A couple of years ago, I met Monideepa Sahu at the Pune International Literary Festival (PILF). I was a wanna-be writer then. Having recognised her from social media images, I gathered up the courage to interact with her. The eye-catching cover of her book attracted me and I got it autographed. I shared with her my future dreams. She was full of warmth and encouragement.
I buy dozens of books at literary festivals. I love getting them autographed. However, I do not always muster up the enthusiasm to read them if they fail to keep my attention after the first couple of pages. Monideepa’s book, Going Home in the Rain & Other Stories, was different. I started reading the first page that night in the Pune Hotel room and couldn’t stop till I completed the first four stories. I read the remaining stories on the journey from Pune to Mumbai. Her writing draws attention to the simple beauties in life that we tend to ignore in our everyday hustle.
I kept in touch with Monideepa all these years and she agreed to share her thoughts on my blog. What you read below is a wealth of valuable advice.
- What would be one thing you wish you could undo in your writing career?
That’s a tough one. I would want to undo the time I wasted as a new writer worrying about the negativity around me. I would instead focus wholeheartedly on the logically sound and constructive suggestions. Some people tend to say they hate this or can’t stand that without giving reasons. I would remind myself that it’s their personal taste and you can’t worry about pleasing all.
Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is essential for introspection and improvement. I would focus on such specific and well-reasoned suggestions for improving my writing.
- Recently, you compiled an anthology. How was the experience? What were the challenges?
This experience was markedly different from writing my own stories. Over 300 submissions came in after the notice was posted on the Kitaab site, and on various online platforms for writers. Engaging, well-written stories are rare gems, I learnt, as I struggled to stay afloat through the deluge of submissions. Finding the gems took months of meticulous and often tedious work and thought.
As a writer wearing the mantle of hawk-eyed editor, I wanted to encourage lesser-known talents too, even though there were enough lovely stories from well-established authors. I worked with many submitting writers upon the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ raised by their submissions, and I hope the stories are further enriched as a result.
As an author, my heart bled for each story I returned. I made it a point to write personal notes to each one of these writers, trying my best to keep alive the hope in their hearts as regards their future work. I expect no reward for this effort. I also have to cope with the loss of several disappointed friends.
The biggest challenge was reader’s block, which became as much a reality for me as writer’s block. I found that I could intensely scrutinize at most ten stories at one session before sinking into a glazed-eyed stupor. Reading and re-reading so many stories with intensity was exhausting. I bow to seasoned editors and would rather not face such ordeals again.
- The beauty of language or the nitty-gritty of a plot – what would you choose?
A good story requires both a strong storyline and storytelling style. The idea is to strike a happy balance and tell a good story as beautifully as possible. That being said, I would choose the nitty-gritties not just of plot, but of developing characters and their inner life, of world-building. Beautiful language alone cannot sustain a good story, although it is a vital part of it.
- You write for both children and adults? What are the main differences and challenges in both these categories?
The main difference for me is that children’s stories are told through a child’s perspective, which would differ from that of adults. There has to be more freshness and less cynicism, more possibilities and improbabilities, and less strait-jacketed rules.
Writing for children and for adults are equally difficult, though the challenges are somewhat different. I have to be in a happy and relaxed frame of mind to bring out my playful and wacky inner child, and see and show things through a child’s eyes.
When weighed down by life’s pressures and disappointments, I can continue to write for adults. These things are part of adulthood, after all. But writing for children requires more energy and bubbly enthusiasm.
- ‘Writing as a profession’ or ‘writing as a passion’? What would your advice be and why?
Plenty of people do very well earning a living writing ad jingles, ghostwriting, technical writing, medical or legal transcription, etc. There are professional writers who churn out books according to market demands. Books on astrology, finance or campus romances are all part of the job.
There are other writers who must pour out their thoughts and emotions in words. These writings could be anything from personal journal entries to love letters. There’s plenty of passion in such writing. But they write primarily for themselves, or for a few special near and dear ones. They do not usually work at writing as a craft, or earn any income from writing.
There are the eccentrics like me who write because a story must be told. They work hard to make their writing the best it can be. When they find publishers and a suitably eccentric readership for their work, they are professionals who take their writing as a passion. They are unlikely to make money out of this. At least I haven’t breached that glass ceiling.
My two paise worth advice would be to do your best and be sincere with what you do. Whether you write to infuse bug spray with supernatural properties, or you must tell tall tales, give it your best shot. I don’t see the sense in writing a few blog posts, or in getting 100 likes on some Facebook posts, and then proudly calling yourself a writer. Keep striving and growing, and enjoy the writing journey.
- Who is your writing mentor? How did this person influence you?
My writing mentor is not an individual, but a wonderful group of talented and accomplished writers called the Internet Writers Workshop (IWW). I’ve found many generous mentors in this international community of writers. I’ve also found warm friends who encouraged and shared and also guided me to put my writing act together. It is here that I’ve learnt most of what little I know about the art and craft of writing.
I can no longer manage to participate there full time, but remember them all with heartfelt thanks and appreciation.
- Describe your writing routine.
Writing routine? What routine? I live in a state of perpetual pandemonium, chasing truant domestic help, rushing to shop for the next meal, hunting a mouse in the house or managing unexpected guests. I try to squeeze the writing in wherever I can.
- What is one thing that any newbie writer must do?
Revise, introspect, improve your craft and grow.
- What is a genre that you can never see yourself write?
Chick lit. Yes, I’m pretty sure I can never see myself writing romance or chick lit. I’m too old and pickled and mummified for it. Even when I was young, I felt the contents of my cranium were wired the wrong way. I did try a couple of Mills & Boon paperbacks in high school. I found them too predictable. I preferred reading anything, even Isaac Asimov or Thomas Hardy or the newspaper wrappers of timepass peanuts instead.
With one foot already inside the grave, I’m unlikely to change all of a sudden.
- What is one thing that you would like to change in the literary/publishing community?
I would change the trend of mushrooming literary festivals. There are already hundreds of them happening all over India. More new ones crop up every year.
While it is a good idea, so many festivals are distracting. They end up being events and media shows, with celebrities of various hues grabbing the limelight. Creative writers aren’t always the best speakers and performers. They pale in front of Bollywood celebrities and bright sparks who have stormed Twitter with nifty one-liners.
For me, the main problem is that people expect to see you in ALL of them, which isn’t possible. Firebrand student leaders and glamorous personalities are seen everywhere. So they get more prominence and know exactly how to use it to their best advantage,
Writers, many of whom are introverts, can feel sidelined in the process.
Monideepa Sahu studied at Lady Shri Ram College and Delhi University. She worked as a bank manager before veering off into writing. Her books are; The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, Going Home in the Rain, and Other Stories (Kitaab, Singapore), Riddle of the Seventh Stone (Zubaan) and Rabindranath Tagore: The Renaissance Man (Penguin/Puffin). Her short fiction appears in collections from Central Michigan University, Northeastern Illinois University, Marshall Cavendish (Singapore), Puffin, Scholastic India, and elsewhere. She regularly writes for The Deccan Herald and other mainstream publications.