Writing and Reading
Studying is called ‘lekha-poda’ in Bangla, my mother tongue, which literally translates to ‘writing-reading’. I’ve always found it interesting that the term is not commonly used as ‘poda-lekha’ or ‘reading-writing’ but the other way round. It had not made much sense to me, then. Don’t you have to read first in order to write?
Not even during my formal education, when anything that had any hope of actually sinking in and staying there long-term, had to be first written out, did I realize the significance of ‘lekha-poda’. I continued to skew the proportions of my efforts in favor of ‘poda’ (reading) than ‘lekha’ (writing).
There is so much to know and I know too little. This thought, I carried around all the time, everywhere, with me. Gaining more knowledge through reading and more reading, listening more and actively, ought to be the remedy to that, is what I thought, earnestly. As time flew by and my living space was severely restricted by bookshelves, my writing time and amount continued to dwindle.
Worse still, my inner censor began to convince my impressionable self that all knowledge had to be acquired from external sources and fast, assimilated thoroughly, and sent out into the world, condensed and somehow elevated. That to me had become the essence of my writing. I had begun to believe that nothing that I had to say was of any consequence or interest to others unless diligently researched and corroborated by others. My writing needed to be propped up by external validation.
I had always wanted to be a writer, for as far back as I can remember. But I never took up the pen to write about things that bubbled up from within. I wrote about things and thoughts that I acquired from the external world and churned and analyzed till they felt like my own.
I read continuously and when I wasn’t reading I watched movies and documentaries, listened to audiobooks, or sought out conversations hoping to learn something more about this world. I was constantly searching and researching. In fact, this path of constant gathering from external sources manifested in my life to such an extent that I made a living as a researcher, when what I had set out to be was a writer.
It is a delicate balance. More so in today’s world when information from the external world — the internet, social media, books, ebooks, audiobooks, lectures, seminars, education, continuing education, structured hobbies and projects — has reached an explosive state. The writer has to balance at the fulcrum of the see-saw with all external knowledge on one hand and internal ruminations on the other.
It is only when a person can balance these two opposite pulls can she write anything meaningful. Any other kind of writing is mere showmanship. The writer sits on the fence between these internal and external worlds. It is not the writer’s job to simply refurbish knowledge, to act as an informant, or a conduit between the two worlds. Those are lofty goals, I admit, but do not define a writer. Yes there are those kinds of writers too — teachers and journalists as writers. But that is not the core of a writer. A writer does not need to teach, or preach, pose or pander, for her writing to be meaningful. Although, in days past, I did feel that any writing that did not inform me of something new, was a waste. I had yet to grow.
At this point, I feel the writer is an example of a society’s ability to cope with itself. The writer studies the outside and the writer analyzes within. In either world, knowledge can be overwhelming and confusing. But the writer copes because having coped, she writes. In the act of writing, the writer gains perspective. This distance from both the inside and outside worlds, the self and the society, is needed to write meaningfully.
Woven densely in the fabric of both the external and internal worlds, the writer is mostly thwarted, confused, overwhelmed. The opposing worlds close in on the writer and living becomes a constant gasping for breath.
However distant, the writer must paradoxically continue to be part of both worlds, just like any other. Just like any other, the writer must go out into the world and deal with employers, colleagues, sales-people, and strangers. And also, like others, the writer must think, plan, manage, hope and dream on the inside. The heightened level of sensitivity in the writer, that she has honed through daily practice in observing closely, makes a writer an easy prey in the meshes of both the inside and outside worlds.
Creativity, another facet of the writer, forms intricate associations within and between her complex internal and external worlds. These subtle associations among disparate thoughts and ideas, objects and sensations, more than the discreet thoughts, ideas, objects and sensations themselves, enmesh the writer into the worlds she inhabits and prevent the development of perspective.
How then does the life-long, student-meditator bring herself to write? Where does she find the inclination, the motivation to write? Where does she look for her subject? What details does she attend to and what does she discard? How does she develop the necessary discrimination and distance?
When practicing meditation — not the act of emptying the mind but the act of simply observing one’s thoughts closely, a million images and ideas scramble for her attention. She tries to grasp the details, ask questions, listens for answers, but the whole draws her attention as well. With a few decades of practice, perhaps her mind would have found the tools to cope with her external over-stimulation and her internal over-analysis.
But then she might no longer be able to write because thoughts like splatters of oil tend to coalesce with time. The notion that memory and intellect can establish a writers identity, a notion she had believed in, is proved wrong. There is more to her than memory and intellect. Chaos and confusion, are just as much a part of her. When pointlessness becomes the point of existence it’s impossible to get out of bed, to write.
That is why the time to write is now, before all the reading and assimilating is done.