Category: General

The Mystery of the Writing Process

The Mystery of the Writing Process

Few years back, I wanted to write fiction. Many fiction writers get up early in the morning and churn out 1000 or 2000 words. Some writers who do this are in the Who’s Who. It is one of the most common and popular advice for writers so naturally I tried doing that.

Total. Utter. Complete. Disaster.

First, I am not a morning person. I can barely manage to brush my teeth in the morning so expecting my brain to be super creative at that moment is an exercise in futility. And second, I can never write anything by staring at the blank screen. Forget all the theories of letting go of your subconscious by typing up whatever comes to mind. It’s just not going to work for me. I realized this after punishing myself few mornings and ending up being utterly miserable for the rest of the day.

What finally worked for me was very simple. Just eliminate what does not work.

Don’t get up early in the morning. Don’t stare at the blank screen.

Easy-peasy. Or Not.

Eliminating what does not work only solves half of the problem. You still have to find what DOES work for you. I found my routine by accident.

Now I write all my articles in a galaxy far, far away from the screen. I write them in my head when I am doing other things – taking a shower, going somewhere or even watching a movie. Most of the time, you will not be able to tell if I am just goofing around or I am writing my articles. Many times, I am doing both. I am watching Youtube videos and suddenly I find one obscure video that I can embed in the article that I am writing. For this reason, social media is not as distracting for me because I am always getting new ideas or connections. When I actually sit down in front of the blank screen, most of the article is already written.

This does not mean that I have removed all the obstacles. This was just the first part that I managed to fix. Tip of the proverbial iceberg.

On to the topics. There are topics which are mostly informative. For instance, I find my article on black holes utterly boring and yet it is one of the popular articles. The reason I find this article boring is there is nothing new in this article. If you google ‘black holes’, you will get much better information from NASA and other sites. But I had no choice. There is no way I could say anything new about black holes. I had to repeat what has been established by science. The best I can do is to explain what I have understood in my own words.

Some of my best articles – best in the sense I like them, I enjoyed writing them, but I know it’s subjective – were written when I was so inspired that I could hardly stop myself from sitting down and writing. One example is the article Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I was so awestruck by this documentary and I loved it so much that there was no way I could have NOT written the article. There are few reasons for this. Japan is one of my favourite countries. I absolutely enjoyed my four month stay in Okazaki after my PhD. And I just love the Japanese language and culture. The beginning of the documentary – beautiful calligraphy accompanied by music of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto 1 Movement 1 got me hooked within the first three minutes. On top of all this, Jiro-Saan is such an inspiration!

Unfortunately, this does not happen as often as I wish it would. For the fifty-odd articles that I have written, there are many unfinished drafts and even more unfinished ideas. For instance, I had this idea of doing a series on my favourite actors called The Shapeshifter Series – featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Gary Oldman etc. I still have not accumulated enough material though part of it was done on the tribute article for Daniel Day-Lewis. I hope I find something to write about Gary Oldman who continues to amaze me in every movie. What a remarkable actor and so underrated!

In school and college, I barely managed to pass in essays and other creative writing tests. Now I know why. The topics were already decided for me. It is very difficult for me to write on a pre-determined topic. And equally difficult to do it in a short amount of time. I need much more time to absorb the material, to play with it, to make connections. Usually I write an article a month or so later, letting the subject matter percolate. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good article. Very rarely do I write a review of a movie immediately after I have seen it, exception being Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

This does not mean that inspiration alone does the trick. For instance, I just love Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. I have seen it so many times for acting, direction and cinematography. I would love to write an article on it but so far I have managed zilch. The movie Invictus and the life of Nelson Mandela are also very inspiring but it has not led to something concrete. There are many such examples.

I would have been very happy if the churning-out-1000-words-every-day approach worked for me because my approach has several deficiencies. First, you are at the mercy of your inspiration. And second, it makes it impossible to write all of your articles on a niche topic. One of the most accepted opinions is that niche-blogging is much better than blogging on several topics. My interests are jumping all over the place and so are my articles. Third, even if the subject is inspiring, I cannot be sure that it will lead to a good article.

