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Someone Who Writes
I recently completed an MFA at a Creative Writing program, having convinced myself that it was perhaps time to do a course in something that comes naturally to me. Never mind that the naturalness of my writing is something that is fraught—there have been several periods during which I have been unable to write, periods when, in fact, I’ve been too sick to write; periods in which I have only been able to essay one or the other mode of writing.
My parents attributed the delay in my decision to join a Creative Writing program to the perversity of my disposition, a perversity that has derailed me at several moments and has caused me to hamper my own progress. It is a perversity that makes me suspicious when I should be accepting, timid when I should be forthcoming. It is a perversity which makes me dishonest with myself. Which is not perhaps the best way for a writer to be.
But it is true, however, that I did think that an MFA in Creative Writing was an easy way to get a degree by riding on the coattails of a talent I had never taken seriously enough to nurture. There has always been a distance between me and my writing. It has always seemed to be coming from somewhere outside me. The idea that writing is external to me has made it easier to resign myself to being mentally ill. I have felt that it is what I have fondly thought of as the “fervidity” of my manic-depressive temperament that has brought to my writing arresting language and images that jar because of their vividness and beauty.
Later, the same illness that gave my writing its beauty, or so I thought—having never been able to gauge just how much my turn for metaphor and magic realism owed to madness—made it difficult for me to hone my craft with the same consistency as a healthy person.
Previously I had thought there was something dishonest about doing an MFA, that it was the equivalent of a natural-born whistler doing a degree in whistling. I was somewhat puritanical and pretentious. However, I was sometimes honest enough to see the tenuousness of my lofty position: my entire undergraduate and postgraduate education had been a long attempt to stave off the realities that awaited me in my home. I ran into higher education with no real goal, without even the haziest of ambitions, only seeking to escape the fact that I lacked the courage to define myself against my parents and become my own person. Home, in India, was prison; initially due to the tyranny and surveillance of my mother, but later, after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, because I became convinced that everyone who lived around our apartment complex saw me as a figure of derision.
Being bipolar became an integral part of my life when I was twenty-four, and so, departing for the United States once again when I was twenty-seven, seemed to me an opportune escape. I was more excited about being in the United States once again than about being in a writing program. By then, I was so used to my failure to make progressive steps towards stability and consistency that I never even nursed long-term goals.
I had been nineteen when I first came to the United States, transferring into an undergraduate program in Philadelphia. I had been reluctant to come, despite my parents’ urging. I had goals then, even though I thought there was no way in hell I was going to accomplish them. I nursed the dream of being a brave and dedicated police officer who nearly dies several times in the course of his duties. While I was always furious to see injustice on the television or in books and although my thinness of skin then enabled me to step into someone else’s shoes and feel their pain so vividly that my vicarious pain would turn into outrage, I’m afraid my self-martyring and masochistic ambitions were informed by a creative enterprise that shares something of my own imagination’s undisciplined and reckless proliferation. Bollywood. At college in India, in lieu of martyrdom in a police uniform, I chose to devote myself entirely to helping in the running of some of the university’s societies, delighting in a submissive role, choosing with very little self-knowledge to be the sweetly silent helpmeet of one charismatic male senior or the other. Somehow, I thought it would be easy to break free of my parents when I graduated college.
But my parents were insistent that I take the opportunity to go abroad. And ultimately I agreed, because I felt this decision would make it difficult for them to influence my life. I felt I was running away and, indeed, when I went to Philadelphia, I did not return till after I had graduated. But perhaps giving in was the worst mistake I made in my life. My life became about escaping, rather than about overcoming difficulties, or setting my own goals, and instead of progressing towards a career, I merely swapped one academic equivalent of a padded cell for another.
And then I was twenty-four and in New York and at the close of days through which I did not sleep, when I began to discover that my mood could be switched on and off through just the judicious application of a cigarette or a Starbucks Doubleshot, when I was relentlessly theorizing on anything and everything, convinced I was the next big rogue sociologist, I was exiled to the peacefulness of a psychiatric ward, where my fellow inmates seemed to have no difficulty accepting me as the woman I now knew I was, although perhaps they merely recognized my bisexuality. Sadly, while I was clear about being transgender in the ward, I would soon forget I was.
In the psychiatric ward, encouraged by a hauntingly beautiful therapist, I wrote stories and poems. I wrote of – and about being – a woman in white, an empathetic figure whose strength was her ability to give. I thought I had the ability to absorb the world’s pain and take suffering people to my bosom. Soon, however, bare months after the bright beauty of my stint in the psychiatric ward, through my self-centered retreat into my own misery, a misery that misapplied my creative instinct in transforming minor incidents into day-derailing griefs, I would lose the ability to see other people very clearly, let alone to know what was in their hearts.
(My parents in recent years have often asked me how I can be a writer when I do not travel, when I do not see the world. In answer, I have glared impotently, but I do see the wisdom in their remarks. But the reason I now think I cannot really write is because I have lost the ability to relate to people. Thus, I can only ever see my own creations from the outside. Insulated from the poverty outside by my agoraphobic tendencies when I am in India, and burrowing into comfort zones when I am abroad, I do not know how to write about the emotions and travails experienced by normal people.
To sum up with a dramatic flourish that nevertheless contains much truth: I cannot write because I do not live.
When I began writing in the psychiatric ward, it was after the space of six years. I had last written for my school newsletter when I was eighteen. And I hadn’t written the kind of stories or poems that sprang from my greatest strength as a writer then, my ability to imagine myself into the lives of characters I read about, since I was fourteen or fifteen. During this time, when I could be filled with Scarlett’s fury, or be aroused by Lucie Manette’s submissiveness to her frankly undeserving gimp of a husband, I was also content to be sexually anomalous, to dream of kissing the rugged and unshaven cheeks of my seniors.
