[The image accompanying this post was shared by Rebecca Solnit on Facebook with the caption “Mountains I have climbed this year.” It was created by Github user, Zonination, to explain perceptions of probability. But, like Solnit, I find it applies so well to a writer’s life and, particularly, to my 2017.]
Overall, though 2017 has been a crazy year politically across the globe, it has worked out to be a good year of literature for me with all its ups and downs. Focusing on the ups: I completed my first short story collection in May and signed a publishing contract in December; took a course and began a new literary translation project; had 12 works published and 1 interview; won, beyond my expectations, the following nominations: Pushcart; Best of the Net Anthology; and Best American Short Stories anthology.
My theme for 2017 was “self-discipline.” This was very difficult in the first few months of the year with the daily drama of the new US presidency. I am glad I chose this theme, though, because it is exactly what I needed to get myself back on track. And, if I had to choose one word to describe the difference between my January 1 self and my self today, it would be “stronger.”
At the start of this year, I made a few specific literary resolutions. Here is how I fared against them. (And if you are wondering why such goals and results-tracking, please visit that previous link for my rationale.) Before I get into that, however, please allow me to share why literature continues to be so important to me.
A Literary Sohbet
Recently, a writer friend asked on Facebook: “What is a word you love?” I did not have to think too long as there is one I have loved for nearly two decades now. It was probably in 2000 when I first came across it while reading about Rumi’s relationship with his spiritual guide, Shams-i-Tabrīzī.
“Sohbet” is a word of Persian origin, though some also trace the etymology back to Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. It means discourse or conversation between a learned, enlightened one (murshid) and the one committed (murid) to such a person. I hesitate to use the words teacher and student because “murshid” and “murid” mean so much more than that. Just as “sohbet” means so much more than mere dialogue.
In the Sufi tradition, there are three ways of being spiritual, with each being a level higher than the previous: prayer; meditation; and sohbet. That highest way of spiritual being, sohbet, is a mystical practice involving an exchange of knowledge and devotion between the murshid and murid through storytelling traditions. It involves a healing, a cleansing, and a coming together of their minds, hearts, and souls. The murshid cultivates and educates the murid with care and compassion and their deep connection is one of true respect and trust. Through such a practice of sohbet, the murid is able to find a sense of unity with everything.
The reason I was so drawn to this word when I first learned of it, and the reason it continues to be my favorite still, is that it describes my lifelong experiences with reading and writing. Through both these activities, I find myself in some sort of ongoing, deep conversation with the writers I love even though most of them are no longer alive. It would be no exaggeration to say that literature, my one constant love from an early age, has saved me and made me whole in ways that I am not even able to articulate fully or clearly yet.
With that, let’s get to the actual reading and writing.
Total books read — 25. Goal met. I have mentioned before how I am a slow reader. I find it helps my writing if I take notes and reread certain sections, so I am not bothered by this pace. I should add that not a single one of these books was a newly-published one even though it has been such a terrific year for new books. I have such a long to-read list to work my way through first.
Total WIP books — 6, though I expect to finish at least one from this list before Dec 31.
Total books by writers of color (non-white) — 10, which is just shy of the 50% I had aimed for.
Total books about writing — 7, and it is better than expected, partly because of the monthly series I started this year on writing how-to books.
Total books related to or about India — 5, which is not as well as I had hoped and I will aim to read more in this category in 2018.
Total short story collections — 5, which seems like a low number for a short story writer, but I have probably read more than 150 short stories online to share the 68 in my monthly series on short stories.
Total non-fiction books — 11, so not quite the 50% I had been aiming for and I hope to do better in the coming year.
Total books reviewed — 6, which is rather low and, again, I plan to rectify this in 2018.
Total books bought — 12, which is way down from my annual averages in past years as I have focused on reading my shelves.
My best fiction read of 2017 — Zadie Smith’s amazing ‘White Teeth‘, which she wrote at such a young age. This was the second read for me but I will probably need a third before I can write a proper review of it. With 30+ characters and spanning several decades, continents, and multiple generations, this is a complex, satirical, and insightful take on multiculturalism, racism, sexism, and a whole lot more. One of the most well-deserved award winners (2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, Guardian First Book Award, Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, Betty Trask Award, and one of TIME’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005), this novel is truly a masterclass in writing.
My best non-fiction read of 2017 — The Element of Lavishness, a selection of letters between the New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, and one of his writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Over 40 years, he edited nearly 150 of her stories and they exchanged 1300 letters about many things, chiefly, of course, writing and reading. Though they were both married/partnered with others, their particular respect and love for each other, as editor-to-contributor and writer-to-writer, is beautifully evident in these letters. She told him he wrote better letters than Henry James and he returned the compliment by saying hers were better than those of Virginia Woolf. I wanted these letters to never end.
And, of course, like everyone else, I read a lot of stuff online, including almost all of these top 2017 articles. And, like most people I know, I found a need to manage the constant barrage of information from every platform. “We are what we consume” — this applies to the stuff our brains consume just as much as it applies to what we eat. So, I plan to be more purposeful with my online reading in 2017. More on this shortly.
Complete 15 works of fiction and non-fiction — 14 done, though I have a WIP ongoing.
Publish 10 works — 12 done. I did better than planned here but I want to get more focused with my submissions, so this number is likely to drop in 2018 or, at least, not go up.
Get short story collection edited by end-June and start querying — I was able to get the collection fully-edited by early-May and began querying mid-May. Someday soon, I will share my lessons learned from this challenging process.
Take 1 in-person writing workshop — This did not happen. However, I did take a couple of online writing courses. Let’s see if I can manage this in 2018.
Write 35 blog posts — With this post, I have just hit that goal.
Also, while I do not set myself any metrics for these: blog traffic grew by 160% and the number of subscribers grew by 140%. So something is working, right?
The most-read post was a poem appreciation — The King Speaks to a Scribe by Keki N Daruwalla — and I suspect that is because my post was cited earlier this year in an academic paper. The second most-read post was my roundup of ten stories (free to read online) from The Best American Short Stories 2016.
That said, I plan to get more organized in 2018 with another monthly series. Watch this space.
2017 in Conclusion
As I said at the outset, this has been a good year for me in terms of reading and writing. The biggest thing I am grateful for is the completion of my short story collection and the publishing contract.
On a personal level, I managed to travel to a few new places in India (kinda-sorta solo): Shimla-Manali and Leh-Ladakh. And I found a new online tribe of singletons like me and am learning cool things from them.
As I wrote earlier, if I had to choose one word to describe the difference between me on January 1 and me today, it would be “stronger.” So let me leave you with this quote from one of the great literary murshids (to countless of her readers), Maya Angelou:
There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be.
~ Dr. Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119, The Paris Review (More on Maya Angelou here.)
[Note: ‘2018 Reading and Writing Goals’ coming soon.]