All this results in low productivity and/or long gaps in between articles. So I will be trying out some new things. If something clicks and is worth mentioning, I will write about it.

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller

You always see some books in a bookshop no matter what the current craze is or which wave is sweeping the YA section. These books will, of course, depend on the country, the culture etc. But you can be sure that the same candidates will occupy the shelves over generations. Each new generation is discovering these timeless classics that their mothers and perhaps grandmothers loved and they in turn, are loving them.

So how do you go about creating such a work? Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday not only answers this literally million dollar question but in doing so, also destroys some of the popular myths about creation of work and its marketing. The subtitle of the book is The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts. Books are just one example. The principles described in the book hold true in not just every field of art but also extend to products such as the iPhone or even Google services.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of several books, including The Obstacle Is The Way which became hugely popular amongst professional sports players and coaches because it was helping them win. I came to know about Ryan’s work through the blog of Tim Ferriss. Tim’s blog is a treasure trove full of interesting recommendations for books, documentaries and much more. I have given away most of my books in favour of e-books but I am keeping the physical copy of The Obstacle Is The Way.

Creating something that provides value requires not just hard work but often blood, sweat and tears. There are no short cuts here. You may be lucky and create something that goes viral for a week or few weeks but to create something long lasting is a different game altogether. Ryan gives several examples – from Star Wars to Seinfeld to illustrate this point. What’s the reason that out of all successful sitcoms over the years, people still remember the lines and characters from Seinfeld? It’s because you can still relate to them. As Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said, “Focus on the things that don’t change.”

After you create something unique and valuable, your work is only half finished. Many artists are of the opinion that after putting everything they had in creating something, their job is over. They will simply release it and wait for people to discover it. Some may even feel that marketing their work somehow contradicts their artistic creativity and temperament. This is a fatal mistake, especially in today’s world where people are bombarded with new products 24/7. Who knows how many great works have been lost into oblivion because of wrong or misguided marketing strategies?

There are several different aspects here such as positioning and packaging, and the book deals with each of them in detail. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is a nice and popular phrase but in fact, that’s what we do most of the time. The cover, the title are important not just for books but also for movies, products and organizations. For instance, Charity:water is an organization that builds wells in developing countries. The first thing that you notice is the unusual name which means that the organization is split into two : one that builds wells and another that handles administrative costs for the charity. What this means is that 100 percent of your donations go to building wells.

Social media is full of announcements of new books, new movies, new music titles every minute of every day. What chance a new work has of standing out against this onslaught? Ryan discusses several innovative strategies to make this happen. And most of these do not require a huge advertising budget. One of these is to give away your work for free – partially or completely for a limited period of time. One example of this strategy is the rapper Soulja Boy who uploaded his own songs to pirated sites but renamed them as latest 50 Cent and Britany Spears singles. Or there is Paulo Coelho who pirated his own books to Russia. Sure enough, Coelho’s sales in Russia rose from ten thousand copies to one hundred thousand copies in one year, driven largely by the piracy. This strategy is in stark contrast with traditional publishing model where they try to sell every copy to maximize the revenue. Ryan himself sent hundreds of free copies of his book The Obstacle Is The Way to athletes, coaches and managers.

A related strategy is to give away work at a low price. Barring few exceptions – well known brands like Gucci or Armani, for instance – low price works like a charm. According to Amazon data, the cheaper a book is, the more it sells. The reason Raymond Chandler became so successful was that he was one of the first authors to embrace the low priced paperback format at a time when most authors resisted it. A whole new class of readers who could not afford hard bound books discovered Chandler.

Your work does not stop with completion of one project. In the third part of the book, Ryan discusses strategies for building your faithful fan base who will not just buy your next work but also recommend it to others. This requires time, dedication and effort but it’s immensely rewarding in the long run. Examples abound ranging from Iron Maiden to Lady Gaga where faithful fans spread the word of each new release.

In a world where most advice is about how to make your product go viral quickly, Perennial Seller stands out because it focuses on long term success. Ryan’s experience of running many successful marketing campaigns and his background in Stoic philosophy result in a unique long term strategy for writers, artists and entrepreneurs.

