Saturday, July 11, 2020

Stray thoughts after completing an essay

There is never a shortage of things to gripe about if you’re a writer — more so an independent writer who is usually expected to work for very little payment (even when the requests come from people who begin their emails by gushing about how they have been “fans” for years and how it would be a “privilege” to have you in their publication or book).

But there is also truth in the cliche about the adrenaline rush of finishing a biggish project (assuming that you’re 70-75 percent satisfied with the result). And for me personally, this feeling is most intense when I have completed an essay of a specific length — say, between 3,000 and 6,000 words. The feeling is never quite the same for shorter pieces (which is not to undermine the hard work that goes into even a short column when you’re doing it with seriousness) — but surprisingly, it isn’t quite the same for much longer pieces either.

This can be hard to explain. When I finished the first draft of my 12,000-word profile of Dibakar Banerjee in late 2012 (after what was possibly the most intense 5-day writing period I have known), it felt like an Everest had been scaled — but it also felt like the piece was too vast, and about too many different things, for me to get a real sense of the whole. That it could have been structured in six or seven other ways without it making much of a difference. (It also felt like I had thrown my hands up at some point and said “Enough. Just send the bloody thing already.”)

On the other hand, it can be very fulfilling to finish essays half or one-third that length, such as the “Monsters I have known” piece I did for The Popcorn Essayists, or a few long pieces for Scroll or Yahoo, or the essay about religious cinema last year, or a Mahabharata piece for Caravan years ago. (Or even the closing chapter of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book, a stand-alone of sorts, which happened after I hit on the idea of starting with Dharmendra’s phone call to me at 8 one morning and then segueing into an “anthology of moments” from Hrishi-da’s cinema.) When such pieces come together moderately well, you feel like you have done something substantial, but also that you have the measure of it, that you were more or less in control throughout the process — and that you have gone over it enough times to remove unnecessary repetitions or careless mistakes.

All this is a way of saying that two days ago I finally sent off a 5,500-word essay I had been working on (and fuming about, and constantly scratching away at and rewriting and trimming) for the past four months — the only real writing project I managed during a period when writing has been one of the last things on my mind.

It’s a personal essay, and since it was done for a book it probably won’t be published until next year. I can’t reveal more just now, except to say that it eventually became a piece about my mother, though that wasn’t what it was intended to be when I began writing it (there was another, specific theme). Inadvertently, it has also turned out to be a challenge to myself: in the past couple of years I have put together lots of notes for more specific writings about my parents and my grandparents, without doing anything much with those notes. Maybe it’s time to get started on some of those pieces — if only selfishly, to begin the long and desperate journey towards another adrenaline rush.

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