In 2012, for NaNoWriMo, which is an annual (November) novel writing project that brings together professional and amateur writers from all over the world, I commenced work on my third novel. I honestly had no desire of doing so because in the 1st week of November 2012, I had a book launch. My nonfiction book, Mouth Full, was scheduled for release at the South Asian Literary Festival in London. After the launch, there were readings & speaking commitments in Europe. And since Paris happens to be my go-to literary Mecca whenever possible, my husband and I decided to spend a few days in the French capital since we were going to be across the pond anyway.
The madness didn’t end there. In the same month, I also had to work on the final round of everything that goes into the preparation for a multi-city poetry book launch and tour scheduled for spring 2013. My publisher, very kindly, had decided to do the first launch of poetry collection, No Ocean Here, at the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference in Boston in March 2013. In April, the event was in New York City.
Aside from the usual discipline, honesty with words, and dedication which most of us writers swear by, there is some thing else that I have always believed in: helping out aspiring and emerging writers. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” I had no one when I started writing full-time, so I first-hand know what it’s like to walk down the path without any guides or barriers, feeling scared and lost. I used NaNoWriMo as a project for one of my mentees and had promised we would work together keeping an eye on each other’s work.
I am borderline obsessive about keeping the promises I make. Despite Hurricane Sandy, travel chaos, the book launch & tour, trans-Atlantic travel, editing, and vacation, I wrote daily. Of course, I told my husband and close friends about the project a.k.a. the new commitment. While they appreciated my desire to help out someone in need, they also showed concern about the toll it would take on my health. But I didn’t pay heed. First mistake.
NaNoWriMo got over and months passed by. By then I had started to fall sick a little too often. First it was cold then fever every few weeks. Once again, I paid no attention. Second mistake.By this time I had started collaborating on a documentary film along with whatever was required for No Ocean Here. Working on multiple projects in different genres had never been a problem before, but I realized that novel 3 wasn’t moving forward. Even though I was having fun with the storyline and its possibilities, nothing seemed organic about the chemistry between my male and female protagonist. I “felt” other voices instead of mine. I was thinking, contemplating, and personalizing the book for no apparent reason. Writing scenes here and there but unsure how to really piece it all together. Sure, it could have been a new way of approaching fiction writing, for me that is, but I knew that wasn’t the case. My instincts were telling me something, but I ignored the voice. Third mistake.
I am an optimist and happy person by nature, but I could feel that my personality was shifting by now. Slowly, my confidence in the book began to wither. And I started to question my own judgment and instincts about the book and writing.
What was I doing wrong this time?
In less than 5 years, I have written and published 9 books across the genres of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And I have contracts for 2 more upcoming books. Plus, in the span of four years, I have been blessed with awards, nominations, teaching gigs, and prestigious reading opportunities. I say all this not to brag but to establish a simple fact: I know my way around words and understand my commitment to writing. I consider it sacred and I never produce shoddy work. I have a good system in place and get the job done without compromising on home or my personal life.
Salvaging my book and sanity.
I knew I had to do something. In summer of 2013, I had the opportunity to meet novelist Alexander Chee at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I am a big fan of his writing, humor, and ability to handle jerks (in the classiest way possible). It was an honor winning a Joan Jakobson Scholarship for fiction and being in his classroom. On the first day itself Chee made a poignant suggestion: do not share your work with others until such time that it is ready—the first draft, at least. Because most of us are like sponges, we absorb other people’s thoughts through osmosis. The story begins to change, even if we don’t do so intentionally, depending on whom we are talking to.
Here is what happened:
As a person I’m friendly; as a writer, I am very reserved. I don’t share my ideas or work in progress or even discuss it with most. Or never had until I commenced work on novel 3. Because the person I was doing NaNoWriMo 2012 with was someone I had known only for a few months, I also wanted to run things by others—close friends whom I have known for a while and whose opinions I respect, trust, and admire tremendously. But it didn’t end there, did it? With each passing day, I got comfortable discussing the book and sharing scenes with more and more people. Everyone loved the storyline and suggested it was movie material. The validation seeking hungry artist in me felt good on a subconscious level. But my creativity had become conscious. I had forgotten to write like there was no one watching. My personal nature, which is to accommodate others, seeped into my professional world. I had unknowingly accommodated everyone’s suggestions into my work and paralyzed my creativity.