Perennial Seller is not for sprinters, it’s for marathon runners.

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Ryan’s website is here and he is also on Twitter.

How to Handle Today’s Turbulent Politics

How to Handle Today’s Turbulent Politics

Indian parliament
Indian Parliament © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

When I was growing up, I did not have any political heroes. Gandhi, Nehru were long gone and the politicians who were around were ordinary at best. The best I could hope for, along with millions of fellow Indians, was that they should ease up on corruption and maybe do some good for the country for a change. This state of affairs continued and soon I gave up on the fact that India could produce a capable leader.

Politicians are a different breed altogether. First, their primary goal is to get into power and then stay there as long as possible. Second, what they say and what they usually do differs vastly. The difference depends on each politician. So you should never judge a politician by what she says but you should always judge her by what she does. Selecting one politician over another is always like choosing headache over ankle sprain. To be fair, some of them do good work as well but they are few and far between. Most often it’s a trade-off between good work and disasters. Nehru did great work in establishing the science and technology infrastructure but he failed while dealing with Kashmir and China. Indira Gandhi was remarkable during the Bangladesh war but that was forgotten by the dark days that were to follow. Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in the digital revolution but he miscalculated badly in case of Sri Lanka. I could go on but suffice to say that if you ever find a politician doing good work, that would be more than compensated by her bad decisions.

So, which party do I support at present in India?
Ans : None. I hate them all with a relish.

Why?
Ans : Why not? Let us take them one by one. Is there anything worth saying about present Congress party? They are still clinging to the tradition of Gandhi dynasty. AAP started promisingly but they got too ambitious too fast. Maybe in 10 years they may amount to something. As for the BJP, I am of the opinion that religion should be a private matter and it should be kept as far from politics as possible. I can never agree to the extremism of this party.

Now this may seem like an escapist route but I assure you it is not. In fact, I would propose that this point of view allows me much greater freedom than the die hard supporters of any party. Why is that? Because now I can dispassionately examine their actions and praise or criticise as the case may be. For instance, I fully support the Clean India initiative of the present government. I can also say that since Modi government has come into power, our foreign relations have improved considerably.

This approach also allows me to judge each politician individually, irrespective of the party. In the present government, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Sushma Swaraj has done such wonderful work that one cannot but help admire it. What was the last time you saw a politician using Twitter to actually help people? Since she became minister, Ms Swaraj has helped countless Indians stranded in foreign countries. This is a rare instance where citizens can just tweet their problems to her and she tags the necessary offices and takes immediate action. Few months back, she has a kidney transplant and now she is back working relentlessly. It is rare to see politicians working so hard for people and I have nothing but admiration for her.

Did you see what just happened? I am able to appreciate a politician based just on her work. I can do this because I am not married to any party. Most die hard supporters do two things. They refuse to acknowledge any accomplishments of the opposite party and they are blind to any mistakes of their own party. So congress supporters refuse to acknowledge the emergency era while BJP supporters are blind to the extreme communal violence instigated by the party leaders.

Also, the fact that I admire the work Ms Swaraj is doing does not mean I support her unconditionally. In a democracy, unconditional support to any party or leader spells disaster. You have to examine each issue and decide your support on a case-by-case basis.

Eminent jurist Nani Palkhiwala, who was one of the strong opponents of laws abusing fundamental rights during the emergency era, said in a speech at the time, “It is easier to throw off a foreign tyranny than the tyranny of your own elected representatives…the price which you pay for being a citizen of a democracy is eternal vigilance…you don’t inherit [freedom] in the bloodstream. You have to fight for it, cherish it, preserve it all the time otherwise it just vanishes”. The full speech is worth a listen.

This vigilance is called for today while dealing with the Aadhaar law. We have to look beyond parties and keep in mind that the law will be used by all future governments. This reminds me of a quote by Chris Rock (and I am paraphrasing because I cannot find the original quote). What he said was you do not assume a position – left, right, centre etc. beforehand. Instead, you look at the issue and its consequences and you take a position that makes most sense to you, irrespective of which party it aligns with.

