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Writing for You? Or for Me?

‘You must always write with your reader in mind.’ This was one of the first pieces of advice that I received when I began my writing career. Honestly, I found this extremely hard to do because more often than not, I couldn’t picture my ideal reader. Slowly, this advice changed to ‘Write for yourself.’ While that seemed easier, it didn’t necessarily fulfil the reality of the situation, meaning, writing for myself didn’t translate into sales of whatever I wrote. As time went on, though, there were a few things I understood which made writing far more pleasant and lucrative, namely, writing was a transfer of emotions, the ability to keep a subtle journal and collecting gibberish.

 

A Transfer of Emotions

Dandapani, a Hindu priest, speaker on self-development and entrepreneur once told the following story. A businessman had become used to the digital way of doing things and travelled a tremendous amount for work. He missed many of his birthdays and often received greetings (usually in the form of ecards) via social media. There was one greeting, however, he treasured and that was a handmade card which he carried wherever he went. The spelling was wrong, the colouring was barely in within the lines and there was a tear in the corner. Still, this businessman treasured this card above all the messages he received. Dandapani explained that more than the fact that it was a card from his five-year-old child, it was because he could sense the depth of emotion that went into making that simple card.

The lesson then is this: whenever you create something, you are transmitting energy when so doing. I have experienced something similar with my writing. For example, The Age of Smiling Secrets is a novel that one reader described as a ‘slow burn’ – it starts slow, but once readers get past the first traumatic event (there are many in that novel), many readers find that they cannot put the novel down. This was exactly what I wanted the reader to experience reading the novel because it’s what happens in many homes in Asia.

Many people also said that they cried when reading the novel. When I could, I asked them to tell me which parts of the book made them cry. As it happens, they cried over the same bits I’d cried about when writing the novel. This made me aware that through the process of writing, I not only assuaged my emotions and sadness, but I also transmitted them to the reader as well.

 

A Subtle Journal

For many writers, one of the earliest habits they’re encouraged to cultivate is to keep a journal. I confess that I am hopeless at this. In the past, I’ve had every intention of maintaining one. More often than not, every December, I would make a resolution to start a journal in the new year. When the new year arrived, I would diligently keep a diary for the first week. Thereafter, bit by bit, laziness set it. By February, I’d have forgotten that I even had a journal in the first place. That was why, many years ago, I decided to stop keeping a journal altogether. Instead, I learnt to remember details of events and conversations verbatim. I called this my ‘subtle journal’. I used it as a resource to generate material for my fiction. It also goes to ensuring authentic dialogue.

For example, when I was considering ghostwriting a book, I met the author to discuss my fee. He insisted that the fee I quoted was too high and then said that I should write his book for free. This was because his story was so wonderful that if I wrote it, I’d go to heaven. My response was that I’m Hindu; even if I wrote a thousand books, by his standards, I was never going to heaven. My place in hell was already reserved. All this was a joke, of course, to lighten the mood. However, it was such a fantastic resource that I used it word-for-word to craft one of the more popular stories in Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time.

 

Collecting Gibberish

The idea is to write little bits of information each day. It may be gibberish. But my question is this: gibberish to whom? Here’s a personal example of ‘gibberish’: Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time. It was born out of a dream. In it, I was telling my father that I had come across two snakes and they were whistling. We had this full-on conversation about it and my father asked, “Do snakes even whistle?” When I woke up from this vivid, highly comical and also petrifying dream, I remember how peculiar it was. That feeling stayed with me. Seeing the potential in it, I decided to use it as the title of the collection.

The Age of Smiling Secrets was born out of an observation I made one day when I was in court. I was smiling because I was so nervous knowing that I was failing and if I didn’t smile, I was going to burst into tears. My opponent was smiling because he knew he had the upper hand in this matter. The judge was smiling because I suppose he couldn’t believe our collective ineptitude. It made me aware that we were all smiling for separate reasons.

Think about some of the titles of award-winning books that you’ve come across – from 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The God of Small Things to Gone with the Wind and A House for Mr. Biswas. The possibilities are endless. Frankly, if something means something to you, then that is all that matters.

The answer to the issue about whether you should write with your reader in mind or for yourself is, therefore, not straightforward. The lessons I learnt – emotion is transmitted through one’s writing, keeping this subtle journal and collecting gibberish – could be crystallised into one simple thought: it was important to write from the heart. Listen to that voice from within and work towards making it heard, appreciated and loved.

 

By Aneeta Sundararaj

(June 2021)


Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).


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