Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts On Writing

I can't think of a time when I didn't enjoy writing.  And so, when I came to a blank wall at a stage in my career as a scientist, and had the option of choosing an alternate way to spend my time, I decided to try my hand at writing.  It began with a trickle (and continues, for various reasons at that pace!) but in the course of over a decade, I have tried my hand at various kinds of writing and have learnt an enormous amount, more than any formal course would have taught me.

A few days ago, after my recent manuscript was shot down (it has happened on innumerable occasions!) I happened to sit and reminisce, to dwell on where my various pieces of writing had led me.  It may not be as interesting for readers as it is for me, but I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

When I first began, I wrote whatever came into my mind.  I felt I needed to write, to begin the flow of thoughts and their translation into words.  I began with a children's book (which I illustrated) - far from perfect, but enjoyable.  All the neighbours' children liked it, which was good enough for me!  A series of poems and a short play followed.  No one was interested in doing anything with these though people were happy to read them.  The short pieces led me on - I wanted to write longer stories and I began writing novellas and a longish interconnected tale of stories- science fiction for young adults.  At the time, the ideas were all part of fiction but now several are taking shape in our present world as science advances.  This manuscript actually made it through to the final stage, past the editors, but was shot down by the marketing team who said they would not be able to sell it.

Writing long pieces is very different from short stories - I learnt about the importance of discipline, consistency and also about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  I have no illusions about my writing - it's done in a very basic and simple (often conversational) style.  I write largely but not entirely for myself, in the hope that people might relate to or be helped in some manner by a few of my thoughts.  Sometimes I just write to vent my feelings!  Most of all, I like to write to express my faith in the strange but wonderful ways of life and the world around us.

Science fiction led to real life science reporting - a form of archiving.  My husband pointed out one day that no one interviewed and recorded Indian science in the country (that was over a decade ago).  Why not try?  There were several outstanding scientists and engineers who had innovated and invented entirely in India - their work would be interesting to document and it would be good for people (especially students who keep talking about the limitations of opportunities in this country) to know about amazing things that could be done with good ideas and determination.  I approached a science journal for permission to write.  Reluctantly they agreed.  Before each piece, I would get their permission and then be given a relatively free hand to proceed.  This was my introduction to interviewing people, recording their words and thinking about how to demystify technical issues for a lay audience.  I also had to do some basic photography, for I needed recent photographs of the speakers (and had no cameraman with me!).  It was an incredible experience and all the scientists I interviewed were enthusiastic and gracious.  Somehow this column gained a lot of popularity and many others began to do similar series of interviews.  I decided it was time to bow out.

I had always felt that one needed to be outgoing, outspoken and quick thinking to do justice to interviews but I realized that this was not essential.  I (a water person, according to the Chinese five elements) blended so much into the background that I found the scientists talking aloud, almost as if to themselves.  All I had to do was sit and listen, and to talk only if a clarification or specific change in direction was required.  It was a time when I really learned the importance of listening and accurately conveying information without distorting it or bringing any aspect of myself into the picture.  I got letters from several readers who had known the speakers, saying the interviews gave them the feeling that the speaker had appeared before them and was talking to them.

There is often a pattern in the way we work, though it is not evident to us at the time.  After the interview series, I realized that just as there were people who had changed the way Indian science  functioned, there had been drastic events that had reshaped Indian lives and our environment - these were often described in political terms but not scientific ones.  One such extreme event was the Bhopal gas tragedy.  I wanted to document it in greater detail as seen by the scientists who were actually on the scene.  Now the information is declassified but when I began, no one was allowed to publish their Bhopal scientific data.  Short interviews would not suffice.  I began by talking to some of the more active scientists, several are dead now and the ones that remain are very old.  I did not finish this piece of work but it led me to a phase of conducting very long recordings that gave me a glimpse into ways of doing science very different from how they are done today.  I gave up this project during my pregnancy for I felt it was too morose a subject to pursue at the time.

Somewhere along the way, one of my very close friends suggested writing a blog and I wondered.  Well, you know the result of that venture (and I thank you all for your patience in reading all that I have to say).  Writing short pieces for an unknown but direct audience (no editors!) and the ease of publishing things online brings with it a different kind of responsibility.  The typed word cannot be erased - a sobering thought when spontaneity beckons!

In the midst of all this, my aunt wanted to write a cookbook.  She and I share a passion for cooking, and I began this as well, along with a friend who is a photographer.  Documenting family recipes, testing them, making notes and the most challenging of all - trying to photograph them at home under very basic conditions was a different kettle of fish.  This is a huge tome and it's still very far from completion.

Recently I wrote a draft for a children's book, this one was based on my own experiences with my toddler, who wanted to read 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!'  Not finding any such story, I wrote one, and sent it as an entry for a contest.  As with my other manuscripts, this one did not even make the shortlist (far from getting any awards!!).  But the friends I sent it to liked the story and I do too (on the scale of children's books, I think it's quite comparable to some of the more entertaining ones).  So I have decided to get it illustrated (by someone better than myself), send it out for another round and then if (or when!) all else fails, to self publish.  This recent exercise has been one of tremendous learning once more.

I wrote to an illustrator in Bangalore but got no reply.  I looked at all the Indian children's books we had collected but could find nothing suitable to the style I had in mind (the current trend in books here is a colourful folk style, which doesn't really suit my story).  I looked at the foreign children's books that I really liked - all my favourites were from British publishers.  I wrote to the illustrator I most admired - Juan Wijngaard (who magically illustrated 'Cloud Tea Monkeys') with no hope of getting a reply.  Surprisingly, he did write back - a long detailed letter about how the world of children's book illustrators worked. explaining the time and financial commitments, the royalty involved and the fact that basically the publishers dealt with the whole exercise.  It was a very kind letter, giving me a glimpse of a world I knew nothing about.  He added that he was flattered that I had thought of him (!!) and that he had stopped illustrating children's books and only focussed on art that he wanted to create.

After that, I confess I didn't spend hours looking for all possible Indian illustrators - I have very little spare time each day.  I knew that my book on its own would never make it to a publisher - publishers rarely touch unknown authors and one needs a very good agent, someone I have not yet found.  I tried the internet and eventually contacted a person whose illustrations I liked, whose time frame and budget were reasonable.  In this manner, I have begun this new venture, with an illustrator from Uruguay, who is pleasant, who seems to have liked my story and is enjoying illustrating it.

We have just begun and I have never before worked with an unknown person across the net.  It's the first time that my words are being put into pictures by someone else - and I have given them the freedom (with a brief explanation of what was in my mind when I wrote the story) to depict the characters and scenes as they want to.  Now I truly understand the importance of a symbiotic relationship between writer and illustrator - the words tell a story but the pictures draw attention to some aspects of it in a distinctive style.  It's very enjoyable to see the addition of colour and pictures to black and white typing - drawings that would not be meaningful on their own but that make a page come alive for a child (and hopefully for their parents too).  I have no idea where this will lead or how it will turn out, but it's a new and very interesting turn that my writing had led me to and I'm enjoying every moment of it so far.

1 comment:

Danny y said...

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