Writing, my coy mistress

I haven’t done any writing in a while.  And by writing, I mean fiction, creative writing, the field that is supposed to be my vocation in life, the thought of which should be governing my career.

Sure, I work as a content writer, so it’s not like I’m completely cut-off from words, but really, to define describing shoes, clothes and jewelry as ‘writing’ would be sacrilege.

I feel horribly guilty about it.  I can picture myself, just a few months ago, reassuring my Professors that, of course, I wouldn’t stop writing, of course I’ll always take out time for it, of course I won’t get distracted by the pressures of a working life in Dubai.  But it happened.  Between commuting to/from work, getting some exercise in and trying to have a semblance of a good night’s sleep, I’m left with very little time, which I like to utilize by watching some trash tv which simply requires a bit effort from just my eyes and not from my brain.  My social, physical, and literary lives have all taken a nasty hit from employment. Boo for jobs, boo for having to be an adult, hurrah for paychecks!

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It’s not like it hasn’t occurred to me that I should just shut up and write.  It has.  Plenty of times.  But every time, my mind conjures up an excuse on its own, usually something along the lines of “Oh, you’ve been up since 6 am, you’re mentally exhausted, how can you focus on anything right now?’  What I always seem to forget is that, this precisely is the condition in which I’ve gotten some of my best writing done.  Flashback: 5 am on the terrace of the dorms, pacing back and forth, and trying to come up with a good enough reason for why exactly a man in his red underwear is standing in front of the children’s room.  Few minutes later, excitedly typing.  An hour later, 1500 words churned out and proofread.

There is really no feeling that compares to the satisfaction and relief you feel after you’ve finished a piece of writing.  Before you start, you’re mostly hopeful and have some sort of vague idea about what you’ll pen down.  During the process, your anxiety levels rocket up, you’re flailing about, trying to piece together a narrative and feeling a little ridiculous that you have the responsibility of charting out a character’s life when your own is like an emotional war zone. If you’re a nail-biter, you can say goodbye to manicures for at least 3 months.  But after, right after you’ve typed the last letter, your body literally sighs.  It goes a bit lax and the frantic, demonic energy that was fueling you all night long peters out into a puff of smoke, and you feel satiated.  It’s kind of like taking a sip of Coke after you haven’t had it for a while.  Almost, but not really.  Of course, you realize you have to proofread and maybe shift some sentences around, tweak the structure a bit, but that’s a bit like putting blush on.  It’s juts a small, almost frivolous step, an easy-peasy finishing touch to the smokey-eye dewy-skin look you’ve spent the past half an hour trying to create for yourself.

God, I miss that high.

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Ah, the pretension of aspiring authors. I used to roll my eyes at them, and now I crave their company!

Nature vs Nurture: is a skill acquired or inherent?

It’s an infamously controversial topic that’s been debated upon by a plethora of thinkers, philosophers and just people in general. 

In some way or another, we’ve all thought about this.  How often have you wondered about a certain skill you possess, whether you were born with it or if you acquired it through learning and practice?  For me, I always thought whether writing was something that naturally just came to me or whether I developed a knack for it because of the amount of reading I began to do at a young age.

Although many people claim that geniuses like Mozart or Michaelangelo were born with the innate ability to create musical and artistic masterpieces, it turns out that neither one of them would have been able to do so had they not gone through rigorous training and practice of that specific skill.  I mean, if Michaelangelo had instead been forced to become a clergyman by his father and not allowed to do apprenticeships with established artists, then it is very likely that many of his works would have never come into existence at all.

A skill is acquired, it is developed through the interaction with people and an environment that provides the opportunities for the cultivation of that skill.  It is not innate or contained within the genetic code of man, for if that were the case, there would be no such thing as the downfall or decline of empires and civilizations because progress and development would be neverending.  Certainly, the genetic code of a person may play a partial role, but the dominant position is taken up by that of practice.  It is not simply within the NATURE of man to become accomplished at something, but mostly through the process of NURTURE in a specific environment that enables him to do so.

In that case then, it seems that it could be possible for every single person to become a great singer if given the right amount of vocal training.  There are, of course, exceptions in the form of those who have physical impairments, but every single person definitely possess the potential to become a singer.  Each individual has a unique set of vocal chords and, if developed properly, they can enable a person to become the next Madonna.

I realise that writing was not something I was born to do, it’s not an ability that is inherent in me.  It did not naturally come to me, but it was a skill that I learned through practice.  I used to read A LOT as a kid, whether its a 300-page novel or a magazine or the daily newspaper, and this exposure to words and sentences became embedded in my mind so that when the time came to me form sentences myself, I was able to do so in a manner that surpassed the level I should have been at for my age. 

