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2016: The Year In Reading and Writing

2016 has been the year of many cultural and socio-political shocks across the world. Those among us who belong to the “half-full glass” club seem to be questioning their own biases and finally speaking out in righteous outrage. And those in the “half-empty glass” club seem to be questioning other people’s biases and trying to one-up their ever-simmering outrage. Either way, these are mind games we are playing with, ultimately, our own selves where we are near-paralyzed into seeing our worlds in near-apocalyptic terms.

So, 2016 has made me and many of my friends raise this question — explicitly or implicitly — more seriously than ever before:

Are we consuming media or is media consuming us?

We need to ponder this carefully because of the way that content — fake or real — from various 24/7 media platforms can so completely hijack our brains that the cognitive abilities to think independently and create uniquely start to diminish rapidly. What we seem to be gaining, in return, is the capability of entrenching our echo chambers and filter-bubbles further to amplify issues to unprecedented levels.

On a personal level, like many others, I was also consumed by hourly headlines about the US elections, Brexit, Syria, France, India, Russia, and more. To the extent that I barely managed to stick to my 2016 reading and writing resolutions. But, now, more than ever, I think such resolutions are necessary to avoid what I have described above.

Last year, when I made my writing resolutions, I looked at 2014 as my practice year, 2015 as my warmup year, and hoped for 2016 to be my “game time” year. Let’s see how that panned out.

2016 Reading

In general, I am a slow reader. First, I do not read for that almost-instantaneous, amygdala-driven emotional response. I prefer the slower, cortex-driven (motor cortex, sensory cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex) response — a deeper comprehension and fuller reading experience through an appreciation of all aspects of storytelling. For me, the effort/reward continuum is like the difference between a passionate, steamy one night stand versus a longer, meaningful relationship. I have always aimed to be the kind of reader Zadie Smith wrote about before ever reading her essay.

Second, I read for craft — more so now than ever before. The more I write my own works, the more I find myself reading my favorite authors and works this way.

Here’s how my 2016 reading went:

1. I had aimed to read 40 books in 2016 and have managed 26. Partly, this is because I had way more books ongoing at any one time — my current WIP shows 6 different books. Partly, this is because I read a lot more online stories (as you will see from this monthly series of top five best stories), news and essays, which I did not keep good track of — something I will remedy in the coming year. I also listened to a whole lot more podcasts and, again, I did not maintain a good enough list of my favorites of the year and will do so in 2017.

Of the 26 books I completed, the breakdown is as follows: 17 short story collections; 6 India-related books; 1 book in translation; 5 non-fiction (only 1 writing-related).

My WIP consists of: 2 short story collections; 2 books in translation; 2 non-fiction (1 writing-related).

2. I had also aimed to read more writers of color and translated works. This was not something I stuck to very well with only 5 writers of color and 1 book in translation.

3. I bought 10 new books against the 26 I read. While that new books number is consistent with 2015, I would like to read my shelves more and reread, on a regular basis, some old favorites.

In no particular order, my 5 favorite reads of 2016 (okay, 6 really):

Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

Edna O’Brien’s A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories

Eudora Welty’s Pulitzer-winning The Optimist’s Daughter

Penelope Lively’s Booker-winning Moon Tiger

Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories

2016 Writing

I have spent the month of December traveling through South India: Mysore, Coorg, Coonoor, Alleppey, Thekkady, Madurai, Pondicherry, and Chennai. Though there were a few places I was unable to visit, these have certainly given me plenty in sights, sounds, and experiences to process over the coming year through stories and/or blog posts.

Along the way, I was asked by a handful of people what I do for a living. Answering with “I’m a writer” is not an easy thing to do. In the past, I’ve found it difficult because of the immediate followup question of “Oh. What have you written?” Of course, by that question, people really mean “What have you published?” This year, finally, I have not have my usual tongue-tied dread and have been able to mention the names of several respectable publications. And, although the countering response is still, mostly, a polite, smiling blankness, I am content now to simply smile in turn.

1. With my 2016 reading, I had hoped to do 1 book review per month. I managed 7. And, though I have at least 3-4 half-written drafts in my files, I dedicated more of my writing time to my own short stories. That said, I did start a monthly series on the best short stories I had read online that month. Not the same as book reviews but I was writing about literary matters, at least.

2. I intended to write 1 short story a month in 2016. While I did just manage 12 stories through the year, 5 of them were smaller works of flash fiction. I did, however, manage to place 8 stories with wonderful publications to whom I am so grateful. Some of these even paid me for my stories, which is increasingly rare for “emerging” writers like myself.

3. I did not make it to an in-person writing conference or workshop in 2016. That said, I did complete an online course over a few weeks through a MOOC offered by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. And, I have started another with them. While I did not increase my writing tribe through these self-paced online courses, I have learned from them and been introduced to some wonderful writers and works.

4. Overall, I wrote 43 blog posts in 2016. The post that has generated the most traffic is: Top Five Short Story Reads from June 2016. I am personally partial to my 3-part series on diversity in publishing because I learned a fair bit through the writing of it.

Oddly, not a single post was focused on India. Perhaps this is because all my short story writing was India-related. Still, this is something I intend to rectify in 2017, along with trying to increasing my blogging activity.

That said, I am now up to 42 followers, with most joining in 2016. And the number of total views is up six times compared to 2015. So something must be resonating with readers and writers out there.

Commitment

I started 2016 with the single word “Commitment.” Though I did not stay true to all the reading and writing commitments I made to myself, I am proud to have stuck to the one that mattered the most: Writing Goal #2 above. I say “proud” and not “satisfied. Let me clarify that a bit.

Writing, to me, is not an act of heroism. Yes, it takes a certain kind of bravery to tell a story honestly, to get into topics and themes that you are not comfortable with in real life. And, it takes a high level of self-motivation when family and friends do not understand why you want to spend your days doing something that does not earn much money at all. And, because they equate intelligence with financial success, they also see you as a person of lesser intelligence for persisting. But, despite all that, writing, at least the kind I do, is not about changing or saving lives. I have no illusions about this.

For me, writing my India stories is an act of exploration, reframing, and reconciliation. From a very young age, I have had a love-hate relationship with this country where I was born and raised. I am fascinated, confused and bemused by it — all at the same time. That is why I am driven to write about it.

I write, also, because I enjoy the act and process of creating with words, I enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of playing with language, making interesting images and ideas that did not exist in my own perception quite the same way before. And, if, through my stories, I can invoke some of these same pleasures in my readers, that is gratifying too.

Still, I have not come anywhere close to writing about India in the honest and raw ways I would like to. There are many aspects of her I have not explored at any depth and aspects I have yet to turn to. It is less a matter of comfort levels and more a matter of skill levels.

With 2017, I hope to do more, do better. More on that in a separate post.

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