burst. I could easily write 2, 3, 5000 words a day with no revision.
It’s very different now. I remember Geoff Dyer saying at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years how writing was one of the few professions that got harder as you got older, in which you paradoxically lost more and more confidence as you became more and more experienced, and, along with an increasingly aching back, it’s something all too true for me.
Now, everything takes five, ten, twenty drafts, everything written out of order, moved around, deleted and un-deleted; it’s full of false starts and fizzlings out, so that although I keep old drafts on file, just in case I might be able to later use something from an earlier version, I can never just write what I think I want to say: everything’s somehow more tentative, less confident, so that where my earlier work seems like a brash statement about the world and everything in it, now it’s like a question asked of no-one else but me (similarly, where I once callowly assumed my work would be read by many, now I can only hope it’s read by someone other than my wife).
Don’t get me wrong! In so so many ways, I’m glad for that. The brash assumption of my youth, that, like so much bad, didactic writing, I could offer profound answers to life’s complicated, perplexing problems, makes for embarrassing reading now. And though I can’t write with the same blithe self-assurance I did then, neither could I have ever written then the way I do now.
Although I couldn’t tell you where I heard it or read it (or even if, because as I get older, I’m more and more aware of how imagination and memory seem to blur more and more into each other, making everything uncertain, fictional), I remember Norman Mailer saying of Gore Vidal in the course of their long, bitter feud that the patrician Vidal ‘lacked the wound.’
As I’ve gotten older, and the wounds have accumulated, still always ripe for re-opening, even as my skin—or at least that callous, made hard by years of rejection and failure—has gotten thicker, all I can offer is my own questions and doubts and fears, and hope that in the course of raising them and asking them, someone somewhere—‘the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them’—can find some solace in them too, seeing something of their own lives and problems, questions and doubts and fears in mine, so that by writing and reading together alone, we can try to find some way of reconsidering—as opposed to trying to answer—that endlessly vexing question: who am I?
(As Marjorie Garber observed in her heartening book The Use and Abuse of Literature: ‘literature is a form of writing that offers unanswered [and potentially unanswerable] questions. Literary language is rife with figures of speech, allusions to other writings and characters facing ambiguous moral decisions… the absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.’[i])
But I digress again—you’ll really have to watch me there!
Where was I? Oh, yes! Back at the desk. If my writing routine were ever recorded in something like Daily Routines, the reality would be much more prosaic. Getting the kids to school, putting the washing out, working out what we’re having for dinner (is there any more disheartening, existential question than that, straight after breakfast, when all you can taste is toothpaste? What are we having for dinner?). Responding to all the emails I’ve left too long, chasing the still unpaid commissions for freelance work I did months ago.
And there’s no better time to clean the lintels or re-organise the medicine cabinet when I’m on deadline, or worse, when I’m faced with another blank page, with no idea what’s going to happen next.
But eventually I get to work: slowly at first, as though what I’m writing and I are dancing cautiously around each other, until eventually, if I’m lucky, and even after the inevitable wrong turns and awkward missteps to start, when the spell could easily be broken by a ringing phone, a knocked door, Facebook, we’re swirling and spinning together, the room and the world and everything outside our tight embrace has disappeared, until, when the alarm has rung to remind me to pick the children up from school and get the homework done and take in the laundry and start cooking dinner, I rise from my sweat-drenched chair, my legs stiff, my back groaning, my wrists and elbows ringing, my head aching; I’ll have forgotten to eat dinner, missed calls, I’ll be distracted and displaced, returning from that vivid inner world of my imagination into the saturated glare of every day life.
Of course, that doesn’t happen every day, either—or very often at all—which is why it’s so intoxicating when it does. When I first started writing—whenever the inspiration struck me, which naturally wasn’t very often at all—even though I could easily write thousands of words, I often abandoned whatever I was writing at the first hurdle. Like most writers, I had drawers (or computer folders) filled with unfinished stories.