I had been writing since I was five. Or, at least, this is the case according to the narrative I have set up with great assiduity over the course of writing my memoir over and over again, convinced that in doing so I would unpack great truths for other sufferers of bipolar disorder. (In reality, however, my memoir drafts were exercises in obsessive self-examination.) As a child, I wrote with great facility about things I’d never experienced. For instance, my parents, always my primary audience then, were much moved by my poem “Let me Take his Place,” in which the daughter of a war widow consoles her mother and tells her she will look after her. As an adult, I have been frequently mired by my attempts at obsessive honesty. What I have been lacking, ironically, is the distance that would enable me to immerse myself without reservation into my own life.
At any rate, I link my childhood writing to two separate events. One is the response of my worthy first grade teacher to my frequent rowdiness in class. She gave me a binder full of lined paper, a gift I treasured, and soon deployed towards my first published article, a piece on my pillow, a funky lump of discolored cotton I carried everywhere. Then, a couple of years later, to keep me busy during a family trip to Chennai, my mother drew a picture for me and asked me to write a poem about it. When I did, my parents were so excited by my poem that I was spurred to annoy them throughout the trip with incessant demands for writing prompts.
And so if someone had asked me by the time I was eight what it was I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have had no hesitation in saying that I wanted to be a writer. Certainly, that year, I strode over with my then characteristic overconfidence to the cashier at a bookstore we frequented, and urbanely demanded, with my most killing smile, that he publish my book of writing, a small slam book that led with a paean to, literally, shit. The poor man had to be rescued by my father.
Earlier, when I thought about the manner in which I began writing, I imagined that there was a straightforward connection between writing and my capacity for disorder. I saw my creativity as a sort of surplus energy, one that was channeled into productivity by my pen. I imagined that I had always had a tendency towards mania and that this tendency had been kept in check by writing. Writing, thus, was a safety valve.
I am no longer sure how true this is. Perhaps my rowdiness as a child was the ordinary rowdiness of a bright and articulate boy. It was a rowdiness I would recover every now and then, although for the most part I would subsist as a mute whisper from the age of eight, when depression would descend upon me, as well as my distress over my masochistic desires and my arousal by rough, working-class men. It was only on paper that I lived from the age of eight and perhaps this was why I fetishized the succession of expensive notebooks my father bought me from his trips to Singapore and other (as it seemed to me then) far-flung countries.
But it certainly was true that, whether or not it kept my naughtiness in check, writing was cathartic. It was also an escape route. By vividly experiencing the emotions of my characters, I forgot to brood. When I was not writing, my head was a storm. I was always seething with a sense of injury, wanting to lash out at my mother for her cruelty. Writing kept me calm. And when I oscillated between mania and depression, I lived as if on an acrobat’s wire. When I read some of my poems as a child, I can now recognize the source of their feyness and their unflappable rhythm.
I stopped writing fiction and poetry when I was fourteen or fifteen because I thought I no longer had reason to escape into my writing. I felt I was confident in who I was, if not exactly happy. In reality, for the first time in a long while, my mind had been quiet. And so, cruelly, indifferently, I gave up my pen, though saddened slightly by my own self-destructiveness. When my parents asked me why I wasn’t writing, I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t see writing as crucial to any future of mine.
Soon after I returned home from New York, a mere month after leaving the psychiatric ward, I was besieged by crippling anxiety and the full brunt of the obsessive-compulsiveness I’ve always possessed to some degree. Though I didn’t realize it, my mind’s fraught state closely resembled that of my childhood. Although I’d brought back my writings from the ward, I didn’t take up my pen again until anxiety prevented me from showing up to work at my first job as an adult. The morning after I sobbed my refusal to go to a place where I was sure everyone was against me, I bought a new notebook and I began to write, taking inspiration from the things I saw as I sat at the tea stall outside our house, or drove around the city. By imagining the interior lives of the people I saw and by expressing my admiration for them with humor and an involuntary sadness, I was able to escape myself for a brief period of time. Writing quieted my brain.
But I couldn’t recapture the vividness and courage of my childhood writing. As a child, I was able to throw myself entirely into the minds of the people I saw or read about. It was as if there was no mesh between me and them. I could feel the sun on their skin, feel the initially suspicious joy with which they experienced sudden good fortune. Now, something held me back. I was too conscious of myself to dissolve into other people. And soon, feeling tinctured (I picked up “tincture” from Tess of the D’Urbervilles and cannot quite let go), I was too convinced of the disdain of passers-by to see them clearly. I stopped looking at faces and my imagination was denuded.
Three years after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, I joined the MFA program in a quiet town in Long Island, New York. I learnt here to write with economy, especially through an exercise that had us restrict ourselves to two hundred and fifty words. Tellingly, I learnt that my characters do not work because they resist evolution. Emotionally, I am stuck at fifteen. Perhaps, this is why I have failed to afford my characters growth. My parents were convinced, especially given the encouragement and nurture I received at the program, that it would bring me out of the prison of my illness. But it didn’t. And this is perhaps because I failed, once again, to locate the step that followed my graduation.
Pretentiously, I have often imagined myself diffidently responding to someone asking me if I am a writer with a, “No, alas, I am someone who writes.” But now I think it would have been better by far if I’d always thought of myself as a writer and acknowledged writing as central to my existence. Perhaps if I’d remembered that it was through writing that I could build worlds and convert the vividness of my imagination into compelling narratives, I could have shaped my own life too and given it a plot. Perhaps I could have written myself, rather than losing control of my own story.