the mutt

Another one that got away

Posted in General, Oddities, Writing by grx20 on July 29, 2009

I’d posted earlier about stories and ideas that somehow get away. I read somewhere ‘the faintest ink is better than the strongest memory.’ So I started keeping a note of thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, I’d even have an entire paragraph all worked out, as in the following case.

And sometimes, they get away.

I can’t remember how the rest of this story goes. Or even what it is about. Don’t mean to sound pompous, but damn, I’ve forgotten at a real cliffhanger point. What was the ‘condition?’ What was the only symptom?

There’s probably a name for the condition – some psychologist’s name followed by the word ‘complex’. As if I am a sprawling housing society, the foundations laid in a series of deep-rooted mindf-s.
But since I never asked anyone, I never found out if it had a name. It manifested itself in one telling way. In fact, that is the only symptom of the condition.

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Rushdie Rediscovered

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 29, 2009

Over the last few days I’ve been watching interviews with Salman Rushdie on youtube.
And I’m discovering again, he is quite brilliant and also why he’s so highly esteemed.

This one in particular is really good.

I am bowled over by the depth of his ideas, the sheer magic of his imagination and the edgy things he’s doing in his stories.
His latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence is bristling with some amazing ideas. Each of them is good enough for one novel – Rushdie packs them all into one.

I know what my next book is.

Character Bombshell

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 9, 2009

Back from a rather hectic, yet fantastic trip to New Delhi and Agra. Spent more time travelling in trains, actually! At some point everybody has recommended a long train journey to someone else. The reasons have always been pretty much the same: disconnect, quiet time to think, see the countryside like you never would – and finally – meet interesting people.

I could list the rather colourful characters I met. People with a history that one would be hard pressed to equal merely by the force of imagination. This post, however, is not about that. This post is about what a person says, suddenly, that completely changes your understanding of her. It sheds new light on everything she has said before, and she will say after. In one second, that character explodes into your heart, never to leave.
mushroom cloud
It’s what I call a character bombshell. When a character says or does something suddenly, drops a nuke that completely transforms your understanding of her.

Old Man. Very old, needs support to make his bed, stand up, open food packets. All of which I gladly provide, not in a condescending way, for I have a grandfather of a similar age and I understand better what’s required of me. I consent, indicating there was never any question of having it any other way, that I would help him get off the train at the right station, and assist with his bag.

He talks about his home, where he worked, his life and so on.

He shares his food with me, insists when I refuse, nods his approval when I relent. Everything’s fine and normal. The usual. The only thing that has made me feel sad for him is that he has lost his wife. He mentions it with dignity, delicately and without maudlin.

The next morning we wait for his station to arrive. I get his bag out and keep it ready. While we wait, he starts talking again. It starts with what he’s already told me – where he worked, his age, his pension etc. And then Bombshell 1: He says, he has two sons. One of them is no more with us, left us when he was just 32. Suddenly, he breaks into a sob, his mouth curls with grief that cannot be gotten over. He tries to recover, and almost does, but another wave washes over him and his hands rush to hide his tear-filled eyes. All of a sudden, it’s no longer small talk. All of a sudden, he’s no longer just another old man in the train who likes to talk.

After a few minutes he recovers. The station is still ten minutes away. We start talking again. He tells me about the revision of his pension  and how his wife asked him not to reconsider his decision to retire although the others in his office suggested he put in a few more years. And then Bombshell 2: My wife has passed away you know – we climbed up to the temple at _________, she fell down the stairs and….

He starts to sob again. His nose is blocked and he draws his breath in gasps. He neither apologises nor attempts to hide the break in the dam he has built to contain emotions. He continues with an inane cliché that only makes my heart sag heavier with sorrow: they say, wife is life, but now … now … what is there to do … I just go on.

The station arrives and I help the old man get off. I wait till his daughter arrives to pick him up. We exchange goodbyes, he thanks me, blesses me – all in a very plain, matter-of-fact way. There was no indication of any bond between us. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that he’d made me privy to a deep and emotional part of his life.

The anecdote is not about my emotions, or his, for that matter. The anecdote is not about what he said, it’s not about the contents. It’s about how he said and when he said it. As a character, the old man and his life are still not exceptional, to be fair. But the two Bombshells he dropped suddenly changed the way I looked at him and his life. I could imagine stronger motivations for some of his beliefs. I could imagine a starker reality he confronted every morning when he awoke. He had flicked on a torch, for just a few seconds, and in that light, I saw him as he saw himself.

The old man dropped the two bombshells suddenly. If it were scripted, I would go as far as to say the author deliberately set me up by talking about inane trivialities prior to the revelation. The old man dropped the bombshell very plainly and without fanfare. Again, if it were scripted, I would say the author eschewed adverbs, adjectives and any need to adorn the statement.

And that’s what made the bombshells what they are. Unexpectedness and starkness.

While I post this anecdote from a writer’s perspective, in doing that I don’t intend to diminish the due respect and gravity it deserves. Character Bombshells (CB) embed characters in your mind like a wedge. A minor character, someone in the background, can storm her way to the main stage with a carefully timed CB. A CB is useful to jolt the reader and force him to reappraise a character. A well planned CB can make a character unforgettable.

