If 2017 was a difficult year for many writers — given the daily horrors showing up on our news and social media feeds — 2018 continued to generate more concentration-destroying and soul-crushing crises of purpose. Almost every writer friend echoed the same concerns at some point or other: what good is it to pour more words into a world that seems to be going up in flames? Why bother creating new stories when we keep unlearning the critical lessons history has taught us? What good are beautiful sentences when they cannot keep barbarians from entering the gates and taking over our highest offices? How will offering the world yet another book help when innocent little lives are being taken away from it?
And yet, driven by our furies or frustrations or fears, we’ve all been writing as urgently as ever. Each month, there have been essays, Twitter threads, and Facebook posts from famous writers sharing what keeps them writing. Here are just 12 such essays that inspired me, in turn, to keep writing.
— January: Zadie Smith answering questions from famous fans (and, er, one from me) at The Guardian on all things reading and writing;
— February: Barbara Ehrenreich at Granta Magazine in this excerpt from her book Living With a Wild God on writing as a way of thinking;
— March: Claire Messud at The Paris Review on how ‘The Time for Art is Now’;
— April: Lorrie Moore at Literary Hub on fiction, art, writers, and artists;
— May: Salman Rushdie at The New Yorker on ‘Truth, Lies, and Literature’;
— June: Arundhati Roy’s W G Sebald Lecture on ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’;
— July: Lyz Lenz at The Rumpus on ‘Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair’;
— August: Lara Feigel at The Guardian on how writers are finally beginning to celebrate women in middle age;
— September: Shanta Gokhale’s Ooty Literary Festival speech at Scroll.in on how Indian thinkers and writers are trying to cope with fear;
— October: Elif Shafak at the 2018 New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize lecture on ‘Why the Novel Matters in An Age of Anger’;
— November: Aurélien Delsaux, Sophie Divry and Denis Michelis at Le Monde on how ‘Monstrous Times Call for Monstrous Fiction: A French Manifesto’;
— December: Rebecca Makkai at Electric Literature on ‘The World’s On Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?’
That said, it has still been a year of unexpected writing highs and lows. I say “unexpected” because I had not even planned on pursuing most of these projects below. The one main project I had focused on — my own short story collection — also went in unexpected directions (more on that in a bit.)
The year began with me chasing copyright permission through a long, painful process for my literary translation of Dhumketu’s short stories. It took me through till April/May to finally get everything squared away and a contract signed. We have so much work to do within Indian publishing to ensure smoother, more efficient processes for translators and writers working on such longer-term projects. Dhumketu has been my single-biggest project of the year — reading ~500 short stories to select ~26 for an 80,000-word translation.
I restarted my book-reviewing and literary criticism work to give me some respite from the translation work and to, hopefully, earn some money. I was grateful to find a kind, caring home for my review essays and monthly short stories column at PopMatters. By year-end, I’d written 24 book reviews (including at two other venues) and 10 short story columns for them (2 others are on this blog.) I’d also done two author interviews for them.
I go through intermittent phases with book-reviewing with long fallow stretches in between. This year has been the longest stretch of regularly writing them and I know this practice has helped me. Thinking critically about storytelling, story, technique, craft, and how a text — with all its socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts — informs our present has made me a better reader, writer, and translator overall.
I should clarify that I had tried several Indian venues with a few book review submissions. They did not seem at all interested at the time. Some did not even bother to respond to queries. Perhaps it was because I was an unknown writer to them, I’m not sure. The same reviews got picked up by US venues easily enough.
Given the above, I knew I had to establish a writing presence in India. So I began submitting literary articles to Scroll.in. Having published a piece with them last year, I had a professional connection with the Books Editor. That said, I had not planned to write these six works below but managed to write them during short breaks from the translation work.
In May, I was invited, along with several other cultural critics from around the world, to contribute to BBC Culture’s ‘Stories That Shaped the World Project’. This was both fun and informative.
In December, I participated in a Women Writers Fest in Ahmedabad, India as a panel moderator. These are one-day events organized by the ShethePeople organization and their partners. In India, where nearly every city has its own annual literary festival, it is a bit frustrating to see how there is still a need for a dedicated platform for women writers, given the ongoing bias toward male writers at many mainstream literary festivals. Yes, things are improving slowly but it will take time. Meanwhile, festivals like this are giving women writers some much-needed visibility.
Three Personal (ish) Essays
I’ve always shied away from personal essays. I don’t even share personal information on social media. So these three personal-ish essays were rather serendipitous and, surprisingly to me, the best things I wrote this year.
In September, after a tweet about wanting to see lists of women writers over 40 went viral, the managing editor at Literary Hub asked me to put together my own list of 20 debut works of fiction by women writers over 40. This went viral and several award-winning writers also shared it across Twitter and Facebook, for which I am eternally grateful. It was also listed as one of the most popular pieces of 2018 at Literary Hub.
