Perhaps the greatest movie scene explaining the art of writing was early in the film Adaptation where Nicholas Cage plays a screenwriter called Charlie Kaufman, sitting in front of a blank page. We assume his mind is swirling with lofty and great ideas, and then we hear them. His first one is “I should have a doughnut” and then, “No. I will write my name and then reward myself with a doughnut”.
When I tell people I am a writer, I’m sure this happens to a lot of writers – not at the Rushdie or Martin Amis celebrity level, where they don’t have to answer to “What do you do?” – I often hear “Oh, it must be great to follow your passion” or “Wow. Very nice. You do what you love”. It is assumed, perhaps largely because it’s true, that unlike being a cement supplier or inheriting a cell phone shop, people get into writing because they like it. Or realize, after doing some writing, that there may be something here, talent perhaps that makes them better at it than say, making a Chennai travel agency a market leader across the South in couples’ retreats. Of course, there is the demographic of writers (hopefully significant) who may be very good at it but completely hate it. I recently finished Andre Agassi’s biography and I expected anecdotes of how a professional tennis star’s life is filled with physical pain, injections, endurance, but found instead how he absolutely hated playing tennis. DH Lawrence it is rumored, drank himself into a stupor before he started putting down words on a page because he couldn’t tolerate the idea of consciously writing, and Christopher Marlowe enjoyed being a petty criminal and raking up massive gambling debts, just so he could be distracted from writing plays because people were always looking for him to kill him. I suppose when you’re on edge, preparing to flee any second, the fact that you’re penning Dr. Faustus, occupies only a corner of your mind. If that’s all he needed to write one of the greatest plays in the English language, I suppose the word genius is fair to attach.
For full disclosure, I am writing this paragraph a few hours after the previous two because I got a phone call. A flash of blue on my LCD screen I could have ignored, but it was far too tempting after seven minutes of tremendous hard work. The caller didn’t realize that my conversation was really a present to me. A celebration. The writers’ equivalent of popping champagne when he thought he was having a normal catch-up chat with a friend. That’s the other thing about the writing life – the joys are petty and secret and understood solely by the writer. And meaning is found in moments that mean entirely other things to people the writer is with. A prostitute could have mistaken a huge smile on Shakespeare’s face post coitus as a testament to their performance. But the smile may have been for striking the plot coup to end Hamlet. Yes, the old idea that writers will always be misunderstood is true but more than their work, it’s their working that’s misleading.
As a writer of plays and films, I essentially create scenes, which means the volume of words are slim, but in brevity must lie conflict, drama and matter, or so dramatic writers are told by Aristotle downward. What this essentially means is that I spend a large part of my life staring out of my window, in need of character and worlds, at part of a coconut tree from which hangs the sign, “Sree Annapurna Printers and Stationary Pvt. Ltd”. Actually, I only get to see “…ionary Pvt. Ltd.” and the occasional coconut. Now if I was asked, is it my passion to spend most of my adult life, through the most interesting times in human history, through the fastest technical advancements of mankind, staring at part of a photocopy sign in Bandra, I’d probably say no. But all is not lost, there is also the internet that has now eased the burden of aimless staring with more meaningful ways of procrastinating my writing, like Youtube videos of midgets break dancing or brilliant links titled, “Aliens in Mizoram: The Truth” or “Revealed: The Man Who Sold His Mother for an IPad”. It made me think of people like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Clearly they produced a number of pages a day, which one gets a subtle hint at from their body of work. Yet, surely, even working at overcapacity, that is concentration, which, they say the human brain allows at 9-second stretches, (with Yoga, apparently it can go to 15; I function closer to 2), what did these geniuses do on the 10th second? Ok, they banished an estate baroness to the Urals in Chapter 4, then they must have looked up and said, “Why is the vodka taking so long?” or “I hope that cute maid comes back to light the candles” or “From this angle, my wife is beginning to look like a seal”.
Chekov, smart guy, was a doctor all his life, so he made sure he had a good excuse every time he wanted to goof off. He had lives to save. Far more important than tinkering with this Seagull nonsense where nothing happens and once noble Russians exchange politesse, losing real estate.
Then I thought to myself, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Being trivial while creating supposedly great ideas is not like being a German cannibal or an Irish catholic pedophile or a genocide promoter. Yes, procrastination is bad. Yes, it is ok to admit that my mind is mostly – ok, entirely – filled with mediocre banalities and whatever little I do end up writing, comes from 11 seconds of hurried insight, which, at best, is something everyone already knows. But perhaps many writers feel this way. Perhaps Beckett said the same thing to himself while making Vladimir and Estragon chat with each other in Godot (which, ironically, is about wasting time and is a Nobel winner).
