My Journey as a Writer by Amrita Valan
Today, as I sit staring at a blank word document, I realize there is nothing to panic about. Because I don’t have to try to write. I am a writer. Among myriad other roles and definitions, of daughter, wife, mother, cook, teacher, house cleaner, and carpool lady, I am also someone who uses words as a medium of self-expression, self-discovery, and empathy. And as a tool for communication to build common ground.
I do it as routinely as I pay my bills, chop vegetables, or explain grammar to my sons. I don’t always write out of an abiding love for literature and aesthetic appreciation of words or the worlds they build. But I do it as second nature, as habit. It is not my bread and butter, nor my raison d’etre, then why do I do it? Why do I feel pride in calling myself a writer?
If I can honestly answer that question, then my journey as a writer would become crystal clear. Let me try. My fingers stroke the keyboard with a lingering love, an anticipation.
And thus, I debunk my first premise that I write routinely as I pay my bills! Who looks forward to paying their bills?
I love writing, but it falls into a daily routine sometimes hourly, at times I wake up with lines in my head. Routine is good, it hones my brain to swiftly accept or reject words, ideas, and phrases, and make the best choices. But when I am writing I am also in an insulated zone where I belong to my story and its characters. As much as it belongs to me. And in that zone, I shape-shifting to get under the skins of the protagonist/narrator. Sometimes the two are identical. Not always. Sometimes there are other important characters. So, I am not imagining a birthday party but actually tasting the cake, wearing the dress, smiling unconsciously as I hum the party song. It took me more than forty-odd years to arrive at writing on autopilot, in a state of heightened trance-like awareness.
As a child, I was a bookworm and a speed reader, but I detested writing, especially with scratchy HB pencils. Ballpoint pens almost kept up with my speed of thoughts and were tolerable, though they made for execrable ‘drunken ants’ handwriting.
I was not into writing so much as daydreaming and imagining scenes utterly unrelated to each other. One day under the influence of Commando War comics, (from my big brother’s stash), I was a POW of an Italian soldier, forcibly marched across the African desert. Another day I was in the Indian mythological version of Dante’s Hell, being fried alive in a gigantic wok for my sins. The next day, I was a British boarding schoolgirl, playing Lacrosse for the school team, in imitation of the Blyton school series. Or I was the princess Shakuntala or a magical Apsara from the Amar Chitra Katha Comics. I would drape my mother’s silk stoles across my shoulders and attempt to look romantic and noble and end up looking goofy and comical. As you can guess I was a daydreamer, a sponge who absorbed bookish experiences and tried to enact them. A role player. Life imitating art.
I only ever wrote to please my mother who urged poetry writing contests between my brother and me. That too, in my mother tongue, Bengali, despite being educated in an English medium school, with English as my first language. She begged us often with tears in her eyes to keep Bengali alive. I thank her today, because of the mental dexterity being bilingual or trilingual provides, not to mention the enrichment of thought processes from retaining your cultural legacy.
Earning the delighted twinkle in her eyes, and her admiring smile made me explore my thoughts, vocabulary, and feelings from the early age of seven, resulting in tiny rhyming poems, on love for motherland, and other high-sounding topics. Again, it was her upbringing. I recited my poem, ‘To India My Motherland’ at age 11, and her eyes glistened with pride and tears, making me truly more a patriot than all the high faluting lines I wrote. She taught me about the Aurora Borealis and in grade 5, I won my class teacher’s approval by writing: The Northern Lights.’ My earliest poems were efforts to please my first female role model, coupled with a heroic romantic temperament.
Emotional attachments made a writer of me. Discovering words can be manipulated for better and greater effect brought home its art and craft. I recall writing a poem called ‘The Thunderstorm’, with its echoing refrain in the fourth line: ‘From the window of my house, I watched it all alone.’
I never went beyond the ability to string together rhyming words in couplets and quatrains, however, until I studied English literature in my B.A. and M.A. days and discovered a cornucopia of genres and poets. Suddenly ballads and lyrics were not the only options. There were Vers Libre, prose poems, odes, sonnets, both Petrarchan and Elizabethan, epic poems and satirical ones dripping sarcasm (Pope), droll stuff by Dahl and Lewis Carroll, and the sheer intensity of Plath, Hughes, and Dylan Thomas. The exquisite imagery of Yeats and the intellectual literary and biblical-mythological allusions of Eliot.
