Notes on how to write

The short and beautiful answer to this, in the words of my dear friend Shriya (find her lovely blog here), is: Just write. Don’t think much, just write, write, write. I followed her advice and I think, just writing helps overcome writer’s block and gets rid of the imposter syndrome. It’s super effective.

That tackled, I am proceeding to the finer questions writers often face:

  1. Should writers write from personal experience or attempt something completely foreign to their understanding? How can they write anything beyond what they know and if they can’t, can we say they aren’t writers but mere memoirists?

    2. It’s very true that writing is an exercise in building awareness of the world around us and of us. In that case, should it matter to a writer that he / she makes a note of his writing habits and styles besides his own reaction to other people’s knowledge and stories?

    3. Should I writer always focus on his / her strengths and speak to it through writing or should he experiment more? What are his limitations?

    4. Does assessing and getting around to answering these questions help evolve with one’s writing and thrust it in new directions?

I am thinking these over and trying to answer each one by one. I don’t know if I am making sense but if you are a writer too, chug along –

First, I enjoy writing memoirs. Memoir writing is like letting loose a vast reservoir of personal memory – joy, sorrow, struggles and convictions – and bringing them all together to share something others can connect with. If a memoir doesn’t make you connect with it, half of its purpose is lost. It’s like writing on love but the experience of love (that can be universal) escapes you even if you have read it multiple times. Or, if you write about growing up wanting to be a writer, your struggle to earn legitimacy for your ambition escapes the reader. This exercise in personal memory comes easy to me. I don’t know about others but I can imagine memoirs can be very difficult for some people who are reluctant or hesitant or still coming to terms with their memories. And some people may just be very private and shy.

This brings me to the very question of attempting something we don’t understand or know much. Should we write about it? Yes, we must. Familiarity can be acquired or imagined, in my view. Journalists do that all the time and I think, I am saying this partly because my years as a journalist equip me to traverse other universes and people’s stories with a certain empathy that comes with years of professional practice. Yet, it can be difficult, especially if you are fictionalizing it. Some of the stories I have done in the past lie as story pegs for some of the short stories I have wanted to write. The plot has come to me in minutes, but stitching together details has been a painstaking effort. I say this in spite of all the ground work I put into the stories, all the interviews and social mapping that goes into reportage.

Second, do I make a note of my writing habits and styles besides my own reaction to other people’s knowledge and stories?

I am breaking this into two parts to first assess what my writing style is. I think my style comes most eloquently in my memoirs. I am more direct, often intense and emotional about whatever it is I am addressing through my writing. That’s where my true voice emerges. I am not playful with prose – I am all heart, bare all writer, who feels deeply and churns out intense pieces. I don’t know where a lot of this fits into but I guess I am happy not getting fixed into frames or genres. The one single aim of my writing – even when I was writing stories for newspapers – was to touch people’s hearts with my writing. I have always tried to achieve that quality with my writing where my prose is empathetic, simple and profound all at once, evoking sentiments and sparking off deeper reflections and personal experiences in readers. I prefer writing about common people, or problems of the working class. I prefer breaking down complex ideas and trends down to how those affect lives of the common men and women. That’s all the more reason why I think the writing done to convey their issues need to place them first in the narrative and do so with utmost empathy and ethos.

My writing habits are eccentric, to put it mildly. I often wake up middle of the night just to write. My poems are mostly written on the phone, because poetry writing is not a conscious or planned effort for me. It just erupts any moment and phone becomes the most accessible writing pad for me at that moment. Of late, I have attempted to build a routine where I dedicate first four hours of my waking day to writing, ideally immediately after my morning workout and bath. This usually is quite early in the mornings, around 5-6 am. Silence in the world with no cacophonous noise from the street calms me and I think that’s when I consciously write. For newspaper columns, I spend a few hours over the weekend and that’s the only structured writing I do besides writing memos for my research.