That was it. I had found my answer and much more…about myself and the world around me:
WRITING MAKES YOU VULNERABLE
No Ocean Here took me to dark places—it was a difficult book to write, edit, and promote given that the poems are based on true stories or inspired by tales of female survivors of violence. Even though I have an extremely supportive husband and incredible friends, the book tested me every day. It left me vulnerable for a really long time and made me over-empathetic towards anyone who said, “I have a dream” or “I am a victim.” I rushed into helping them without knowing whether or not they were actually in pain or faking their story instead of listening to the astute suggestions of my well-wishers
NICENESS CAN BE MISCONSTRUED AS WEAKNESS
I have a dear writer friend. Our work principles are the same but we are polar opposites in terms of our personalities. Both Capricorns and just a day apart but we couldn’t be more radically different in our approach towards humanity or writers. She often says, “Honey, I wish there was a happy medium between our two personalities. I am distrustful of everyone and you are trusting of everyone. I could learn to be less cynical and you have got to stop being so nice.” She was right.
I would read & evaluate people’s stories for free while on vacation because as their mentor or “friend” I didn’t want to abandon them. I would give up on my family time to listen to their insecurities. It hit me hard when my friend accurately pointed out that not everyone appreciates or sees what you sacrifice to accommodate their needs. They assume you have that “extra” time.
Along with my husband, one of my best friends, Rashi Baid, started to notice that I had become over-analytical. I couldn’t even watch a show on television without personalizing it. And I hadn’t been that person always.
Writing and editing are difficult jobs. When you share your raw work, you let your guard down. It’s comparable to bring yourself in the nude to a stranger. And that is the time when you become susceptible to falling prey to your own vulnerabilities and allowing the wrong kind of people into your life. These people might try to make you always feel low and remain depressed because that’s the only way they can find a place for themselves in your life. Or so they inaccurately assume. Real friends, personal or professional, would want what’s best for you and not just think about themselves selfishly—I had to remind myself.
RECOGNIZE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FRIENDSHIPS
Being a boarding school kid, making friends wherever I go has never been a problem. But there is a difference between personal & professional friends and acquaintances. When you are vulnerable and your guard is lowered, there is a high probability for the boundaries between personal friends and professional relationships to become blurry. I had allowed the professional networks or people I mentored to take me for granted and act as if we were close friends.
I learnt the hard way that there are different kinds of friendships. And while all relationships in our lives need nurturing, not everyone deserves equal amount of attention. Gosh, the hardest part was training myself to be okay with it.
MENTORING IS GOOD BUT BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Starting a new book when my skin was thin was ridiculous because it wasn’t the “real” me that I was presenting to the world. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have started the book until I was ready. A nonfiction book followed by a poetry collection is much too much for the soul to deal with. I definitely shouldn’t have spent so many hours helping out other writers at the cost of my own life, work, and health. Once again, I had over-extended myself.
STOP BEING A MARTYR
Another dear writer friend of mine said to me once, “Sweta, think of life as an airplane situation. You first put the oxygen mask on yourself and then on others. You can’t help others without helping yourself.” I didn’t realize the depth of her words until the fall of 2013 when I returned from an overseas literary festival, book tour, and research trip and fell terribly sick. Pneumonia combined with extreme allergies and a few other things had knocked me out like never before. Funny, the same people whom I had helped all these months didn’t even once ask how I was doing. This one person threw a fit about me not responding to their social media posts while I was being rushed from one medical test to the other. My close friends started to point out—the ones who had advised me to NOT start the new book in 2012—the unhealthy one-sided relationships I was maintaining.
Saying NO doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s not easy but it’s an important mantra. There are only 24 hrs. in a day. While it’s a good idea to want to help everyone, you can’t at the cost of your own sanity. Prioritize and recognize genuine people from the rest of the lot. It is a skill that I am trying to learn.
LESSON LEARNT FOR FUTURE
At the end of the day, I am not the type to hold a grudge or hate anyone. I don’t even want to point fingers and hold a person or a group responsible without taking any onus on myself for the mistakes I’ve made. The people who walked all over me—somehow I let them think it was okay to do so. Clearly, I have work to do. That said, I will admit freely that when someone crosses over a line and deliberately impacts my writing in a negative way and tries to ruin my personal life, I have a hard time forgiving them.
In 2014, I have decided to value my life and the people in it. Prioritize and respect my time better. Less than two weeks into the New Year, and I have a poem published and seven personal essays on their way to the respective editors. Maybe, it’s never too late to learn.