If it works in real life, it will work in fiction too.

(If you have come across a Character Bombshell or something similar please do share it with me. Thanks.)

Quicksand beginnings.

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on March 31, 2009

When I was young (ahem, expected aside comes here), I had a sentence stuck in my head. It was the beginning of a story, but I could never take it forward.

dark-cloudsDark clouds threatened the village below.

Finally, after a couple of months, it worked its way into a terrible science fiction, comedy story. It goes like this: The Gods have decided to take away emotions from humans, after witnessing the splendid mess it makes of their lives. (In any case, Earth and emotions was just an experiment of a minor God, so no big deal).  The deed is done, without much fanfare, though the minor God objects passionately. As a result, a favourite writer of the  Gods dishes out terrible stuff, because he can no longer feel and write. In an emergency meeting (during which time the minor God smirks a lot), they decide to reverse the decision.

So where do the dark clouds come in and threaten? When the minor God makes a trip to earth (disguised as a mortal) to meet his favourite writer, before emotions are taken away. The context and setting for the line turned out to be a park, and the protagonist sits on a park bench, engaged in a nail biting, staring contest with an unyielding oak, oblivious to the gathering darkness above his head. And also in the heavens.

Did I say I wrote that when I was young? Make that very young. Truth be told, I still like parts of the story.
It still makes me laugh … a little.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been stuck in another Quicksand Sentence. All my efforts to extract a story, a scene or a character from it have failed.

Every summer they came to the lake.

The working file has many aborted starts and sentences stumped mid way. I keep writing about a man and a woman and an umbrella and a shirt flying through the wind.

Every summer they came to the lake.

One thing is for sure, I’m not making this a science fiction comedy.

Whack#1 “A Moveable Feast”

Posted in General, Whack, Writing by grx20 on January 12, 2009

I’m starting a new section called Whack. It’s a place to share a piece of writing that has struck me as remarkable, for all the right reasons. I may not like the book or story in toto or enjoy the author’s style, but some parts might act like a whack from a wet fish between the eyes. Here’s the first one.

I came across this excerpt from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Since we are talking about Hemingway, I’ll keep this brief and let the excerpt speak for itself.

This just plunged an ice sliver into my brain – this passage, it’s starkness and beauty has been haunting me the whole day.

(I got this from http://www.wherepilgrimsdisappear.wordpress.com – a lot more goodies there.)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.

Facta non verba

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on January 9, 2009

Deeds not words.

That’s my resolution for the year.

Nothing very new, fancy or very different. In fact, one doesn’t need a new year to do this. Yet, there’s something about the turn of December into January that ushers hope and new conviction.

The aim is to get the first draft done by the first half of the year. And yes, I do have an idea that I am very excited about. And that helps a lot. I referred to this in passing in my earlier post. I am also quite excited about the structure of the story and it weaves concepts and themes that have fascinated me for many years now – memories, choices not made, forgiveness, hope, innocence and love.

There are four characters, as of now, and I don’t know yet who will be the key around whom the story revolves. I don’t know who will tell the story.

I have been brooding over parts of the story. Some of the incidents, dialogues, events … these are beginning to take shape in my mind and the process is scaring the s*** out of me. I’m assembling pieces, thinking I’m going to get a certain picture, but I don’t know if the picture will indeed turn out that way. It’s scary to hold these pieces in my mind, weighed down as they are by their fragility, because they are not yet connected and have nothing to sustain them.

It feels good to just let them be in my mind. But this is the year of deeds not words.

Well words, as long as they are being written. Every day.

This process of composting, letting the fragments swim around in their own confusion and nebulosity is simply brilliant.

First draft by the first half of the year. But I’ll be honest – I am being too generous. I should actually nail it in three months. Otherwise, and it’s happened before to me, the characters start becoming boring, I start doubting the plot and idea, and worse, second guess.

Here’s to facta, non verba.

On Composting

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 31, 2008

composting

I’m delighted to end the year with composting.

Composting is what I’ve been doing for the last ten days, and it is simply delightful to say the least.

Yes, yes … you saw it coming a mile away – that composting has nothing to with any agricultural venture that I’m undertaking, and I will soon reveal its true meaning.

True meaning: composting is the process of mulling over story in one’s mind. It’s the process of turning it over, looking at it in different angles, pondering over it … cooking, stewing … composting.

Preparing the soil for the idea to grow. No wonder they say, a seed of an idea.

For over a month, I’ve been struggling with issues of voice, style and simply put, ‘what the hell to write about!’

Then, one evening, I got a germ of an idea in an introduction to Anna Karenina. And that germ has been well, germinating. I’ve planted it in my head and I keep watering it and the results are finally beginning to show.

A few conversations have already formed in my mind, a few ‘encounters’ scenes, if you like, are beginning to take shape and characters are beginning to acquire a personality.