Indeed, while, like Alex Miller, I love editing, I hate drafting. Hate it. No matter how great the idea was the night before, no matter how powerful the dream, like Coleridge closing the door on the ‘person from Purlock’ and finding Xanadu gone, like dust blown from a lonely road, or Alden Nowlan’s wife entering the room as he’s writing of his love for her and losing the poem, that whatever it was that moved me as I fell asleep is now only provisional, and I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to catch it—and that too, only if I ever had it in the first place.
Even before the dance begins, I’ll creep upstairs to my desk with trepidation, resignation, not knowing if the day ahead holds wonders or despair. But that’s what makes it so exciting, for all the frustrations and disappointments. Besides, what’s the pleasure in staying close to shore, doing the safe thing anyway? As Salman Rushdie once rightly pointed out:
‘the real risks of any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think. Books become good when they go to this edge and risk falling over it—when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.’[ii]
In those rare moments, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—in which you’re ‘completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost’[iii]—more than make up for the disappointments and disconsolations, when you, and whatever you’re writing, seem to go nowhere (check out Czikszentmihalyi’s inspiring synthesis of it here). But I don’t just write for those moments alone, anymore than I write for fame or fortune anymore.
Like Haruki Murukami, whose arduous writing routine’s daily repetition (which includes getting up at 4am, writing for five or six hours, going for a 10km run or 1500m swim—or both—in the afternoon, reading a bit and listening to some music before going to bed at 9pm) is, according to him ‘a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’[iv] For the same reason, I aver from writing in public places or accepting writing residencies. I need that prosaic, quotidian routine, stuck in my little suburban house, doing boring, repetitive things, so that everything around me apart from the page in front of me can disappear, and my subconscious is free from worrying about anything apart from what I’m writing.
I’m all too aware that the things that might make me a competent writer are the very things that often make me a less than competent person. My mind is always restless, unsatisfied, sometimes neurotic. The persistence I must devote to writing can easily turn into obsession, taking over my life and the lives of everyone around me. The sensitivity that enables me to notice little unseen, unsaid things can easily become paranoia, inferring slights in every innocuous gesture or word. That thrum of thought that often rushes two sentences, three chapters ahead can bubble up into analysis paralysis.
That feverish, dark time while I lie in bed, too exhausted to read or even sleep, is riddled with regrets and fears, anguishes and shames, suddenly vividly alive, and my only way to tame them is to face them by containing them on the page.
Yet writing and reading—which I’d love to talk about with you soon—are as close as I get to meditation, when in those moments of still silence, lost in someone else’s life and world, I can find a reprieve from my petty neuroses and pointless worries, from the reverberating whorl of thought and chatter and criticism that fills my head day and night, the noise of it competing with car alarms and mobile phones and ads on the telly or competing voices on the radio or the internet.
But most importantly, it offers me a reprieve from myself. Paradoxically, as I lose myself in the lives of the people about whom I’m reading or writing, I find myself; and it’s this I write for: not fame or fortune or any prize, nor even for myself (although, given I have none of these, I suppose it’s easy for me to say that, huh?). Something I hope my writing will one day offer readers like you.
All writing is a kind of revision of all the writing before it—whether we wrote it, or we read it. And if it’s good, it keeps reminding us of the question Aristotle realised that, unasked, made life not worth living. Who am I?
It’s easy, reading writers talking about writing, to imagine that writing is the hardest job in the world. Having had a lot of terrible, boring, arduous jobs to support my writing, I know it’s not. Despite all the frustrations and penury, the disappointments and heart (and back) aches, those fleeting, flowing moments make those other imposters disappear. As the old saying goes, I don’t like writing, but I like having written.[v]
Still, just as my parents’ profession was so wedded to their sense of self that they had to preface their names with it (what other profession does that? Have you ever met someone who said ‘Hello, I’m Actuary John Doe’? Just saying), I can’t imagine not being a writer, even if I still tell people I’m an adequate speller.
