i think i've mentioned here that i've been a truly voracious reader for the last eight months or so. at the end of August i stopped reading the Daily News everyday and dove back into novels full time. it's made a world of difference, both on my outlook (who needs to read about death and taxes at eight in the morning?) and on my creativity. each book i read inspires me more.
Unaccustomed Earth was no exception. even though Jhumpa's books are widely, excessively praised, some readers and critics call her writing austere, too stark. i couldn't disagree more. i find her stories refreshingly clean—her plots and characters are compelling enough without tricks and tinsel. i read a few interviews with her the other day in which she spoke about what inspires her, and addressed the fact that she basically writes about the same thing, all the time (the Bengali immigrant experience in America)—she said she writes what she knows. that's all. and it freed a part of my creative mind i hadn't realized needed freeing.
i was in a writing workshop two years ago that i loved. i wrote two short stories that were about the rawest and most honest work i've ever produced—they came from my gut, i was writing what i knew, what i had experienced. the teacher and the other writers in the class gave me great, positive feedback. but the teacher also said to me, at the end, "no more sad stories."
in the next workshop i joined, i tried to write things that weren't "sad." i'm not sure why i cared what that teacher thought, except that i have always been and will forever be an inherent people-pleaser. but it didn't work. the stuff i was writing was clunky and forced and not really me. the feedback was lukewarm, i felt frustrated and i lost the desire to write. every time i sat down with my laptop i felt defeated before i even began to type.
since i started reading again so feverishly, i've been mentally gearing myself up to get back to writing. being immersed in so many fictitious worlds and getting to know so many fascinating characters has re-whetted my appetite. i feel the passion building again, the itch is getting itchier, i know i'm on the brink of not being able not to write again.
and last night inspired me further. i got to B&N just before the reading started and it was standing room only. i shifted from foot to foot amidst a sea of sweaty people, wondering how many of them were like me—frustrated-but-hopeful writers, secretly entertaining the thought that perhaps one day that many people will gather to hear us read, but also knowing that just publishing anything will be more than enough.
Jhumpa arrived and stood at the podium, briefly explaining the background of the story she was going to read from (my favorite one, i was excited to discover) before she began. she read as i thought she would—almost in a monotone, to match her straightforward but affecting writing. she struck me as slightly nervous, stumbling over some words, muttering apologies when she did. i thought about how she probably still wakes up most days in disbelief that she makes a living writing fiction, let alone that millions of people buy and read her books.
after she was done, the B&N guy passed a mic around for questions. i was prepared with one (i wanted to know her process—i'm always curious about how writers write, early in the morning, late at night, alone in an office, always with certain music playing, etc) but alas those of us in SRO were excluded. and it was really unfortunate because the questions asked by people in the seated section were ridiculous.
one woman asked why she "always" writes from the male perspective. another asked if she'd ever considered writing a bi-lingual book. yet another asked why there are no happy endings in her stories.
Jhumpa had an excellent answer for that last one, and it bolstered my courage to get back to writing. she said everyone strives for happy endings in real life, but they're not so easy to come by, they're elusive, intangible. she said she'd always turned to fiction to make sense of her life, her problems, her struggles. she wanted to read about characters she could relate to, imperfect people dealing with imperfect lives. and so that's what she does with her own writing. she follows characters on their journeys, wherever those journeys take them.
she is clearly unafraid of writing "sad stories" and, hello, the woman won a Pulitzer for the first book she ever published.
so i left B&N with my brain buzzing, ideas hurtling through my mind like they haven't in a very long time. i may never pack a bookstore the way Jhumpa did last night—hell, i may never see my novel in print on a shelf—but feeling free to write exactly what's inside me, what i know, what's in my gut—that's really all i need right now.