Rohin Kushwaha On The Writer’s Craft

A few days ago, I made note of the passing of my young nephew, Rohin Kushwaha, at the age of nineteen, mourning the tragic loss of a brilliant, young, and talented man to the ravages of a relentless disease. In that remembrance, I made note of Rohin’s writing talents:

His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard-working, the perfect artist.

Today, I can say something more substantive about Rohin’s writerly talent and ambition by sharing a powerful piece of writing he wrote in response to a fellowship application prompt. I include it here on this blog, in this public space, because it contains lessons that all creators of any stripe, writers, and artists alike, would do well to learn, a wisdom it took me over three decades to realize (albeit only partially). What is striking about the writing below is not just that it is written by a 18-year old, or that it is describing the writing of a novel at that age, but that the articulation of the necessary labors of the writer that it contains–write regularly; do not wait for inspiration to strike; the muse only visits while you work; revise, revise, revise, for a work of writing is never complete, never ‘done’–are among the deepest of the writer’s craft. It is succinct; it is to the point. Some of Rohin’s friends referred to him as an ‘old soul,’ wise beyond his years. This piece of writing shows why. Every writer, creator, or artist could take this little piece of writing, print it out, stick it on their desk, and get to work. I know I will.

Thanks for writing this Rohin. I hope others read this and are inspired to write, and create, to bring their works to completion. You’ve passed on, but your words will live on and inspire others. With all my love, Samir Chacha.

Here is the prompt:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Here is Rohin’s response:

Ever since I was 10 years old I told myself I could do it. But there was a part of me that also knew I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t rather. As far back as I could remember I always wanted to tell stories. Stories like the ones I saw in movies and read in books. Stories that made people feel something as they experienced it. I wasn’t sure if this passion of mine would fade with time. I wasn’t sure if it was a passion at all. But when your mind is so packed with character arcs, plot twists, and dramatic moments that it’s about to burst, you have to let it out somehow. So I did. The summer I turned 16 I decided to sit down and write a book. And I told myself it was going to be good.

Before I even typed the first word I thought I had the whole thing figured out. I thought I knew every detail of my story, chapter to chapter. But as I wrote I began to realize I only knew three things about my story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The question I kept having to ask myself is “what happens next?”. This is the question that made me stop writing immediately after the first chapter, a mere 577 words.

The next day I sat at my computer and stared at the next blank page, hopeless. I didn’t write a single word that day because I was afraid that what I decided to happen next would be the wrong thing to happen next. I was afraid of telling a bad story. I shrugged it off each day, telling myself I wasn’t “inspired” or “in the mood”.

It must have been a week until I realized the “trick” to completing my story, the “trick” to writing. Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway. So I did. 1,000 words a day. That’s what I told myself. Some days that would take an hour, others it would take 3. But I never went to bed until those 1,000 words a day were complete.

And just like that my story began to be told. I found my characters writing themselves, speaking and acting as they would if they were real people. I found motivations and plot points aligning, finally making sense in the bigger picture. And I found myself enjoying every moment, every struggle and every little victory of writing my story. There were even some days I found myself writing over 1,000 words without even realizing it.

In two months time I was done. I was actually, finally done. 65,000 words, 65,000 of my own words. So I decided to put the story down for a month. Come back with a pair of fresh eyes and impress myself all over again with what I had done.

But what I had found when I came back was that my novel had changed from science fiction to horror. I read each sentence, each chapter in dread. I was amazed at how little so much of it made sense. After finally coming to terms with it, I realized that I was far from done. I had barely even started.

So I tore each chapter to pieces. I rewrote, rewrote, and then rewrote some more. And here I am a year later. Is my story perfect? Not even close. It is ten times better than it was last year? Improvement is relative, so I’ll at least give myself that one. But this story will forever be the thing I am most proud of. Because when I sat down every day, even when I knew it wasn’t perfect, I wrote 1,000 more words.

“Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway.”

Commodified Relationships And Friendship

When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly  transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In  my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)

So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)

The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)

The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.

