Two of the questions I’m commonly asked by students when I give readings or talks at universities is, “How feasible is a career in writing?” and “Does one need to have a literature or creative writing degree to become a writer?” My answers, I’m pleased to say, are “Quite feasible” and “No” respectively.
All one needs to become a writer, in my opinion, is a strong point of view on one’s subject (whether it is cricket, politics, or the novel), a love of language and of reading, and a willingness to constantly learn and improve.
In the past, it was sometimes difficult to get enough good reading material because of a paucity of bookshops and libraries. With the arrival of the internet, these can no longer be issues. Many of the world’s best literary magazines and journals are now available on the internet for free. One of the websites that contributed tremendously to my development as a writer was the filter blog Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com), which links everyday to some of the best pieces about literature, history, politics and ideas being published in magazines around the world.
Writing and reading are closely linked activities. You will only be as a good a writer as you are a reader. I think the mistake that young people without a degree in literature most commonly make is not reading enough in the form in which they want to write.
To become a better reader, it is necessary to devote yourself to reading that challenges you instead of just books which you can deal with in your comfort zone. Make an investment of an hour in good-quality reading as a matter of daily discipline every day, and in five years (yes, there are no short cuts to excellence in this field!) you will find yourself a better reader and writer than 95% of people around you.
Remember, merely to become a top-notch reader is itself a rare and unusual achievement. Some of the happiest and fulfilled people I know are people who love reading, and can hear all the different notes and layers of good books. I have never seen such people bored, or short of ideas.Keep a notebook where you copy out sentences or passages from books that strike you as particularly well-written. Just like one can find out all the secrets of a human body by dissecting it, so too one can learn all the secrets of writing good, powerful sentences by copying them out and studying their architecture.
To be a writer, one also needs to have an original view of oneself and the society in which one lives. There are things about the world that you have to love intensely and hate intensely, and you can only find these things out by constantly talking to different kinds of people, reading interesting books (not just novels but also history, biography, books on religion and politics), and travelling. The beauty of being a writer is that everything one does feeds into one’s work — one doesn’t switch on and off as in most other professions. Sometimes (although not too often) you can even sleep for two hours in the middle of the day and call it research!
Some books by Indian writers that I would recommend as excellent models for learning how to write better are Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi (which will show you how to condense a huge amount of information into a few pages through careful selection of details) and The States of Indian Cricket, Mukul Kesavan’s The Ugliness of The Indian Male, MG Vassanji’s The Place Within (one of the best travel books written about India), Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. You should also deliberately read some poetry, as this helps one learn how to say complex things in as few words as possible, and to hear and make use of the innate rhythms of language. I’d recommend you read the recent collection of Tamil Sangam poetry Love Stands Alone or Vinay Dharwadker’s translation of the poems of Kabir.
Also read a good book-review supplement every week, such as the Guardian Review, or the New York Times Book Review, to keep in touch with the latest books in different disciplines. If you have difficulty early on getting your work published, you could start a blog where you could continuously put up new work. Always try and make your pieces as carefully written and edited as possible, though, so that the reader knows that his or her investment in your work is being respected.
Indian writing in English has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last decade, and the market for books by Indian writers has grown enormously. There are also many more opportunities for well-paid journalistic work commissioned by newspapers and magazines. I’ve been working as an independent, self-employed writer for nearly six years now, and I wouldn’t give up the freedom and independence of my life for even the most lucrative job. So if you’d like to be a writer (or just a better reader), there’s really nothing to stop you — go for it!
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf, which was recently selected as one of the “60 Essential Works of Modern Indian Literature in English” by World Literature Today. He also writes the literary blog The Middle Stage (http://middlestage.blogspot.com/). His new book is called India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion (HarperCollins, January 2011)