Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, c. 1880.
When does writing begin? The act of committing the first words to a page—as I am doing now—is cited for its difficulty. Though those words might well be deleted from the final draft, the resistance of the blank page is justifiably famous. It’s an entrance to the unknowable, like the doorway on your first school-going day as a child. Once you’ve gone through, you’re in a different domain; you’re in the story, which involves inhabiting a new space and a new self. Before going in, you stare at the lit doorway of the blank page, partly with anxiety and partly with exhaustion. Exhaustion because the blank page is not only the beginning but the end of something. It’s the end of the hours or days or months you’ve spent considering both the subject and the prospect of writing about it. Arriving at the blank page represents our coming to the end of the undecided space we call living. Now we must get down to telling.
I experience this sense of loss as I put down the first word—the loss of procrastination and the freedom to not write, which are for me synonymous with life—yet I feel I must question this model by which we determine at which precise moment we start to write. The question might be particularly pertinent to me, who frequently returns—according to some—to my life as a subject. When did I decide, I’m asked, that I would write about an uncle in my next novel, or a cousin or the Calcutta I used to visit in my childhood or the Oxford of my student days? But, prior to this, surely another moment occurs: the realization that my uncle was extraordinary in a way that could be written about. Subsequent to this comes the idea of formulating a story in which he’s a character, after which comes, eventually, the act of putting the first words about him or where he lived on the page.
Naipaul calls this transition the “discovery of one’s material,” the difficult transition a writer must make from a passionate apprenticeship in literature to annexing an imaginary world that’s their own. After this—I would hazard—the matter of success begins to become, oddly, irrelevant in a way that it wasn’t before. The apprentice reads great literature and wants to produce it; his work must, then, carry the stylistic marks and the themes of what’s been approved as literary. However, at a certain juncture, the apprentice may find he wants, inexplicably, to write about his uncle. He hesitates: he isn’t sure if his uncle is a legitimate subject for literature. We grow up with mythic heroes, and uncles don’t generally adhere to a definition of the heroic. Surely novels need to tackle themes and conflicts that are significant according to a critical consensus. Finally, he sets aside his disquiet. This is how writing begins.
I’ve written at least twice about my uncles (I use “uncles” literally but also as a shorthand for whatever I once thought unfit for serious literature). The first time was in my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. The last was in my sixth, Odysseus Abroad. On both occasions, these uncles re-presented themselves to my imagination through a process that can only be called translation. That is, I found they were already extant in other books. I encountered one of my uncles when reading Sons and Lovers as an undergraduate in London. Reading of Walter Morel’s life-loving expansiveness and the way he whistled doing odd jobs, I felt my uncle’s proximity. This wasn’t a fully formed thought; it was an unexpected recognition of the familiar. Later, I discovered he was in other books, too: A House for Mr Biswas, for example. To discover them was, in a sense, to be involved in translation. I didn’t have to remember him—reading became a form of imagining his world: reading was the beginning of writing.
Odysseus Abroad was, years later, the outcome of a confluence of confused identities. In 2001, for the first time in my life, I bought a painting: a charcoal sketch, really. It was by an artist whose work I loved: F N Souza. He’d been living in self-imposed obscurity in New York and had come to Calcutta, just a year before his death, to exhibit in a gallery. The prices, given Souza’s reputation, were staggeringly low—I bought the sketch for fifty-five thousand rupees (a little more than eight hundred dollars, using the conversion rates of today). An uncle who was unmarried and who, despite being a shipping executive, had lived in a bedsit in London for thirty years had then retired and was in Calcutta, spending most of his time doing nothing in his brother’s home. It was I who’d urged him to return to India in 1991 to attend my wedding. Since then he’d gone back to London for only brief periods. One afternoon, he came to my flat, unannounced, and challenged me: “I hear you’ve bought a painting for fifty-five thousand rupees?” I took him to where it hung in the drawing room: a charcoal sketch of the head of a man made up of wild lines and intermittent smudges. “You may as well have paid me fifty-five thousand rupees for farting,” said my uncle. “But this is a great picture!” I protested. ‘And the man in it looks a bit like you, doesn’t he?’ “Granted,” my uncle replied, “that the work of an idiot and the work of a genius look very alike.” So saying, he went off. I stood there, assessing my purchase and the resemblance of the man in it to the man who’d derided it. I recalled suddenly that Souza had called the sketch “Ulysses.” It came to me: was not my uncle a bit of an Odysseus-like figure? He was a wanderer. He owned no property. Could I write a book in which he played Odysseus? The thought—the “translation”—occurred that afternoon. It took a decade (the period of Odysseus’s travels) for the consequences of the idea to fall into place, and me to begin the novel.
When does writing really start? Convention tells us that it’s when we commit the first word or sentence to the page; put pen to paper, as I still do. The lead-up to this moment comprises memory, receptivity, and the transmutation—the fission—that turns intangible thoughts and images into words and story. You experience things; you live; from these experiences you produce writing. Today, for me, I feel this model holds less and less true. Since I’m writing about my life so often—or rather, of life in general as I know it—I find it increasingly difficult to demarcate the life I live within the book from the life I live outside it; the writing I do with words from the writing I do without words. Writing is an unpremeditated awareness of something coming into existence. Many things become part of the aura of possibility we call “writing”—the street one is walking on; a balcony with a man in it; sounds from a neighboring street. To produce a book containing that street or balcony constitutes only a part of what writing is. Writing spills over from the book, into a domain where there are no words, only a consciousness that something has happened. What has happened is not an event; it’s writing, which can begin at any point of time, in that any moment is a moment of possibility.
Let me give an example. Many of us buy books for different reasons—we’ve heard of the author or of a particular novel; it has won a prize; the book is on the curriculum (there’s a curriculum even after we leave school, and we obediently get what’s on it). Or it could be that we’re drawn to the title, or are absorbed by the book’s jacket. It could be a combination of all or some of these reasons. The number of books we buy far outnumber those we read. Again, the reasons for not reading are multiple—deferral, because of the paucity of time, is a common one. But a powerful cause for not reading is because the writer in us—I use the word “writer” not for one who’s produced books, but for whoever is possessed by the possibility of writing—takes over from the reader. This might happen when we’re transfixed by the jacket and keep studying it, unable to proceed to the first page. The image on the cover, its design, the lettering—these have thrown us into the realm of possibility. Once we’ve entered the story which that possibility engenders, reading the novel itself becomes redundant. We may not write a word, but the writer in us predominates. A version of the novel emerging from the jacket—or even the title—holds us in its spell. That’s why the crowd of unread books on our shelves is never, generally, a burden. They signal a possibility—not that we will one day read them but of how the idea, and moment, of writing is constantly with us.
This is the fifth installment of Amit Chaudhuri’s column, The Moment.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. His seventh novel, Friend of My Youth, will be published in the U.S. in 2019.
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