 

 

Haircuts And Mindfulness In The Barbershop

My patient wait over, I rise to take my turn, ready to exchange a few pleasantries and then sink into silence. It is time for my haircut. Very soon, I will close my eyes and let myself be taken over: by the sounds of battery-powered clippers that cut my hair down to the scalp, of scissors that click away next to my ears, trimming and shaping, of the pop music emanating from the ‘light FM station’ that is always playing in my barber shop, of the Italian and Spanish and Russian spoken in my neighborhood; by the touch and feel of hairs being tugged, falling around my shoulders, ears, and on my shirt front, of hands gently moving my head one way or the other, of razors scraping my skin. I am not disturbed or distracted, no one calls for my attention or help. My phone occasionally quivers with messages being delivered, but it is far away, in my backpack, and I cannot reach it–deliberately. Occasionally, the barber will check in to see if I want some amendment to my cut, to check to see if things look ‘OK’; I reassure him quickly so that he can get back to work–and I can get back to being silent, with my eyes closed. This is a genuinely self-indulgent state of being, a retreat from ‘the madding crowd,’ one to be savored. (A few days ago, I heard a friend say that he actively discourages his barber from speaking to him during his haircut just so he can enjoy this rare moment of solitude. I do not have to issue any such warnings; my barber is a taciturn Ukrainian gentleman who is only curious about when my semester begins and ends. And my satisfaction with the haircut and/or beard trim he has just given me.)

The haircut in the barber shop is, truth be told, a genuinely meditative moment. It offers opportunities  to be genuinely mindful; sit straight, close your eyes, and yield. Curious trances, sometimes accompanied by time dilation, result. So do naps, obviously. (The haircut is worth its price in gold just for that deliverance–as indeed, is the afternoon meditation sit that turns into an extended head-nodding session.) We have taken time out for ourselves, an act of self-directed kindness, to attend to our ‘needs’ in the midst of a busy daily schedule; and we know it. We have stepped out into a diversion; here, at the ‘tender mercies’ of our tonsurers, we sit, losing hair, but gaining considerable peace of mind. The shedding of hair is a crucial part of the experience; our hair, a symbol of indolence and disorganization, represents a burden we are here to rid ourselves of, and here we are, setting things right, casting off its baggage, ready to move on. Skinheads took this sensation to the extreme; the shaved head represented a cutting loose, a ‘getting closer to the bone,’ to the unmediated reality that lurks beneath all the cover-ups. Sitting quietly with eyes closed in a barber’s chair is the right way to think about what that entails.

Narnia’s Pevensies And Personal Identity

Readers of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember the novel’s dramatic ending: Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, now all grown up and ruling as noble and just kings and queens of the land of Narnia, set out to hunt a mysterious stag; their hunt leads them into the woods, toward ‘the lamp post’–the one that had brought them to Narnia in the first place, and then suddenly, as Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan find themselves back in ‘the wardrobe’ all too soon, they are back in England, back in the here and now, and barely an instant has passed. (Many Narnia years you see, only amount to a second or so of Earth time. Indeed, it is not clear at all that any time elapses while the children are in Narnia; the two timelines are disconnected.)

Of course, because only an instant has passed, the children are children again–they are not adults any more. They have shrunk, physically. But presumably they have shrunk psychically too; after all, back in Narnia, they were adults, and their growth into adults would have involved progression in the physical and psychological dimensions. Interestingly enough, the children remember their experiences in Narnia; which means they have memories of their growing up, their transformation into adults. This journey back to ‘the real world’ is likely to be far more disruptive, then, than C. S. Lewis lets on; Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, are, on their return to earth, facing possibly one of the most hallucinatory of all experiences: years and years have passed by, and then, one day all of a sudden, you find yourself a child again, but  this is not any ordinary child, this is a child with memories of having been an adult once. So, even if this child does not have its physical child capacities any more–perhaps they pre-pubescents again–it still remains an open question whether this child remembers its adult responses in the emotional and psychological dimensions. Does the child now behave as an adult might? What is the effect on the Pevensies as they continue their lives, with these memories reminding them of what they once were? Note that had the children gone to Narnia, and spent say, a few months there, and then been shot back through the wardrobe to land up back in England in the same way as before, these questions would not have arisen. They arise only because Lewis insisted on giving the Pevensies a full-blown reign in Narnia, a long and prosperous one of fifteen years.

