Exploring a writer's process

Updated: 20 November, 2020 07:19 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

Last week, I happened to misread a line and was led to the realisation that the method I employ for my craft is, in a way, an act of praying

Every writer has their own method, and part of the joy of process is figuring out through trial and error what suits your personality. Pic/Rosalyn D'mello
Every writer has their own method, and part of the joy of process is figuring out through trial and error what suits your personality. Pic/Rosalyn D'mello

Rosalyn D'melloI genuinely didn't expect to hear back from the artist Theaster Gates. I had been told to send a question or two, and Gagosian, the gallery hosting his ongoing exhibition in New York, would forward them to his studio, and if I gave them enough time, I was likely to get a response.

I was elated when I saw the word document that held his answers to my questions. I was curious about his highly attuned spiritual approach to life, and the metabolic nature of his practice, how everything fed into everything, how there were really no boundaries between art and life or lived space and workspace.

Based in Chicago, it seemed the artist had found a way to truly invest his artistic energies in reviving community spirit in various neighbourhoods. I saw that the New Yorker called him a "real estate artist" because he had managed to evolve a circular economy whereby he sourced ruin, transformed it, resold it, then used the proceeds to buy abandoned or disused or neglected spaces that he then began to care for. As I read more and more about his work, his approach, I wondered what it could be like if Indian artists shared some of that sense of community.

But I digress. What I wanted to address was how I misread the first line of his response. He said, Prayer is a process. I had seen the word document late at night last week and had swallowed it whole at the time as I was busy navigating another difficult piece for an Indian publication on the costume designer, Bhanu Athaiya. So my mind converted it to prayer is process, eliminating the 'a'.

For the next few days, I kept imagining what the implications of this sentence could be for a writer. What could it mean to conceive of the fact that each time I settled at my desk I was possibly engaging in the act of praying? It wasn't such a far-fetched notion. I often find when I sit at my desk that I have to confront my deepest fears; I have to surrender in a way I am rarely expected to otherwise, and I have to keep reminding myself of the voluntary nature of this relinquishing of agency.

Thomas Mann once suggested that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. There is a lot of wisdom in this proposition. If you really care about words, you want to use them with care. A lot of little things matter: slight sounds, little alliterative flourishes, casual metaphors, how the body breathes through its utterance of a sentence.

There's this whole business of summoning feeling, urging your reader to feel with you, to suffer your pain and share in your ecstasy. In the beginning, you're convinced it's about expanding your vocabulary, but over time you realise it's as much about feeling as it is about seeing.

Process is the least talked about aspect of writing. It's glossed over in most panel discussions and doesn't occupy enough shelf space in libraries. Sometimes I imagine that if I ever were invited to teach a course in creative writing, I would first begin with process. I would urge fellow writers seeking to hone their skills to think about what their intuitive inclinations are.

For example, I'm a long-hand writer, in that most of my writing is first filtered by hand. I keep journals. I don't write them every day, but when the urge is strong enough. I invested in a gorgeous Lamy ink pen. I realised I love ink, and I'm currently using a Lamy Berryl crystal ink, which looks ruby red on paper. I'm not precious about my notes. I have a cursive handwriting, but it can, occasionally, be messy.

After having tried several formats, I found the Moleskine gridded journals served me best because they allow you to fit in a lot on a single page, the paper is smooth and absorbs ink like a dream, allowing for great fluency.

But every writer has their own method, and part of the joy of process is figuring out through trial and error what suits your personality. I've never had the luxury of waking up and being at my writing desk for five hours at a stretch to work on my own book. I spend at least seven hours at my desk, daily, but mostly doing freelance work to earn a living. My books happen in between assignments.

It's why it takes me years to write a book. And I don't think I'd necessarily change too much about that. So much of my process derives from the ideas I'm exposed to as a result of my freelance work. It all feeds into each other.

Gates spoke about a kind of ritualistic prayer that a potter makes before a kiln. I'm drawn to this idea. I'm considering finding a small ritual I can make each morning that helps me embrace the inevitable act of surrender writing entails.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 20 November, 2020 06:13 IST

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