I haven’t written a single word. I think I know how I want to begin the story, or at least at which point, but nothing has been transferred to paper yet. And for the first time, I’m finding it a very liberating and enjoyable process.

Composting is something all writers do. You toss it around, turn it around, mess with it, ask ‘what if’ questions, consider point of view issues, tone, and whole array of plots. And just because you haven’t clocked in a 1000 words a day, doesn’t mean you haven’t been working or that your story isn’t making progress.

I’ve heard of writers who have been toying around with an idea for years, some even decades, before finally getting down to writing it. One example that comes to mind rather quickly, (because I read about it recently) is Navtej Sarna’s new book – The Exile. In an interview he says, the subject has been around in his head for almost a decade.

The other thing with composting is timing. It doesn’t make sense to write it until the story is ready to be written and until you are ready to write it. The most awesome idea may require one to mature in years, experience and skill before finding scripting.

I’ve got some ideas I know I am not ready to write yet. I’ve already written some stories I should have written a few years from now. Composting is a critical critical part of writing. Not that I eschew spontaneous creativity or writing on the go, sometimes it is essential to pickle it.

Perhaps you too have been composting a thought – here’s to seeing it come alive.

Where’s my New Yorker?

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 4, 2008

In 1993, before I was old enough to sink my teeth into it, The Illustrated Weekly was gone. I’ve heard its readers reminisce about it with the fondness and nostalgia reserved for say, a Pataudi. It was an intellectual magazine, I’m told. Apparently, it also had pictures of semi-nude women. The contrast is amusing and not necessarily dichotomous.

But I’ve never read The Weekly.  
But I’ve read The New Yorker.

Now, that is a fascinating magazine. I miss an Indian equivalent of TNY. The Mumbaiker or The Kolkattan doesn’t quite have the same ring, but that is a secondary issue. The primary issue is that there are very few (if any) magazines that can pass of as intellectual. And fewer still equip you with an opinion that is not pedestrian. The Frontline, of course, stands out for its sheer depth. The writing can be staid (it is after all from the stable of The Hindu) and that, in a strange way, actually lends the magazine a certain authority. Like the staff at Abercrombie & Fitch whose demeanour invests them with a sense of having the last word and can make even a seasoned suit-shopper nervous.  

For all its virtues, Frontline is a heavy read from cover to cover. The topics are diverse and deep, the books they review are not the usual bestsellers or newsmakers, and even the ‘lighter’ pieces are carefully chosen to leave you with more than a chuckle. True, the layout of the magazine is not a visual treat, but apart from its centrespread (which carries some fantastic pictures), The Frontline doesn’t have any pretensions of being a designer’s delight.

Yet, it is not a magazine I would subscribe to or pick up every month. It still doesn’t have the flair, variety or the charm of The New Yorker. It’s not a magazine that I would like to take with me wherever I go. It is informative, not entertaining.

I love magazines and the concept of a magazine. Every time I pass a magazine stall I spend a long time simply looking at the different titles, looking for new ones, and hopefully one that will give me what I’m looking for. And I always leave empty handed and disappointed.

I want some smart writing about politics and social issues – not a current affairs magazine.

I want a section for the arts that doesn’t talk down to me or leave me in a labyrinth of references ir dish out a review of the latest chick-litt sensation. Why, I would even like some work of fiction thrown in. But most of all, I want writing that is witty, doesn’t talk down to me (or up, for that matter), is challenging and most of all would make me wish I could write like that.

Speaking of, the vitality and energy of the writing in GQ (the international version) is amazing and some of the pieces actually inspire in me an urge to imitate. Case in point, read this.

To be fair, there are magazines in India that have some very good writing. And that’s exactly the problem. All the well-written those pieces are not in one magazine. One can’t really subscribe to over a dozen magazines to whet one’s appetite for a good read, right?

One magazine, there’s got to be one magazine that rounds up the political scene with incisive analysis, flaunts sharp writing, covers diverse topics and has the New Yorker’s ‘carry-value’.

Desiderata

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 1, 2008

In the light of recent events, my mind wanders back to something I used to read when I was a school kid.

Desiderata. (It’s confused and oft misquoted history can be found here at wikipedia.)

My brother had a copy of it, printed on an ageing A4 sheet, stuck to a wall in his room. And when he wasn’t around, I would go and read it. I find it a calming and gentle read that reminds me of the quiet strength in words well-strung together. In fact, there is no other piece of writing that I recall more often.

DESIDERATA

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

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Roamin’ again

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on November 24, 2008

Just a quick note – I’ve updated the list of websites I’ve been spending good time at – Where the mutt roams.

I found a site that has all of Chekov’s short stories. A little difficult to read on the screen, but, hey, it’s there if you want it.

The Writer’s Handbook Blog is a site with some pretty helpful articles on the life and craft of writing.

The blog – More novel by the week – I’m still going through it, but what I’ve read till now is quite interesting.

My last post mentioned the NaNoMo – the National Novel Writing Month. I won’t give you the link for that, it’s too recent – just scroll down! The Writer’s Handbook has a nice take on that – from the other side of the fence, and makes good reading.