Lewis has thus created a tricky situation for the Pevensies. As they grow up here on Earth, they will slowly become adults but they will not be the adults they were in Narnia; after all, Earth is not Narnia: its lands and peoples are significantly different. The Pevensies will have different experiences, encounter different circumstances and react differently. Of course, since they carry around their memories of their psychological growth, they might use those as inputs into their development in this ‘new life’ but they will still certainly not be identical to their Narnia selves. They will have multiple personalities of a sort–perhaps akin to that of the immigrant, who remembers an older world, an older self, older ways of behaving and responding to the world’s offerings. Their friends and lovers and family might find their repeated invocations of their past irritating and bothersome at times, but also of singular interest; the Pevensies for their part, if they play their cards right, will ‘enjoy’ having lived two lives–once again, much like the wise immigrant does, who considers himself fortunate to have experienced ‘two worlds for the price of one’–even if such experiences do bring their own fair share of heartbreak. (The novels featuring the Pevensies themselves span nine years–from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.)

A budding writer could do worse than to write a novel that tracks the Pevensies’ developments as adults, back here on Earth, when they are done with the Narnia phase of lives, but with those Narnia memories animating their hybrid selves.

The Shames Of Anger

I’ve written before, here on this blog, about the pleasures of anger, of holding on to grudges–the two are, of course, inter-related, for very often it is the pleasure of experiencing anger that allows us to retain a long-held grudge. These ‘pleasures,’ such as they are, have a role to play in the economy of our lives, it is why we experience them as such–they ‘work for us’ somehow or the other, which is why we seek them out and retain them. But they do not come for free, not without their own incurred costs, ones we are willing to pay; the devastating and melancholic shames associated with the expression of anger and the retention of grudges. The shame of anger is experienced most directly when the effects of our anger are visible: the hurt of a partner or friend we have tongue-lashed or driven out of our lives, the fear and sadness and confusion of a child who has encountered our furious loss of self-control, the sometimes irrevocable damage done to relationships, romantic or familial.

These are powerful reminders of our lack of virtue; haunting indicators of how far we need to go in asserting mastery over ourselves. We are reminded violence comes in many forms, and is expressed and experienced in a rich and uncomfortable diversity; we are reminded too, by way of introspective contact with our own hurts and unresolved resentments that the injuries we bear and nurse are not always visible; the effects of the ‘blows’ we have landed through our anger are only partially visible to us–there is more to this landscape of fear and hurt than we can ever possibly know; much of it remains unaccounted for. We are reminded of the humanity and vulnerability of others when we remember and relive the effects of others’ anger being visited on us. That fear, that panic, that urge to flee– we induce those feelings in others through our thoughts and deeds; they experience the same painful affects we do. (Allied with the shame engendered by such thoughts is yet another variant: we might seek forgiveness for our anger, beg to be forgiven, and yet we do not move forward, unwilling to descend from our perches–for we are reluctant to admit guilt, to encounter another shame that our selves might send our way, that of having ‘backed down.’ In this kind of situation at least, masculinity has a great deal to answer for.)

The shames of anger remind us of why anger is considered corrosive–these signposts in our minds that we are not ‘quite together,’ that we are disordered, are powerful covert agents, inhibiting us, consuming our psychic energies in consoling ourselves, in providing ourselves palliative diversions and distractions. It becomes yet another component of our ongoing dissatisfaction with ourselves, yet another reminder that for all the blame we may send the world’s way, we always find the finger pointing back at us.

Climbing And The Persistent, If Irrational, Fear Of Falling

A curious experience in roped climbing (whether on auto-belay, top-roped climbing, or following a leader on a multi-pitch route) is the presence of instinctive fears that should have no rational basis for persistence. Like the fear of falling, for instance.  There you are, tied in with your faithful figure-eight knot into your climbing harness, which is snug around your waist, connected to your belayer who is clipped and locked into the belay loop. The knots are good, the gear works, your belayer has you; you cannot fall. And yet, as you step out to make a move that requires some balance, or that might not offer the best grip, you experience a sudden sickening sensation; you are afraid; you become aware of the number of feet you are off the ground; you feel your palms grow sweaty, your heart starts to beat a bit faster. You are in trouble.

