I fell in love with writing three years ago. I was going through a “phase” and I could not express to others in clear enough words what it was I was thinking. The only way I could find some sense of direction, of peace, was by taking up a pen and letting my thoughts out on paper. This process was strangely therapeutic, in the way that returning home after a long voyage is.
I discovered an affinity for writing, for letting written words run riot at the speed of thought. I could now write the things I never could say out loud for fear of being judged. More importantly, I had found a way to deal with whatever it was life threw at me, turning events, good or bad, into fodder for the stories I would write. Writing represented the ability to become anything I want to be. I could be different characters and access worlds near and far. I could write stories in which I was in turn the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or a pauper in Papua New Guinea, a teenager in Shanghai or a marauder in Beirut.
Now, this process is not without its bumps in the road. I believe that to write things that connect, to you and your intended reader, you have to pour out your heart in a true and honest way. Writing is bravery, an act of rebellion in a world that tries to make us conform to established norms. It is also self-immolation, extracting pain from otherwise numbing experiences.
In my view, the most critical part of writing is beginning, not just starting to write but also in the context of how the reader interprets how you start. Beginnings help to answer the reader’s question: “why should I care about what you write?” This is especially true for short stories and essays in which beginnings should ideally act as a ramp, off which the reader jumps into the unknown, with the only known about this unknown being the knowledge of its unknowingness and the quest to reduce this quality, in a progressive manner.
Beginnings are like the scent and look of newly made soup; when done well, they urgently draw the nascent reader in, whetting his appetite, increasing the desire to proceed with consumption. Beginnings lay the context, in a paragraph, a statement or a word, allowing the reader to formulate ideas, right or wrong they may be, about what comes next. They raise questions within, which only further exploration can answer.
But great beginnings by themselves are never enough. They have to be skillfully built upon. If, while solving a mathematical problem, you state the necessary formula correctly, that first step sets you on the right path. If afterwards, you misapply this formula, say by inter-changing the necessary parameters and approximating wrongly, you veer off this path and thread down the path of error.
Once a good foundation has been laid, it is the little details that really matter. Content (what sub-ideas exist), structure (which sub-idea comes before the other), fluidity (how all these are connected in a sequential, easy to follow, manner) and pacing (how fast the transition is from one sub-idea to another while maintaining coherence) are some of the underrated qualities of good writing. There are other fundamental qualities, of course, such as the use of words – simple or complex – that do not break the flow of the reader’s reading and the deft use of punctuation marks ‒ a comma, placed before, or after, a specific word can change the way a sentence is understood.
All of these add up to defining how a story or essay plays out. Beyond all of the nuances and technicalities, what separates truly great writing from good writing is that unquantifiable quality we term “heart”. There is a feeling you get when you can readily identify with the pictures being created by a writer, whether they be experiences you have shared or not. While I continually fail at it, this is what I try to achieve with my writing. I want my reader to always leave with the feeling that she has seen a bit of my soul and, for that fleeting period of reading, walked in my shoes.
There have been times in which I stopped writing because I felt I had nothing worth saying, worth reading by others. I felt as though my voice was just one more in a sea of confusion, contributing nothing defining, meaningful. There have been times I have shied away from writing because the process was too jarring and required more soul searching, more soul baring, than I was willing to commit to. Writing means being completely open and spilling my insides out, in the hope that creating that mess would help clean up the even bigger one going on within. Through that process, I can clarify my thoughts and ease out the voices that dance eagerly in the recesses of my mind, begging for release.
What I have learned is that it is in those moments of uncertainty, when we doubt ourselves the most that we have to write. We have to come to writing with an unabashed sense of vulnerability. What every writer brings to the table is a unique perspective, a singular view of the world that no one else can lay claim to. So, that is what we have to struggle to maintain and to emphasize. We have to be willing to explore our innermost thoughts and lay them all out, in spite of the fear we may feel. We have to be willing to take that idea that is still unsure and first start with a word, then another and then yet another, until a body is formed from that void of nothingness
This is what it means to write things that matter. We die a little bit inside in order to live.