Shifting sands

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes (Photo credit: David Stanley)

I’ve been away from my blog for a few weeks, startled by a recent change in the landscape that surrounds me. I’ve been reflecting on the nature of tragedy, both on the public shared level and in the private space, and I found that I was short of words to share with you via my blog, or with myself, in the stories I have been spinning.

Writing is a healing tool, but I find it is more powerful when employed at a distance, after allowing oneself to live in the raw moment. It is essential to blunder, to understand that we do not have control of the overarching narrative that is our own life, before we attempt to shape and mold an interpretation of existence that pleases us in our stories. For myself at least, anything else would be an attempt to escape feeling, and that strategy always comes back to bite me.

I have been affectionately accused of being cruel to my characters in The Purana Qila Stories, by throwing obstacles in the path of their happiness. If I picked up the thread of my tales now, I would be tempted to give my good (fictional) friends the happy endings they deserve, but my writing would probably be unsound and dishonest. I believe in the exhortation of Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

For now, I will content myself with the true sentences crafted by other authors and the distilled, clear truth of poetry, none more so than the haiku. Here’s one from the master, Basho:

Now the swinging bridge

is quieted

with creepers…

Like our tendrilled life

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Whadyacallit? Coming up with a title for your work.

I was having a Twitter chat yesterday with a fellow writer about how difficult we were finding it to think of the right title for our work in progress. It was a serendipitous moment when I saw her Tweet go skittering past in my timeline; it helped me shrug off the lonely frustration of coming up with something pertinent, memorable and pithy (140 characters get eaten up really fast when you are promoting your work on Twitter, and at great cost to your grammatical principles).

I had been struggling with an appropriate title for the next story in The Purana Qila Stories series. The titles of my other two short stories had fallen into my lap, one a variation on a line from a Dylan Thomas poem, A Change in the Weather, the other from a small moment in my story, The Dust Beneath Her Feet.

A good title has to say it all: it has to pique interest for the uninvested person browsing the bookstore, internet or library for his or her next reading options; it has to hit just the right notes for readers of your genre; it has to sum up your book in a way that is not deceptive; it has to marry well with your cover artwork. There is a lot riding on your title — it announces your brand to the world.

I remember watching a documentary about Robert Ludlum, years ago, I must have been about nine or ten and I never forgot this: his male literary agent had been arguing with him, in tears, because he had considered naming his next work with something other than one of his signature three-word book titles. Think of the impact that is had by three well-chosen words: The Bourne Identity. The Matarese Circle. The Icarus Agenda. They speak confidence and clarity. In his 22-title bibliography and a storied career, Robert Ludlum wrote only three books that break the mold.

I was all over the shop with my next story and I finally came to peace when I found some clarity of my own. I had to ask myself, what is the central conflict here? What is at stake and for whom? At the same time, I had a selection of cover artwork, each with an image that I liked, but there was only one that told the story I was trying to tell. It did not matter how hard I was trying to make some of the others work, like Cinderella’s sisters trying to jam their size 12’s in her shoe, they would not fit. Perhaps the other images will inspire stories of their own, but I ready to throw my lot in with my next story title and its accompanying image: The Well-Tended Garden. It is an analogy for the relationship between my central characters, something they have nurtured and cultivated in modesty.

I still have a way to go before it is finished, however. As a writer, I have learned that I am only somewhat in charge: it will be complete, I suspect, when it is done with me, and not the other way around. I’m sure there will be many more dilemmas by then, but I have put my finger on the pulse of my story now and have given it a name. This blog post is the birth announcement, and only just a little premature: The Well-Tended Garden: 4 words and 22 characters. If I smoked, it would be time to break out the cigars. I’ll settle for some Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut.

Having a cup of tea with my friends at Curious Book Fans…

Return of the Bee

A beneficial dialogue. Return of the Bee (Photo credit: MightyBoyBrian)

…well, figuratively speaking, at least, and in keeping with all things British for this UK book review site. I was interviewed by one of my favorite reviewers about The Purana Qila Stories and it was nice to be made to think deeply about my writing. So often, what we do as writers is to tell our stories and sit back and wait for people’s reactions in the form of stars and 25 word reviews on Amazon. Those reviews, while helpful, don’t often add to the conversations that I think every writer would love to have about their writing: what worked or did not work and why. What themes we deliberately constructed, and what is the sub-text that we ourselves may have missed? What rings true in someone else’s experience and where we may need to make a course correction. As a literature major, I loved sitting in a professor’s snug office and pulling out the thematic threads of a novel or play; it is an honor to have a reader take the time and care to give the same consideration to your own work.

The author-reader relationship is symbiotic. Someone who knows me and read A Deconstructed Heart is a psychology major, and she said she could not help reading my book, wondering what part of me or my psyche was woven into the story. I could have asked her too, what part of her was integral to her reading of the story. Perhaps I still will; I think we could both learn a lot about ourselves in the process.

Tiger Dreams: The S. Asian Diaspora in the West

Tiger in Ouwehands Zoo, Rhenen, The Netherland...

Tiger in Ouwehands Zoo, Rhenen, The Netherlands. Taken in spring 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was asked to write a guest post for The Serious Reader. I thought about my parents’ generation and how they sacrificed their close-knit connections in India and Pakistan to find opportunity in the West, fifty and sixty years ago as young adults. I have grown up seeing the costs of that sacrifice and also the benefits for second- and third-generation children like me. It’s something I come back to often in my writing, particularly in The Purana Qila Stories. I hope you get a chance to visit The Serious Reader and read about the wave of emigration that brought my family and many others to western shores.