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.”

My Favorite Reader

For as long as I have been married, my wife has been my favorite reader. She reads and offers comments on almost everything I write, from the brief posts here (and at The Cordon) to my books.  She reads my angry emails, my applications for various academic offerings–nothing is too long or too short or trivial to not be read by her. She patiently puts up with a never-ending stream of requests from me: “Can you read this today? Can you read this by tomorrow? Can you tell me whether this makes any sense? Do you think I’m clear enough here? Is this just trivial bullshit? Are you sure this isn’t complete crap?” And on and on. Once I’m reassured by her that everything is a ‘go’, I can press ‘send’ or ‘publish.’ (Early on, in my academic writing, I established a simple standard: it had to be comprehensible to my wife, an educated non-academic. That glove has to fit, or it’s a no-go.)

Writers are a sensitive lot, of course, and so I don’t take too kindly to some of the criticism sent my way–even from folks whom I’ve asked for critique. There are times when my wife and I sit down to discuss her comments on a draft of mine, and our conversation becomes edgy and just a little contentious. My writing is limpid and clear; how could it possibly be ambiguous or confusing? Surely, this aside that I’ve just made here is not an irrelevant distraction but a valuable and useful supplement to the central thread of discussion? Of course, this sentence stands on its own, and my elaboration here, to you, will not be needed by the reader. There are times, indeed, when my wife will terminate a debriefing session with a brief and exasperated, “Look, those are my comments as a reader; do what you want with them.”

And I do. Even if I’m defensive and stubborn at times, too much in love with my transient creations.

The hardest suggestions to take on board are inevitably, deletions. Last week, I argued–with some vigor–in favor of retaining a particular tiny sliver of my writing: a sentence that ended a paragraph by hearkening back to a previous chapter. I thought the backwards reference worked and strenuously resisted the suggestion that it be deleted. I finally walked away, irate,  in a huff, saying “That sentence stays.” The next morning, on waking up, before I even made my morning coffee, I walked over to my desk, opened up the manuscript file, turned to the right page, and deleted the offending sentence. My wife had been right; it had to go. And what a relief it was to see it disappear off the page.

I’ve written many co-authored works and I’m grateful to all my collaborators on those projects for their expenditures of creative and intellectual energy in making my writing better. I can see their impress in every word that has finally made it to the printed page. But along with them, my favorite reader is also present.

The author includes the reader too.