I worshipped Eliot, as a thinker’s poet, and fed off the romance and wonder of Coleridge, Keats, and Byron. In the American USIS library, I discovered Maya Angelou and sat up ramrod straight, quivering with joy to be alive in the same era as she. I developed a fondness for poetess Adrienne Rich and authoress Anita Brookner and Fay Weldon.
Occasionally, I wrote as a self-indulgence, submitting an annual single poem to Writer’s Forum. I thought I would teach poetry, not write it. But then, Life happened and dictated that poetry, indeed, all ink and music be banished from my life into exile. I got married and was suddenly subjected to different tastes and expectations. I had married a man from another community with a different language and culture. He listened to Balasubramanian and mushy western love songs, I was into Deep Purple and Tagore. I was truly off tangent to him, and in a fight where he ridiculed me for still collecting cassettes over MP3s, I threw away my four hundred odd cassette collection, into the garbage and stopped listening to my soul music. The poetry stopped. I became a plump housewife and then an obsessive mother.
Then in 2013, the hubby presented me a smartphone for our wedding anniversary and armed with it, and a Facebook account opened for me since 2010, (To share baby pictures with overseas kin), I got a glimpse once more into a world rich and rife with poetry and an emotional life that plumbed the depths of human nature and its motivation. I started writing secret notes to myself, then published a few for family and friends to read. Those days the privacy settings were minimal. I still remember getting invited to poetry groups by a lady, Diane Tegarden, and a gentleman called Tom Lyle.
I remember submitting my first poem on social media, blushing and shaking slightly. That poem was titled ‘Moving’ and has found a nest in ImpSpired today. I too have moved with it.
But before I end there’s an important bit to round off my journey as a writer, so far at least. A childhood friend asked me five years ago, why of all things I chose to be a social media poet. Like it was a bad thing, a casting of pearls before swine, in an unrefined jungle of mediocrity.
This blog holds my confession, and carries with it, my firm conviction, that it was not my master’s degree in English, but my interaction with fellow poets on social media that really taught me how to write. A posy of triolets, dizains, rondeaus, habbies, cleaves and sestinas, and even more Avant-Garde experimental poetry. The internet simply widens one’s horizon and increases exposure to life beyond one’s comfort zone significantly.
It teaches the beauty and unexpected nature of life. I have met janitors and yes, even a rag picker who writes beautiful troubadour poetry on Facebook. It truly brought home to me the much-touted universality of poetry and the arts.
And I have tearfully bid adieu to poets I laughed and ribbed with well past midnight who are now part of a beloved Dead Poets Society. Their rich poetry is all I have now, and memories of collaboration with some of them. Loss of one’s own tribe can forge heart and soul to write in tribute and in memorium, to write with a throbbing awareness of impermanence and human frailty. Vulnerability is to me the writer’s signature.
So yes. Today I am a writer. Hopefully with the aid of all the knowledge of the craft I have painstakingly obtained, but also, perhaps more so, because wine matures with age? My emotions have been distilled. My powers of introspection have been refined, and my connection with the rest of humanity is more real somehow than as a young woman.
The experiences of motherhood, the loss of a mother, an overturning of the status quo, and tangible and intangible expectations.
I guess that I am a writer not by choice, but by necessity and destiny. But isn’t free choice, but actually a rare, serendipitous outcome, the rich dividend of necessity and destiny?
Author Bio: Amrita Valan is a writer from Bangalore, India, and has a master’s degree in English Literature. She has worked in various professions, ranging from the hospitality industry, BPOs, and as a content creator in deductive logic and reasoning in English. She is currently a stay-at-home mom to two boys. Her work has been published in over a dozen anthologies and online journals. The anthologies include, Divided: A Poet’s Stance, Poetic: Witch’s Cry, Down the Rabbit Hole, Fire and Ice, Poetica II, To Be or Not To Be a Writer, The Poet’s Christmas and Childhood anthologies, Earth Wind Rain and Fire Anthology, The ImpSpired Vol 7&8 Anthology, The Alien Buddha Wears a Black Bandanna among others. Her poems and stories have been printed in Spillwords, Café Lit, Café Dissensus, Shotglass Journal, Oddball Magazine, Modern Literature, Indian Periodical, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Poetry, and Places, and Portland Metrozine among others.