Third, the starting point for me is always to do what I think is what I am good at. Playing to your strengths is a time-tested adage every writer follows. I think the point of exploring other novel frontiers in writing comes once you have written enough and are craving for creating something completely different from what your readers expect from you. So, yes, one must forge into new areas in writing but when and how usually will depend on when you would feel the need to do that. This is related to the question on the limitations a writer can face. I think a writer’s familiarity with the subject or genre of writing style, which is his strength when starting out, can also become his limitation in the long run. That’s why forays into new frontiers of writing become so important.

Four, I think actively thinking about writing is very important. I never realized its importance until I reached a stage where much of my writing exercises were getting stuck midway. Thinking through the various aspects of my writing helped me steer myself ahead with my writing goals and develop an understanding of my idiosyncrasies as a writer.

That’s all for now. Will be back with more when I struggle with questions and will try and process them here.

Mumbai floods

Floods in Mumbai are an annual affair. I know this may hurt some people but the day I visited Mumbai for the first time, it was raining cats and dogs, and exactly 21 days later, a major flooding of the financial capital took place. Financial Times reported this last year – the headline points to a historic high – and we are back again with those headlines this week. Mumbai is under water and things are worse than previous years, reports scream.

Environment researchers point to the extreme precipitation events that have been occurring with great frequency in India, led by a combination of rising temperatures and changes in the monsoon. Add to these poor civic planning, unfettered growth in population in the cities, and resultant environmental degradation. Every year, millions across India are displaced from their homes due to floods and Mumbai is no exception. Copious rains even bring the buildings and landfills down on people in the city.

But, contradictions abound. We are aware of the risks of climate‐induced flooding and yet, development plans continue to ignore these risks. Mumbai, one of India’s largest coastal cities, is the hub of both planned and unplanned developments and the adaptive resilience frameworks that prepare cities for climate induced calamities are in short supply here too, which continue to endanger lives.

Here are the economic effects of the floods that are likely to occur based on past experience:

Poor families will become poorer

They already have low incomes and housing in low-lying and flood-prone areas. During the 2005 floods in Mumbai, families living below the poverty line in Mumbai faced damage costs amounting to 1,480 percent of their average monthly incomes.

Direct and indirect impacts on low-income households

Housing structures, households assets, vehicles and work tools on which their livelihood depends may be damaged. They may own little but when compared with their earnings, even their low damage costs will be higher than economically well-off families, endangering their critical asset base. They will also face the indirect impacts of floods, such as shortages of food, water, and fuel, and disruption of services. Workdays and even jobs will be lost.

Social protection will be partial

In Mumbai, during the 2005 floods, the government offered some households a fixed amount to assist with food and clothing. However, this was less than 10% of the total losses suffered by the households. Many migrant households were excluded from this. Many used their savings or borrowed from informal sources to rebuild their lives. This pushed them into indebtedness and poverty.

Insurance coverage will be negligible or none

More than 90% of the affected families during the 2005 Mumbai floods had no insurance of any kind.

Small businesses will incur losses and lose customer confidence

Physical structures of the business units will be destroyed leading to losses of finished products, inventory, and raw materials. Businesses would also have to cover the expenses of cleaning premises, restarting operations, or shifting production elsewhere. During the 2005 floods, businesses took longer to recover and lost customer confidence.

Compensation and insurance will not help rebuild

Profit-making ventures will likely find themselves using their own resources to cope up with the damages. Post the Mumbai floods in 2005, a few SMEs that had opted for flood insurance received less than the claimed amount after months of delay.

Business recovery will take time

After the Mumbai floods, business recovery time averaged 3–4 days, with maximum recovery time stretching to 1–2 weeks. Several SMEs remained without power, water, and other basic services for 10–15 days. Many businesses could not repay loans. Loss of credit and clients aggravated financial distress, and some businesses closed operations.

A look at the table below outlines the extent of the damage costs faced by retail businesses in Mumbai in the aftermath of the 2005 floods:

Source: ADB Paper here.