I remember being really interested in science and specifically chemistry when I was in grade 8, but in grade 9, I had a fantastic English teacher who appreciated my essays and my stories and made sure I knew that I definitely contained the potential to become a great writer.  She made me rethink my choices and made me aware of an alternative path that was available to me.  Had it not been for that, I think I probably would’ve continued on with my interest in chemistry. 

I made my decision then to study Art and Literature rather than the natural sciences and I have never looked back since.  Writing is something I enjoy doing and I definitely love it alot more than learning the chemical compounds of different substances.

Love, life and the meaning of it all

So the semester’s almost over and it marks the end of one of the most amazing courses I’ve had the opportunity to take at university so far.  A brilliant 4 months of intense philosophy with one of the most brilliant and maverick professors here, and I feel like nothing I could say would do justice to everything that I’ve learnt thus far.

From Viktor Frankl, al-Ghazali and St Augustine to Descartes, Tolstoy and the daddy of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, we’ve covered a little fraction of all the big names, just enough to get an idea of how they viewed life and the legacy they left behind for those who choose to adhere to their views. 

Despite their big names and even bigger controversial ideas or reputations, what’s really surprising is that there’s one thing that plagues them all: philosophers always require you to CHOOSE, and make an either/or distinction between 2 opposites.  It begs the question, why must that be the case? Utilitarianism or Kant-ianism, utopia or reality, faith or rationality: its either one or the other, but why?  Why is it that an individual HAS to choose to adopt one specific extreme and not in any way be within the ambit of another?

I suppose it’s also quite relatable to the dischotomous bond shared by science and religion: either you’re a man or reason and science and objectivity or you’re a ‘mullah’, who believes in revelation and all the ‘irrationality’ of the scriptures.  I don’t see how one can’t strike a balance between the two and maintain both positions.  Ibn Khaldun certainly managed to do so, he transformed the realm of historiography, was one of the founders of sociology and a presursor to many of the ideas propounded by Adam Smith, Marx and Durkheim 5 centuries after his death.  Yet, at the same time, he was a religious man, not a fundamentalist as we would call him today, but a man of firm faith who believed in prophetic wisdom and the omniscient power of the Divine. 

The meaning of life is also another subject that’s dominated much of this course.  It seems that the common conclusion between all the thinkers has been this: in order to find a ‘why’ for your existence, you must submit to the something larger than yourself.

Nietzsche talks about this in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he describes that the TRUE philosopher is one that trailblazes through the terrain of thoughts, constantly risking himself and upholding a principle that goes beyond just the man; in a sense, this is the ubermensch.   He also relates this to artists who become completely submissive to their creative side, they let themselves flow out in order to create something and do something that surpasses their own selves. Frankl discusses this as well in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that’s something I’ve already discussed before on here in detail.

But there is something that’s actually been bothering me, it has to do with Leo Tolstoy.  He was an artist, in the true sense of the word, because his writing was his art.  He’s written masterpieces, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and absolute tomes brimming with brilliance.  Yet, it wasn’t enough for him, it didn’t quite add meaning to his life the way one would expect.  In Confession, he admits that he did it simply to earn more money, garner more fame, etc. but surely it meant more to him than that?  I find it really difficult to believe that a writer like Tolstoy could not find satisfactory prupose in his writing, and this puzzles me, because if it wasnt enough for Tolstoy, then what chance does someone like me have?

Sure, Tolstoy went through a great conversion, and became a preachy-preachy Orthodox Christian, and much of his writing was affected by his austere religious views, but his words have a point.  If things like art and family are merely distractions that keep you from realising the true reason for your existence, then it’s a pretty miserable state we all live in because for most of us, those 2 things really are what life is all about.

Last but certainly not least: love.  This topic was one that evoked A LOT of giggles in the class, but it’s one that is universal and truly about everyone.  Many of us have Disney-inspired notions of love or we talk about love as if we really know what it’s all about, but in actuality, it’s something that’s completely beyond a layman’s comprehension.

For Frankl, love was the source of salvation; for St Augustine and Tolstoy, there was a difference in worldly love and divine love, with the latter outweighing the former; for Nietzsche, love is something a man could not do justice to, it is only a woman whose love is what love is meant to be. 

We’ve all said ‘I love you’ at some point of our lives, but what we fail to realise is what we really mean is ‘I want to possess you’.  This is not love as love should be. 

‘I allow you to possess me’ is love.  This is the selfless, the brave, the kamikaze, the absolutely absolute form of love that (if you listen to Nietzsche) only a woman can give.  In the absence of such love, there is no submission, no passion of struggle, and certainly no greatness.