So then perhaps, once we are overcome by the guilt and realization that one’s writing life will be 70% wasted time and random meandering and useless staring, perhaps we can not only learn to live with procrastination but elevate it, like writing, to an art in itself. And maybe, over time, people will create a craft around it as well, and there will be procrastination workshops, dealing with the structure and narrative of not just wasting time, but wasting time well. As a starting point though, here are my top five recommendations of things to do. Needless to say, every writer will have their own style, flair, voice and comfort.
- Google: Every few seconds, Google yourself. Especially if there’s nothing on you on Google. The anticipation is pointless and you know well, futile. But the act itself is optimistic and destroys any belief in pragmatism.
- Font size: Play with the font size of your name. Italicize it. Get impressed. Whatever you are in the middle of, hopefully, which is the reason you are seated before the computer, will be broadcast, so derive joy from how big your name is / will be. Literally.
- Bio: Spend a lot of time on your bio. Especially, the “lives between” part. Typically, one sees people living between a big Western city and a big Indian city. You know that’s ripe for comedy, so play with various permutations of it, factoring in an undercurrent of snide socio-cultural commentary. So do “lives between London and Asansol” or New York and Bhubaneswar or if you want more hipster irony, do “divides his time between Asansol and Bhubaneswar”. Eventually, you’ll probably go with London and Delhi or some such combination, regardless of whether you do or don’t live in either. But that’s irrelevant, good time has been well wasted.
- Photo: This works well for novelists. Distract yourself by thinking of the look of your jacket photo. Certain things are given. Never, unless you sell extremely well, look directly at the camera. And never ever, take a color photo. Frowning is good, brooding is better, squinting of eyes sure, all three – ideal. Mirrors are great for this. I know it’s hard to look away and frown and squint and brood (unless you’re in a police mug shot) but do your best. Remember, it’s the effort we’re counting here because it’s translates to time being counted toward not writing.
- Getting up at critical moments: This works well for me. My wife is also a writer, so often I get up mid sentence of writing dialogue and just go and disturb her. Saying nothing specifically. Just nonsensical small talk as she tries to concentrate. In case your domestic situation is different, you can disturb anyone really. The main thing is getting up for no reason, just when you’re getting a good idea. It’s as if it is too much work to receive the idea sitting down, or receiving it is so much work that you needed to walk to calm yourself, or celebrate that you got it. What’s key here is some random activity when you should be sitting and focusing on where the good idea can lead. Sometimes, just getting up and throwing a ball against a wall works. Then you start thinking of maybe your teenage years of being horrible at sports, then you think it was the 80s, matinee shows, buying tickets in black, which might lead to some free association of 80s Amitabh movies, Bofors, Pronob Mukherjee, Vayadoot, airline turbulence, Naresh Goyal, just let it flow and continue – you’ve done well, a good 20 minutes can pass.
Of course, in all this, there is that grand question: Where is the genius? Where is the love of writing? And if this is the attitude, why not become a CPWD subcontractor or make manhole covers? Why suffer through thinking you have something to say when you don’t?
Alan Bennett, the British playwright answers it well in his new play when he says, it’s because if any of us are indeed genuine writers, it’s because we suffer from the habit of art.
The play is essentially about WH Auden (well really, a play about a play on WH Auden) and you expect the poetry and you expect the genius, but for most of the play Auden waits for a rent boy to show up at his Oxford cottage and give him a blow job. Something he looked forward to at the end of his day’s writing.
As the audience you’re thinking, if the poems did not give Auden pleasure, if the pleasure was as carnal as those of us that don’t have Auden’s mind can understand, then what’s the difference between this Nobel winner and me?
The difference, Bennett says, is that through all the wasted time, the thoughts of what else you could be doing with your life, maybe even doing some of those things, the habit of art, like an itch, the lover you can’t forget, a little drone, a twitching disease, has you. And no matter how much time you waste, whether you do it well or badly, you will still always, somehow, write.
Anuvab Pal is an acclaimed playwright and screenplay writer. His screenplays include the award-winning Loins of Punjab Presents and The President is Coming. His plays Chaos Theory, Fatwa, Paris and Life, Love and ETIBDA have been performed at numerous festivals. Anuvab has also written for acclaimed sitcoms Frasier and Law & Order. His novel, The President is Coming was published by Random House India in 2009. He currently lives and works in Mumbai.