“Bharati Tai, we didn’t know that you are such a fantastic writer,” wrote my wife’s younger sister, Sujata, in an e-mail from India. “Tai” is a form of addressing an elder sister. She was referring to a letter that my wife had written to her elder sister Kanchan that was to be read aloud at the celebration of her 50th wedding anniversary in Pune, India.
It was March 2012 and my wife was feeling bad that she could not attend the anniversary celebration. Many friends and family members were expected to attend this milestone event. But my wife was in America and going for a two-week visit to India was not going to be possible due to her busy schedule at the office.
“Write down your thoughts on a piece of paper in the form of a letter, and someone can read it there on your behalf,” I recommended. Her draft had several anecdotes, going back to her sister’s wedding day, her observations about her brother-in-law, success in their life in raising two wonderful sons. The information was all there, but it needed to be arranged in a logical sequence to make a dramatic effect. I made minor edits and rearranged a few paragraphs. The result was good enough to elicit the remark quoted above.
The letter had achieved one main purpose of writing that is to communicate a message in an effective and entertaining way. In other words, tell a good story.
I started writing when attending the Keshav Memorial High School, in Hyderabad, India, by taking part in essay writing competitions. Once a year our high school would have a Students Day gathering, in which awards were given for scholastic and athletic achievements. For the writing competition we used to gather in a class room and the teacher would write a topic on the board, such as Should High Schools be Co-ed? We had to write an essay within an hour. The best essay would get a prize. It was an exercise in quick thinking, organizing thoughts and putting them down on paper in the most convincing way possible. We wrote the essays in long hand. It was 1950s, there were no computers. To become a good writer required first being a good reader. Our English teacher always encouraged us to read books. Sometimes he would assign the titles to read. He would have a competition among his students on who could read the most. I only won once. It did not matter. I enjoyed the challenge of writing and reading.
Entrance to the Keshav Memorial High School
I continued to participate in essay writing competitions in my college years, with some success. After my first degree in Engineering I came to the United States for advanced studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. As is common in many universities, the India students association at O.U. published newsletters at special events, such as celebration of major festivals. I never missed an opportunity to submit an article. I wrote articles about Indian customs such as the Namaste greeting.
Even though I am an engineer by training, I spent most of my professional life in writing proposals to acquire new business. A good proposal required technical accuracy of the design, and also a good story line promoting the company’s strengths without overly bragging. The general opinion in the technical community is that engineers cannot write. It may be true, because most of my colleagues would go into enormous technical details about a proposed solution and miss telling the story of why our company was the best for the task. Perhaps my earlier exposure to writing enabled me to do better. On numerous occasions when my manager was not happy about certain sections he would just say, “Give it to Ash.”
In late 1990s, one of the programs I was working on wanted to start a monthly newsletter to promote inter-group communication. I responded to the call for participation and was selected to edit the newsletter. It was a challenging assignment. I worked with a team of five co-workers. We met once at the beginning of a month and selected topics to cover. We gave assignments to people in our team. As the editor I had to write an editorial column each month. It seemed daunting at first, but I was able to gather my thoughts during my afternoon walks. I started with small personal essays on topics such as When Fun Turns to Serious Business, about how people start something as a casual hobby and it turns into a passionate endeavor and the Cal Ripken Principle, which had anecdotes about people who report to work or go to school without missing a single day. I always wondered if anyone actually read these essays or our newsletter for that matter.
“Do you think anyone really cares about our newsletter?” I asked my co-worker, Lou.
“Have you walked the halls after the newsletter is distributed?” he asked.
I said no.
“Next time you should go around. You will see everyone with their heads down, reading the stories.”
I was glad. Within six months our newsletter grew from two pages to four pages. There was demand for more stories and more coverage. Unfortunately the newsletter ended after a year after I joined another department and no one wanted to manage it.
I, however, continued my writing. Once a year I read my essays in a local gathering arranged by my friend, Dilip, called An Evening with Words. About two years ago my son recommended that I expand my horizon to include writing fiction.
“Most authors use their life experiences and add imagination to develop a fictional story,” he said.
At that time I happened to be reading the Best American Mystery Stories 2007 anthology. In the author notes at the back of the book, I discovered that the inspiration for the story “Meadowlands” by Joyce Carol Oates came from a visit by the author to the famous New Jersey track.
I thought writing fiction could be fun and decided to give it a try.
I was already subscribing to the Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers and the Glimmer Train magazines and was reading books on writing. As I started crafting fictional stories I learned that there is more to telling a story than just narration of events. A story is not strong unless it has structure, conflict, believable dialogue that pushes the narrative, and interesting characters. A writer needs to get into the protagonist’s head when describing a scene and make the reader feel what he or she is feeling.
It takes practice. One cannot pinpoint an exact moment when one has become a good writer. But there is satisfaction in reading positive comments about the stories from people.
In the past few years I emailed the stories and essays I wrote to family and friends. Recently I decided to create this blog, which has offered exposure to a wider audience.
Whenever I mention to people that I am a writer the first question that comes up is whether I have published anything. My answer to them is that I am focusing more on improving my craft. Yes, I have published articles in technical journals that include one award-winning article in the MIS Quarterly. But that does not count as a literary achievement.
Recently I wrote a memoir about my childhood days in Hyderabad, India. I wrote it using the techniques of writing fiction. I described the hustle, bustle in our large family, anecdotes about my dad, mom and other family members. I was amazed to get an email from Krishnan who, as a child, was my neighbor at the time of the story and had come across my blog. I had not seen or been in contact with Krishnan in fifty years and at first didn’t even recognize who he was.
“I remembered the good old days and every detail you wrote about,” he wrote.
He was happy to read the names of people and the description of our house he used to frequent, almost fifty years ago. In his mind he recreated the life and times of his childhood. He showed the story to his mother who was also very happy to remember the bygone days.
I was glad my story impacted someone half way around the world. For me, responses like this are more satisfying than getting published. My blog statistics show me how many people are reading and from which part of the world. Such information gives me a jolt of adrenaline that inspires me to continue writing more. Perhaps, as I wrote in my first editorial for the newsletter, what started for me as fun is on its way to become a serious endeavor.