You aren’t. But you feel it anyway. Old habits and instincts die hard. I’ve always been terrified by heights, by the sickening vertigo and nausea they induced in me. Overcoming that fear was one of the reasons for my taking up climbing a couple of years ago; I hoped that ‘controlled exposure’ to heights would help me become more familiar with these fears; I would never ‘master’ them but I could learn to work in their presence; perhaps working through some task or problem at hand even while I was afflicted by them. The good news is that these expectations have been borne out by my experiences. Very often, over the last couple of years, I have found myself in places (precarious belay ledges) and situations (negotiating narrow exposed traverses) that would previously have terrified me in incapacitating ways. But the fears are always there, anchored in instincts and reflexes that have hardened over the years.

And so, even when I’m indoors, inside a comfortable climbing gym, tied and clipped in, with nowhere to go in the case of a slip but slowly, smoothly down, riding a rope all the way, when my body senses, even if for only for a micro-instant, that slight absence of security or solidity that signals the earth opening up under my feet, I retreat (or rather, am forced back) to an older me. This particular instinctive reaction will, of course, become familiar in its own way; I will learn to anticipate it, welcome it, live with it. As I never fail to notice during my indoor climbing sessions, when I start climbing for the day, such reactions are at their most visceral, and are attenuated as I continue to climb. Some of the intensity of my instinctive responses then will be tempered, by greater experience; as my body learns that these falls do not end in anything more bothersome than some swinging through air, or a painful bump against an exposed hold (I’m not counting falls taken by lead climbers which can result in serious injuries.)

Of course, by the time I get to that stage, I will have discovered newer fears to work through. And hopefully, improved my climbing.

Cussin’ In The Classroom

Of late, I’ve noticed that I have begun using more profanity in the classroom than I ever have previously in my teaching career. (Strictly speaking, I do not ‘use’ more profanity; I ‘mention’ it. That is, rather than using the word ‘fuck’ in a sentence like “This is a fucking crazy argument,” I mention it as in ‘Then someone might say, “Look, fuck it, I’m not going to obey the law.’ In the first case, I have used the word ‘fuck’ myself; in the second, I have quoted someone using it.) I do not exactly know why this is the case. For the first dozen or so years of my teaching career, I studiously eschewed mentioning profanity in the classroom; my style of teaching saw me stick pretty close to the assigned reading and the written notes I had prepared on it. Of late, my teaching has become more unstructured; I rely less on notes and more on the text (and on student responses to it); I consider most of the teaching in the classroom to happen when my students and I build on the textual material to explore applications of it in our daily lives. I supply more examples to my students now, and spend considerable time making them as elaborate as they need to be in order to illustrate the point I am trying to get across. I’m also more comfortable now in my skin as a teacher, more confident about the material I teach (even as many new existential doubts have also crept into my self-assessments of my intellectual and pedagogical worth.) These changes have, over a period of time, resulted in–when things are going well–a more informal classroom space.

This ‘loosening up’ has, I suspect, also loosened my tongue somewhat. I do not mind the tangents I go off on; I’m more inclined to be facetious in class, to invoke levity into its proceedings. Some of my students have told me that they quite enjoy my historical asides, the stories I tell to supply some historical context to a particular philosophical debate; this has encouraged me to be more discursive in my working through the material being discussed in a class. And so, I have found that often times, when constructing some imaginary conversation for an example, to illustrate some political or ethical issue, I will throw some profanity into the mix to make the reported conversation more dramatic, more realistic. I hope.

My students do not seem to mind; no one ever looks shocked. Most students occasionally snicker; there is a noticeable relaxation in the classroom atmosphere. (For some strange reason, this is also the case whenever the topic at hand invokes the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.) I suspect that to a certain extent, my language humanizes me for my students–for better or worse. I’m ‘distant’ from my students in many ways–this language brings me ‘closer’ to them, again, for better or worse. I do not think that I’m currying favor with my students by employing this language; it has come naturally to me as my classroom methods of interacting with students have changed. For what it is worth, I curse a lot in my conversations outside the classroom, so I’m slipping into a mode of discourse that comes naturally to me. About fucking time.