As I’ve gotten older, and more used to criticism and rejection—if not entirely inured to it—I’ve also found that a great consolation of age, apart from being more and more sure of what you like and don’t like, and more and more confidence to say so, is becoming freer of judgment and envy.
Where the successes of my peers once made me nauseous with jealousy, I know all too well now—in a way I couldn’t have when I was someone who wrote, rather than a writer—how hard it is to write, whether it takes six weeks or six months or (as in my case) twenty years, because every book, every story, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word can be, must be, uncharted territory, where the journey may end in desolation. Everyone’s journey—lonely, long distance, perilous—is their own. Besides, we cannot discover any secret in the hours they keep, only in the things that they write.
As Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said, inspiration has to find you working. Years ago, when I was applying to creative writing courses overseas, a writer I admire greatly admonished me. ‘What do you need a creative writing course for? Writing can’t be taught; it can only be learnt’—the distinction’s an important one, if you consider it—‘all you need to do to become a writer is to listen carefully, observe acutely, read voraciously, live enthusiastically and write, write, write!’ (she still wrote me a glowing reference, for which I’m eternally grateful). Tom Keneally, who’s written more than I know now I ever will, told me something similar: that whatever you do, whatever else happens, write every day, even a sentence, but write it. Whether you’re tired or hungover or depressed, elated, busy, distracted, no matter what, no matter how long it takes you to get going, no matter anything else, just write. If you write long enough, soon enough, something will come.
Looking at writers’ rooms or reading about their routines can be a fine diversion from actually working, but in the end, all you can do is write. That’s all you can do, that you must do, if you’re a writer.
If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with something; if you’re really lucky, it will be something someone else will find worth reading.
Adiga, Aravind, The White Tiger, Grove Atlantic, New York, 2008.
Czikszentmihaly, Mihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Classics, New York, 2008.
Czikszentmihaly, Mihalyi, Flow: The Secret to Happiness. TED 2004. http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en, accessed 10 February 2015.
Currey, Mason, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, Picador, London
Currey, Mason, Daily Routines. http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/, accessed 10 February 2015.
de Botton, The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel, Macmillan, London, 1994.
Fowler, Harold (trans), Plato, Apology. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA/William Heinemann, London, 1966, 38a. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=plat.+apol.+38a, accessed 10 February 2014.
Garber, Marjorie, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011.
The Guardian, Writers’ Rooms. http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/writersrooms, accessed 10 February 2015.
Laing, Olivia, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Picador, London, 2014.
McGahan, Andrew, Praise, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991.
Murukami, Haruki, quoted in John Wray, The Art of Fiction No. 182, The Paris Review, Summer 2004, No 170, The Paris Review Foundation, New York. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami, accessed 10 February 2015.
Nowlan, Alden, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Bread, Wine and Salt, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto, 1967, 59.
Pung, Alice (ed), Growing Up Asian in Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008.
Rundle, Sharon and Bharat, Meenakshi (eds), Only Connect, Brass Monkey Books, Melbourne, 2014.
Solnit, Rebecca, The Faraway Nearby, Guernica Magazine, New York, 23 April 2013. http://www.guernicamag.com/features/the-faraway-nearby/, accessed 10 February 2015.
[i] Garber, Marjorie, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011, 259-260.
[ii] Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta/Picador, London, 1992, 12
[iii] Csikszentmihaly, quoted in John Gierland, Go With The Flow, Wired Magazine, Issue 4.09, September 1996. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/4.09/czik_pr.html, accessed 10 February 2015.
[iv] Murukami, Haruki, quoted in John Wray, The Art of Fiction No. 182, The Paris Review, Summer 2004, No 170, The Paris Review Foundation, New York. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami, accessed 10 February 2015.
[v] O’Toole, Garson, Quote Investigator, 18 October 2014. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/10/18/on-writing/, accessed 10 February 2014.