What started as a casual question brought out so many pearls of wisdom that I felt must be shared with the readers here. Percy Wadiwala, popular blogger and author of ‘The Day Money Died’ shares his valuable experience and challenges as a full-time Indian male author. Thank you for this, Percy.
Now, it’s on to him…
I would like to start this with something of a disclaimer. All writers face challenges, regardless of their nationality and gender. So it may not be something unique to being an ‘Indian male author’, but such as it is, it is based on my personal journey as an Indian male author pursuing writing as a full-time profession.
We all know from seeing Hollywood Films (and Television) that if the hero is working in a solid, if unspectacular job, in a cubicle-farm, he must be dissatisfied with his lot in life. Consequently, a ‘follow your dreams’ plot follows where the protagonist quits his job impetuously, goes on a ‘journey of self-discovery’ and takes up an alternate profession that gives him joy. There is always a ‘Happily Ever After’, where the chosen alternate, whether it is dancing or painting or starting his own business, becomes a success and the protagonist looks back with quiet contentment on his decisions. If the makers of these films had more of a commitment to realism, perhaps they would ensure to portray that where the ‘dream’ is to pursue a career as a writer, the outcome is more likely to resemble Dev D than Jab We Met. Not that the endless drinking is mandatory (though it probably helps), but there are certainly times when it feels like a tiring, frustrating, disheartening path to be on.
Stepping away from a corporate job, or choosing not to take one, with its assured paycheck and the consumerist lifestyle it helps you buy into, is not a decision without consequences. You still have to buy food, to look after the family, the car, the house, and so much more.
In India, where gender stereotypes tend to be enforced with some rigidity, the primary duty to provide falls on the male of the family—the husband, the son.
Expecting a writing career to bring in enough money to maintain your lifestyle—especially if that lifestyle came about fueled by a fat salary—is unrealistic, to say the least. Writing, after all, is a slow process. Editing, re-writing, pitching to publishers, waiting for responses…it can take a while before a writer, however good, can make money comparable to a white-collar employee. This means that the first challenge a writer in such a situation has to think about it is very basic—how will I provide for my family?
The other major challenge is rather more mundane—the loss of that mythical thing called ‘social status’. That’s because, as I soon realized, in India, being a ‘writer’ is synonymous with being unemployed to most people.
In a way this is a factor that I would say affects a man more sharply than it might a woman. Indian society accepts a woman being ‘unemployed’. Well, those who think that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, at least, have no problem with that. They grudgingly accept that a woman might find time to sit at a table to write. Similarly, the ‘working man’ who ‘writes a little on the side’ might be an eccentric, but can be tolerated. A man who opts for voluntary unemployment—no matter how vehemently he might say he is ‘working’ on his writing or that he has paying freelance assignments—is too different to be understood.
There is more to this than social awkwardness, though. The question, and its variants, stab at the heart of the writer’s dilemma—what are we really looking to achieve? Who are we really? Is the tag of ‘writer’ so easily earned that simply calling myself one is enough?
The final thing I want to highlight is the strain that this career choice, especially by a married man, can put on his family relationships.
As I think I have mentioned before, there are certain expectations that society, specifically Indian society, places on men—as husbands, as sons, as fathers. For a full-time writer, there is a period of struggle that is inevitable. A period when he is facing doubts, days of procrastination, months of waiting for a response from publishers, the frustration of rejections from publishers and magazines. This is no mere hobby, not something he does just to ‘test the waters’. For the full-time writer, this is it, all that he has pinned his hopes and dreams upon. Many writers end up internalizing this disappointment in an unhealthy way, leading to issues—mental issues, for the most part, often taking the form of depression, self-pity and self-loathing. As difficult as this is for the writer himself to put up with, it can put considerable stress on his spouse, children and parents who have to deal with the changes to his personality and compare it with his previous, apparently happier condition.
