On Writing

“The urge to write is a terrible affliction,” the U.S. foreign policy advisor said. “I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”

There were nearly thirty of us in the banquet hall of the Renaissance Hotel. It was early June. The government had assembled all of us in Washington D.C. for our pre-departure orientation. We were going to Lucknow, India, for an intensive language program in Urdu. As a part of the orientation, the U.S. State Department hosted a career panel to inform us about the many different career opportunities that awaited our South Asian language skills in the future. There didn’t seem to be many—the panelists offered little practical advice aside of the banal commentary, “foreign languages are important,” instead dedicating most of their time toward an aggrandizement of their achievements before vaguely gesturing toward the upcoming bright minds of the future.

Most of their life stories were dull, but one story in particular caught my attention. The man must have been in his forties, but had a youthful charm—a politician who had undoubtedly climbed the ranks on the capital of his ability to smile and win your affection. Unlike the other panelists, he made his life relatable to us students.

“You will have the most freedom in your life between the ages of twenty and thirty,” he said, “so now it is the best time to travel.”

He elucidated the benefits of travel by illustrating his own life experience. After graduating from college he moved to Tokyo, where, on a whim, he began work as a journalist for an American financial newspaper. He knew little about economics and even less about Japan; however, with hard work, some help from the Economist, and writing skills inherited from his English major, he was promoted to head editor within two years. He won a Fulbright in graduate school and used his funding to write a novel tracing the mythological journey of the Hindu god Ram from his exile from Ayodhya in North India to his siege of the demon kingdom in Sri Lanka. He charted the deity’s mythological footsteps across dusty, pot-holed highways, interviewing the shop owners, pilgrims, and long-bearded sadhus that crossed his path.

As he progressed in his narrative, I fell into a daydream of a young traveler on a crowded bus. I imagined a veiled woman dipping roti with long, dark fingers into a cup of daal beside him. The bus bounced and clinked across the road like a can on a string while the traveler filled the pages of his journal with the ghost-whispers of his roadside encounters. Strangers materializing on the page, but disappeared in the rearview mirror above the bus driver—smoking a beedi cigarette, tapping the dashboard to the latest Bollywood tune.

He asked us if we had any questions. Because he had professed a fondness for fiction writing when he was my age, I asked him, from his experience, what job opportunities existed out there in the big world for young aspiring writers—imagining that, at some point in his life, he must have cut his teeth on similar questions.  There was an exchange of glances and smirks amongst the panelists. Dreams as idealistic and impractical as writing are not subjects you field to the government, I suppose.

The advisor answered, “Few: they don’t pay well, they require a lot of work, and they earn you little respect. Pursue it as a hobby, and do something else on the side.” Then the advisor paused, and bowed his head. When he looked up, he said with an urgency deviating drastically from his previous narration, “If you want to write, write now. You always tell yourself that you can write later, that you will be better later, have more time. But the best advice I can give you is that you will never be as good as you are right now.”

There was a furrow in his brow, and it dawned on me that a certain gravity of disillusionment tugged at his youthful features, drawing attention to his wrinkles, his age. His advice called to mind my own frequent excuses and consolations—I am busy with school, should finish that reading, write that paper, but will surely write later!—, as if life suddenly becomes less hectic after graduating college. But no, it occurred to me that the writer’s life was equally as romantic and reprehensibly exotic as my daydream of the traveler gazing through the dust-caked windows of the bus. The immediacy of the now cascaded down upon me, and I saw myself sitting, not on a bus, but beside a policy advisor on a panel, twenty years from now, constructing a façade of success to mask the loss of a once-held dream, all the while preaching the practical.

I recall this anecdote not to reiterate my own writerly woes, but to pay tribute and applaud all of the poets, short story writers, artists, and photographers who struggle to upkeep their blogs, outline stories during their lunch breaks, or sit with pencil and notebook at the kitchen table after a long day’s work. They understand the need to express in the now—as successfully or inadequately as that attempt might be.

I believe that it is through this discipline that they, unlike the sighing daydreamers, will map the fantastic world of myth and dream onto the perpetually dusty, pothole-filled highways of the never-quite-good-enough present. We will never be as good as we are now, and therefore this contribution to The Broken Tusk is a testament toward what the now has to offer. And now I’ve said my bit: what do you think?