I’m going to touch upon a number of things in this post, none about the novel itself, but all of them in some manner related to it.
I haven’t written a word all week. I could use the fashionable ‘writer’s block’ as an excuse but I don’t think that’s quite it. I am still able to write, technically. That is to say, the words are there and so is the story. But – in a nutshell – I’m freaking out.
A conversation ensued with my in-house coach/ pop-psychologist/ critic/ father. He told me about an incident from his college days, staying in a hostel during vacation. He was one of the 4 or 5 people remaining in a building that normally housed over a 100. One night, after grabbing a bite in town (the hostel mess was shut too), he started back for the hostel. It was a dark, rainy night and he had to alight at a bus-stop on the main road, cut across a football ground and circle a deserted college building to get to the main hostel. Along the way, he remembered that on that particular night, he was going to be the only person on campus. On the heels of this, came the realization that he was standing bang in the middle of a football field, lightening flashes making for scary effects in the otherwise pitch darkness, in pouring rain. Neither the road nor the hostel were visible. And in either case, there wouldn’t be a soul in sight at that hour.
As he was telling me this, my mind started up a memory of its own. You know how it is, the projector room inside your head, follows schedules of its own. I thought about when I was 11, an age young enough for the muscles to be mint-fresh for trying but also old enough to have developed and learnt fears. I was in a diving pool 40feet deep and I was petrified of heights (and depths). I remember looking up into the sky and wondering,
What am I doing here? How did I ever get here?
I did remember getting into the pool, starting the lap but it felt like that was someone else; someone who had kidnapped my body but abandoned it – and me – midway. Believe it or not, I had been swimming with my eyes closed (eyes open underwater was too scary, it was so green and murky) and I had managed to hit dead-center of the pool exactly at the moment that I stalled. The sky was grey and there were drops of water starting to come down. On either side, there were people walking around, talking, getting in or out of the pool. I could hear them in spasmodic bursts as my ears bobbed in and out of the water. None of them were even looking in my direction and I doubted they’d be able to hear me even if I spoke. I was going to die and no one would notice till it was too late.
Both these stories are apt metaphors for where I am with the novel, right now. After two months, the initial headiness that blinds one to obvious practical difficulties has worn out. At 137 pages of 46,442 words and the much coveted no.5 rank in the race, I’ve gone too far into the book to be able to just crumple up the page and chuck it into the waste-paper basket. And the end is nowhere in sight. There is the added pressure of the realization that I have no ground beneath me. I quit my secure job a couple of months back. Admittedly I was confident then, of being able to get back when I liked and in my saner moments, that still holds. Yet, it has been such an unaccountably disorienting feeling, this loss of identity. I never realised that my identity was so strongly defined by my job and my career. Now that I’m not an employee of such-and-such company, boss of team of X people, owner of that desk in the corner…..who am I? For awhile it felt curiously exciting to be able to say ‘writer’. (‘Sabbatical’ feels old after I did that over four years ago). But it is just such shaky ground that may materialize or it may turn out to be just quicksand. Yes, I am freaking out.
Okay, another thought. I’ve been laid up sick in the past week as well. I’ve had blood tests, malaria checks, antibiotic courses run, re-prescribed, cancelled and now a change of doctors. In my sheer gloom at having to ‘lie still and be quiet’, I picked up ‘Tea-time for the Traditionally Built’ by Alexander McCall Smith. I bought it in June but have been saving it up like a precious treat for just the right moment. It is after all the newest installment of the Mma.Ramotswe books and who knows when the next one will come out? McCall Smith isn’t J.K.Rowling in popularity though I daresay he could teach her (and several others) a few things about good writing. Undiagnosed and prolonged illness merited a reward I decided and began the book last night, going over each word to savour its beauty.
Earlier today I spoke to my mum (another McCall Smith fan) about the book. We got to talking about Mma.Makutsi whom she said she didn’t like much. The very fact that such strong emotions can be aroused in a reader goes to show the talent of the writer. If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember the big-spectacled, 97%-achieving assistant detective to Mma.Ramotswe as well as her struggle against the more beautiful people in the world and her lack of suitors. What you may not remember is that Mma.Makutsi is not, as is the impression conveyed through the books, a single woman with zero prior experience in relationships. In ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, she is introduced as follows,
Mma.Makutsi was the widow of a teacher and had just passed their general typing and secretarial examinations with an average grade of ninety-seven per cent, she would be ideal – they were certain of it.
I must add that I didn’t remember that myself and only caught the word ‘widow’ the second time I read the series. But it is there undeniably. Yet, it is never mentioned in the later books, through the many references to her people in Bobonong, her competition in the beauty and love stakes with Violet Sephoto and multitudinous other details about Mma.Makutsi’s life. If I may be so bold, I’d like to guess that Mr.McCall Smith wrote her in as a minor character but as the story progressed, realized that she could be given a far bigger role. And so as the story grew, he added on more of her life, made her world bigger (promotion, relatives, boyfriend, business, house, fiancé). It would probably complicate things too much to detail her widowed history and that would go against the simplicity of the story. The first book had probably already been published (maybe even the second, considering that Mma.Makutsi really came into her own only in the third book, ‘The Kalahari Typing School For Men’). So he just went along with the story and hoped (I presume) that no one noticed too much.
That made me think of an even bigger author who made a completely unrealistic change to the lives of one of fiction’s most popular characters and the whole world bought it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes fall over a cliff in ‘The Final Problem-Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes’ but on popular demand (and much to his reluctance) resurrected the detective to bring him back for many more stories.
Well, the last two notes make me a little happier and more cheerful. If Sir Doyle and Mr.McCall Smith could do it with such panache, why not me? Change is built into every aspect of us after all. An hour ago, when I was starting to write this post, I chanced upon some notes I made when I started the novel. These were sketches of characters for the original novel, which I discarded 3 chapters in. It just struck me that there is still a story there and I’ll probably pick that up again for NaNoWriMo (looming high in a month’s time). What’s more, there’s a character I carried over from there to this book, who just doesn’t seem to be fitting in anymore. I guess his rightful place is in his homeland…the earlier novel that is. So back he goes. And the novel I’m currently writing should be able to move on without him.
Funny are the lessons one learns. From Mike Carey’s Lucifer that I finished reading a fortnight ago, I know that even God makes mistakes and tries new stunts all the time. I’m just playing a smaller God with the very tiny universe inside my mind. Bear with me, it’s going to be a turbulent ride and I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. But I’ll never know unless I try. On that happy note, wish me better health because I sincerely hope to be able to report a better wordcount and story pace next week.
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