Overcoming these challenges is something that is a must for success, however, for while there are things we cannot change, things which come with the territory, the danger is in letting them become so big that they start to inhibit the writing process itself. If worrying about money makes you quit writing, you have lost. If fear of loss of social status paralyzes your creativity, you have lost. If you allow the stress attendant on the life of an author to fray your relationships beyond repair, you have lost.
The Money Factor is perhaps the easiest to prescribe a solution to—build up your savings before you quit. Unless you are pursuing writing directly out of college, the odds are that you have been working. If you have been working, a little frugality and intelligent saving will allow you to build up a corpus of money that will keep you financially comfortable for at least a couple of years. It is not the same as having a steady salary coming in, but knowing you are not having to worry about where next month’s rent is coming from makes it a lot easier to face the future as a writer. It is best to build up this corpus without disposing of any long-term assets, of course; selling property or jewelry to start a business might be how many success stories begin, but doing so to finance living expenses while pursuing a writing career, however certain of your talent you might be, is not something I would recommend. It would also help here to be honest with your spouse about the possibility of having to struggle for money for a bit; and if she is earning, that her income will be required to run the household.
Another important thing to remember is that a good writer has opportunities to earn by writing for portals which are always on the lookout for content. From politics to relationships and finance to food, a skilled writer can make a decent amount of money from this. Not extravagant amounts, certainly, and I would advise against spending too much time on writing for someone else, if your goal is write the story that you want to tell, but there is much to be said for doing some content-writing work for practice and pocket-money. Similarly, if you have a flair for it, you could try editing work for publishers and authors. Every little bit helps. Every little bit counts.
When it comes to how Society views the writer though, there is no easy answer. The perceptions of others are not easy to change. But what you can do is believe in yourself. Not just in achieving success ‘eventually’, but in changing how you define ‘success’ itself.
The conditions that society imposes upon you—a salary, a designation, an office, a large house, an expensive car—have nothing to do with who you are. They are all about what you are expected to be. But the fact is—and this is true for writers as much as it is for anyone else—you only fail if you do not meet your own expectations. If you have been realistic about what to expect when you chose to become a full-time writer, you already know that you are walking down a different path, that you have chosen to step outside the ambit of what society considers ‘normal’. Embrace it, strut out your chest, and say, “Oh, I’m a writer. I’m working on my novel”. If someone asks for a signed copy, promise them the 1,000th copy of the book, ‘when it comes out’. Chances are they will forget, and if they do not, and you do reach a thousand copies in sales, you won’t mind giving away one to someone who took that promise at face value.
The last is perhaps the hardest to overcome. It depends not just on you but on those around you, and managing the expectations of those you love is different from dealing with a dash of bravado with relative strangers. It demands understanding and sensitivity, both from you and from your family, an acceptance that there will be bad days among the good, and implicit trust on both sides. Honesty, above all, is key. Share your intentions with your spouse or parents, let them know that you plan to be a full-time writer before you take the plunge. Without their support, the writer’s journey can be worse than futile, it can break apart everything you love. The luxury of beating a lonely path might be available to the impersonal men of the West, who are used to being on their own from a young age. Perhaps they never, even when in a relationship, lose their individuality in the way we do in India as a part of a family.
So take the effort to bring them on board on this tiring, frustrating, disheartening journey, and you might find it is not so bad after all. The smile of a loved one can take away the tiredness, their encouragement can do away with the frustration, they are the ones who will give you hope when you feel your heart has none left.
The author who calls himself Percy Wadiwala is a Chartered Accountant and MBA who quit a successful career as a Banker to spend more time with his cats. Realizing that his cats are much happier without his company, he is now engaged in other pursuits such as staring mournfully at broken glasses, contemplating drying paint and, despite the protests of those who he inflicts it upon, writing.
He lives in Mumbai with his family, his book collection and a firm conviction that modern civilization is in terminal decline.
His first book, ‘The Day Money Died’, is available at Amazon.