In September, I was also tweeting about how some of us writers may be late to full-time writing but only because we had not been submitting our work for publication due to full-time jobs, family commitments, etc. A Longreads editor asked if I’d write an essay about it for the Fine Lines series. I wrote ‘Emerging As a Writer — After 40‘. This too, much to my surprise, was received very well. And the most humbling thing was how many private messages I received via social media and this website from other older writers who identified with parts of my journey. Some of these people had braved a lot more than me: domestic abuse, death of a loved one, financial ruin, cancer, and more.
And, as I was writing the above essay, another one flowered alongside about how Voltaire’s edict in the novel, Candide, had also inspired me to turn to full-time writing. This was kindly published at The Millions as ‘But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden’.
I believe all three of the above happened because of the visibility I got from an interview at Literary Hub’s Book Marks — part of their ‘Secrets of the Book Critics’ series. I so enjoyed doing that and I’m still humbled to be in the company of so many other book critics I read and admire.
There are a couple major takeaways from these three essay experiences.
The first is about how social media made them possible. I had stayed away from social media for the longest time. In late-2015, I began posting a bit more regularly on Facebook but, despite having opened a Twitter account in 2010, I still could not get the hang of it. Late last year, I started spending more time on Twitter. Yes, it can be very distracting and time-consuming but it has brought me some terrific writerly connections and these three essay + 1 interview opportunities. I don’t think any writer can afford to not be on Twitter. I ration my time, focus on mostly literary conversations, and I’m not there to get tens of thousands of followers. What matters is meaningful engagement with the right people. This is literary networking for our times. And for someone like me, who did not come through the usual channels as a writer, there is no other way to do this networking.
The second is that, whether you’re writing a personal essay or a work of fiction, almost all the norms of narrative storytelling matter and literary devices need to be employed just as carefully too. Simply having a true personal story, no matter how interesting it might sound to our families and friends, is not enough.
While I’d planned to continue writing short stories for my next linked collection, I did not manage to squeeze that in alongside the above.
As for the collection that I’d completed in 2017 and had been submitting to Indian agents and publishers, I did sign with two indie presses and then stepped away from both (for reasons we do not need to get into now.)
The silver lining here was that, in between the two contracts, I wrote some more stories and re-packaged a new and stronger collection with an entirely different unifying theme. And I got endorsements from three well-respected Indian writers.
Here’s hoping that 2019 will bring positive news for this first book. It has been years in the making and some of the individual stories have garnered attention through publication in decent literary magazines, Pushcart nominations, and one made it to the Best of the Net Anthology finalist stage alongside writers like Lydia Davis, Allegra Hyde, and Daisy Johnson.
Other Writing Projects
This year’s blog writing project was ‘Journal Prompts’. I did these for myself as much as for some writer friends. I had mentioned to the latter how a daily journaling practice helped me limber up for my writing projects and they asked me to share some of the topics I journaled about. These are not time-bound and will be, I hope, useful to any writer looking for some writing inspiration.
I closed out the monthly ‘Non-traditional Writing How-to Books/Resources’ series in the early part of the year. (But I might pick this up again in 2019.)
2019 Writing Goals
In addition to sharing ‘Marginalia’ about Toni Morrison as mentioned earlier, I will continue with monthly book reviews and the short story column.
In 2019, my monthly series will be a list of ‘Notable Essays’ shared here (with some of my own notes alongside, of course.)
I hope to send out a few longform essays for paying venues.
I might keep my hand in with the translation work by translating a few more short stories by other Gujarati writers.
There may be a monthly literary series to curate at an Indian venue but we’re still in the discussion phase.
Almost all the feedback I have received for my short story collection has been two-fold: we’d prefer a novel from a debut writer as short story collections are hard to sell; we love your writing and would like to see your novel. So, while I’m not giving up on working to get that collection published, 2019 will be the year of the novel — which is already underway.
One thing I’m sure of: I need to ensure I stretch myself in different ways with what I’m writing — whether it’s literary criticism, essays, or the novel.
I had begun the year with my #WordoftheYear as “Focus.” Despite the crises of purpose I mentioned at the beginning, I believe I stuck to this for the most part by immersing myself in reading and writing more fully than ever before. Of course, both distractions and opportunities came my way as they do for all of us. But, in a way, times like these give us a different kind of urgency where we are moved to write only about those things that are troubling us the most individually. To not write about them now would be to surrender to the confusion and negativity.
So 2018 has been my most productive year yet since I began writing full-time: 1 literary translation book contract; 24 book reviews across 3 venues; 12 monthly short story columns; 1 Literary Hub Book Marks Interview (of me); 2 PopMatters interviews (of other writers); 10 articles/essays across 5 venues; 1 literary event (as a contributor versus an attendee.)
I hope to make 2019 even more so.
You can follow my progress by following this blog if you like. I don’t do newsletters or send out any other form of communication. Nor is your information shared with any other party.
I wish you all a happy and productive writing year in 2019. Stay tuned for updates and please do share your own goals and progress (here or connect with me on social media).