Writing Secrets and Other Tools of the Trade | Latest India News

One of the things that all writers obsess about is the whole “writing secrets” genre. We read interviews given by writers we admire. We take courses, read essays, all in the hope that we can improve this tortuous process that is our job.

Writing in its most fundamental aspect is about representation. It’s about taking something physical in this universe and representing it through text. But this is not enough. What you hope to do as a writer is to convert the physicality of the object into a metaphor for emotion, memory and history.

In this sense, it does not matter what the object is. What matters is how you, as a writer, connect with these objects and how you present them to your readers.

Take three random items: neem leaves, moth balls, and camphor. These are the things our moms used to keep in their closets to protect their sarees. On the surface, they have nothing in common. But when you look deeper with a diffused eye, no, it’s not a contradiction. It is a practice. Being both present and permeable to influences is essential in creative work. You need to connect with the subject or object in a penetrating yet diffuse way. Indian poetics call this “Pratibha”. Often it happens in a flash when you least expect it, like when you’re in the shower. Being out of a job and not being on your phone is essential for such flashes to occur. When you reach this state, you will see what Charles Baudelaire called a forest of living symbols.

What do neem leaves, mothballs, and camphor mean to you? For me, and it came after a lot of thought and in a flash really – again, not a contradiction, just a practice. These three objects that could represent… the sweep of Indian civilization. How you ask. Alright, I’m going, I’m making the connections.

Three is a powerful number in India. We submit forms in triplicate, we have the divine trinity of gods in our creation myth, three colors in our national flag. Tribhanga, Trinethra (the third eye), Tiranga. All three. The three objects that perfume a grandmother’s sari. Seen in a certain way, they represent our civilizational history.

Moth balls came with the prudish Britons, frightened as they were by the vibrant, verdant wildlife, insects and moths of tropical India. Camphor is something we use for the sacred – aartis – and the profane – to protect our clothes. This juxtaposition and jugaad where we wear precious diamond earrings with chappals that cost 100 is typical of India. This makeshift arrangement where everyday objects are allocated to multiple uses is also typical of India. We call it jugaad or swalpa adjust maadi here in Karnataka.

Neem leaves come from one of the oldest trees on earth. Native to India: Azadiratcha indica. It illustrates the Indian love affair with nature, how trees populate our myths, our poems and our songs. Today, neem, moringa and turmeric are global health superstars, usurped by fitness enthusiasts who drink chai lattes and green goop.

I’ve written four memoirs, which means I depend on memory to shape a tale. For my latest book, Food & Faith, I traveled to many religious shrines all over India. Here is what I noticed. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Jewish. Every religion used humble objects to access the divine and access the soul. Christians lit candles, Muslims lit incense and Hindus lit the lamp. A simple object as a metaphor for worship.

Poet William Blake spoke of seeing the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. But for that you have to go out and smell the sand, right. Smell the wildflower. The tools of my trade came from alpha and beta – which came together to create the alphabet. Today the Greek alphabets have taken on a whole new meaning to signify the march of the Covid. An alphabet becomes a virus.

I took many writing classes. The job that still eludes me is the construction of metaphors. For metaphors and similes to work, you need to do two things. They must be dissimilar and yet, when stated, they must appear obvious.

Some metaphors are predetermined. Most cultures call the uterus a vessel because it is a container. Other metaphors are culturally specific. Kalidasa once compared the flight of birds to a garland. This doesn’t work in Western cultures that put flowers in vases. Gifted metaphors offer a shock of surprise and revelation. They are a pleasure to read and savour.

Recently, I have resumed reading poetry. Since the poems are short, they are finished and can be savored in a tik-tok minute. They also allow you to feel the poet’s pulse, which (if the poem is any good) is quite wonderful, as it allows you to reach through time and space.

Metaphors are the language of the psyche and the spirit. To shape them, I have to be in touch with my inner world, which, when it’s so easy and fun to be distracted by social media, is a hard thing to do. It is the craft of writing. It’s the gift of a good writer.

(Shoba Narayan is an award-winning author based in Bengaluru. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.)


    Shoba Narayan is an award-winning author based in Bangalore. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.
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