Democracy is far from perfect but it is the best choice we have. I would not be able to write this if I were a citizen of Russia, China or North Korea.

Indian Traffic : A Real Life Death Match

Indian Traffic : A Real Life Death Match

traffic lights
Image credit : Pixabay

If you watch Indians at a traffic signal, you will notice that we are always in a great hurry. We cannot waste time, every second is precious. The normal conclusion from this would be that we must have something important to do, something that cannot wait. Right? Wrong!

Indians are in a rush at every traffic stop so that they can have more time to procrastinate. It’s one of the deep concepts of Indian philosophy, right up there with the Maya. Had Jean-Paul Sartre ever visited India, he would have written another unintelligible tome – Being in a Hurry and Nothingness.

Imagine a young Indian, working, say, at a government office. (Private companies are no better. Try calling customer service of an Indian company.) As soon as he leaves his home to drive to his office, he becomes the doppelgänger of John Abraham in Dhoom. He puts his life on the line several times every day, cutting corners, overtaking not just from the wrong side but from every possible side that Euclidean geometry would allow. He competes fiercely with his fellow drivers and the poor pedestrians cannot even penetrate his cognitive sphere. Faster than a speeding bullet, he finally reaches his destination : the office.

As he enters the office, the first thing he will probably do is to pray to the favourite one god or goddess that he has chosen out of thirty-three million and whose image adorns his desk. Then a transformation happens. A divine calm begins to spread over his whole body. He becomes philosophical about life. Who am I? Why am I here? Mundane problems like doing work no longer bother him. Sure, there is a long line of people who want him to do something for them but so what? What’s a mere loan application or licence approval in the grand scheme of things? He is no hurry, till it’s time to go home. Then it’s John Abraham again as he races home where he will probably watch his favourite TV program or a Cricket match.

So how do you cross an Indian street?

If you are from a country where drivers actually stop to let the pedestrians pass, you will find it very difficult to manage on Indian streets. It’s like Neo taking the leap of faith. You have to unlearn everything about how to cross a road. For instance, there is a word called ‘jaywalk’ which means “to cross or walk in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic”. This word has lost its meaning in India because it assumes that there is a better way to cross the street. It’s like saying ‘snowfall’ in Antarctica. Jaywalking is the only way to cross most streets in India.

Crossing an Indian street is much more thrilling than playing a violent game in VR. You need to be on your toes and your reflexes have to be razor sharp. For instance, you are about to cross a road and you see an approaching vehicle that will cross your path. What do you do?

If you do nothing or wait for the street to be empty, you might have to wait all day. You need to take action. So here’s what you do. Look at the body language of the vehicle. If it’s fast or super fast, then let it go. If it’s at medium speed, then you need to boldly step in front of the vehicle. Remember, most drivers expect pedestrians to block their way. It’s a supreme battle of wills. Now, if you are quick, he will either slow down or change direction to go behind you. Congrats! You have won but don’t celebrate just yet. You need to tackle a few more similar vehicles before you reach the other end.

While you are doing all this, do look in the other direction as well. There is a fair chance that someone is speeding along in the wrong direction and he will honk in the most self-righteous manner if you are in his way.

Which brings us to honking – one of the favourite Indian pastimes. You may think that honking is just for clearing traffic but you would be wrong. For Indians, honking is a way of expressing ourselves that may mean anything from ‘I am bored’ to ‘Yay! We won the match!’ At any given point of time, an Indian street exhibits a wonderful cacophony of horns.

Every game has cheats. This real life Death Match is no exception. It’s simple. Just look around and find a seasoned street crosser who is going in the same direction as you. Trust his instincts and follow him like a shadow. He will be your Morpheus, guiding you through The Matrix!

Usual disclaimer : This article is to be taken with lots of salt. Please don’t do anything rash on Indian streets and hurt yourself. Also, just because the article is in a lighter vein does not mean the issue is not serious. Every year, more than 135,000 traffic collision-related deaths occur in India.