The Creative Writer : Go with the heart

When you've got something right, you'll know it. Creative writing is about feelings.

Published - December 03, 2011 07:33 pm IST

When is a piece of creative work finished? Well, according to the English poet W.H. Auden, never; it is simply abandoned. When Auden said that, he was talking about the propensity all writers have to constantly revisit their work in their quest for perfection. Hence the question should really be rephrased as: When should a piece of work be abandoned?

Before looking at it from the writer's perspective, let's turn our attention to what the publishing gatekeepers, that is editors and agents, have to say about what makes them take on an unpublished writer. Mind you, when I say unpublished writer, I am talking about the outsider looking to break into print on the dint of his or her skill and talent rather than someone born into the business. If you are born into the business, that is someone in your family or circle of friends is well established as a writer, editor or agent, then this does not apply; you are in the same position as a star son or daughter in Bollywood with influential people around to nurse you on to the centre-stage.

Vital criterion

So what do the gatekeepers have to say? Well, what they go on about is how the writing affected them. Yes, that's right — affected. Not informed or educated or impressed. Of course, there are several ways in which you can affect people with your writing. You can make them cry. You can keep them on the edge of their seats. You can have them in stitches laughing. You can scare the living daylights out of them. But, at the end of the day, affect is sensory rather than intellectual, high on feeling rather than thinking.

Hence, before abandoning your work, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether the work contains the necessary affect. Yes, you need to be careful about technique and keep mistakes out. And yes, glaring technical flaws will prevent you from breaking into print. But, at the end of the day, creative writing goes for the heart rather than the head. In Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie famously got the date of Gandhi's assassination wrong. That did not prevent the novel from becoming a classic. Others have produced novels where Hindu characters have had Muslim-sounding names and vice versa — Zadie Smith's White Teeth comes to mind — and that hasn't made any difference to the way their work has been received. Getting it right in creative writing is not so much about getting facts right as feelings.

Hence, the final decision as to when it is time to abandon a piece of creative writing has to be based on feeling rather than thinking. That is why the more you write the more you learn to trust the eureka feeling that lets you know you have got something right. While you are learning the craft, that feeling can mislead. But as you improve, so does your instinct. While creating the work, it allows you to recognise moments of genuine inspiration. When the work is complete it lets you know when the best thing you can do to it is abandon it.

Word of caution

However, I would like to sound one note of warning. One thing I have learnt over the years is not to go overboard on how I feel while writing a short story or a novel. It is true that you should never embark on a project if it doesn't excite you — not unless they are giving you a million bucks for it — for, if you are not excited then how are you going to excite others? But the excitement you feel during the writing process can be misleading as well as fleeting. As imagination takes flight and you soar on the wings of inspiration it is possible to feel as if you already have one hand on the Booker Prize. You simply can't get over how clever you are and how well everything is flowing and how simply getting out of bed in the morning brings on an adrenalin rush. At these moments remember what you are experiencing is the exhilaration that is part and parcel of any creative act. Someone attempting a short story for the first time can experience it as well. That does not mean the end product pushes the right buttons.

Therefore, after you have done everything you can with editing your work put it aside and do something else for a while. When you return to it after an interval and if it still conjures the kind of excitement you felt while writing it, then it is fit to be abandoned and despatched on its journey into print.

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