A Blogger’s Gratitude

Quick note: The first half of my previous blog post was not intended towards any specific people or any one certain incident. It was an expression of my overall frustration and disdain regarding the prevalent attitude of gossip in Pakistan.

Its been a year since I started this blog, and in the past 12 months, this little virtual space of mine has been viewed over 2000 times.  It’s a small number when you do the math but, to me, it means the world.  It’s not statistics or quantity or a cost-benefit analysis, it’s my word-filled paradise.

I never imagined anything I wrote on here would ever be read by such a vast majority of people.  I never thought I would have ‘regular’ readers, or that this blog would ever be bookmarked on someone’s browser.  It just never seemed worthy enough.

Lately, I’ve had people say to me in university that they’ve read this blog and they like it or that they find it interesting.  I don’t really know how to respond to this, it’s flattering yet humbling at the same time.  I believe myself to be someone who lives to play with words and string them together, yet when anyone commneds me on my writing, I am left speechless, without any words to express my awe. 

I still don’t think the views I express here are very important or that my words could actually have any sort of real impact on those who take the time to read them.  I know I sound like a broken record because I’ve probably said this over 20 times that I never started this blog in order to become popular or widely-read.  It was for my own self, an outlet of sorts and an exercise that would help me develop the habit of writing regularly.  It’s been beneficial in both those aspects and more; its made me Google-able and distinguished me, it’s given me something to make me ME.

To all those who read this blog regularly, occasionally, or even just when they’re bored and want to kill time or have a laugh over my woes, to all those who have randomly stumbled across this page in their journey of surfing through the world-wide-web, to all those who have read my words, I thank you.

Bukowski, the beatnik

Writing, boozing, whoring around, and living in misery were all basic themes in Charles Bukowski’s work. 

He was an American poet, and novelist, who focused on the lives of poor Americans.  There was no glamour in his work, it was dreary yet startlingly insightful on the daily grind of life.  He was no Eliot but he was a prolific writer whose work was heavily infused with what is known as ‘dirty realism’, in which the focus is mainly on surface descriptions with a limited amount of words.  I think it is this last characteristic of Bukowski that reminded me most of Dostoyevky’s writing, or rather the genre of realism in Russian writing.  A lot of Bukowski’s poems have an underlying Dostoyevskeyan essence to it, because what they talk about is so harrowingly ordinary yet still so stark in its unequivocality.  It’s candid.

Here’s one his poems, entitled “How to be a Good Writer”:

How to be a good writer

you’ve got to fuck a great many women
beautiful women
and write a few decent love poems.

and don’t worry about age
and/or freshly-arrived talents.

just drink more beer
more and more beer

and attend the racetrack at least once a

week

and win
if possible

learning to win is hard —
any slob can be a good loser.

and don’t forget your Brahms
and your Bach and your
beer.

don’t overexercise.

sleep until noon.

avoid paying credit cards
or paying for anything on
time.

remember that there isn’t a piece of ass
in this world over $50
(in 1977).

and if you have the ability to love
love yourself first
but always be aware of the possibility of
total defeat
whether the reason for that defeat
seems right or wrong —

an early taste of death is not necessarily
a bad thing.

stay out of churches and bars and museums,
and like the spider be
patient —
time is everybody’s cross,
plus
exile
defeat
treachery

all that dross.

stay with the beer.

beer is continuous blood.

a continuous lover.

get a large typewriter
and as the footsteps go up and down
outside your window

hit that thing
hit it hard

make it a heavyweight fight

make it the bull when he first charges in

and remember the old dogs
who fought so well:
Hemingway, Celine, Dostoevsky, Hamsun.

If you think they didn’t go crazy
in tiny rooms
just like you’re doing now

without women
without food
without hope

then you’re not ready.

drink more beer.
there’s time.
and if there’s not
that’s all right too.

Nietzscheanistic Words

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.”

That’s a pretty amazing sentence right there, but then again Nietzsche had a tendency to say and write things with a pretty high shock value. 

When you think about it, though, he has a point.  What do we really use words for?  A common answer to this would be that we use them to express our thoughts, ideas and sentiments.  But do we really do that all the time?  Do we not use words to instead to convey and communicate what we wish was within us?

We use them to articulate that which cannot otherwise be articulated.  Literary language calls attention to itself, it is beautiful in and of itself, and clarity and clear-cut explicitness is not its main objective.  The beauty lies in the confusion, the seemingly arbitrary collage of letters.  It awakens you.

Much of what we do in life, on a day-to-day basis, is done unconsciously, and literary language enables and allows us to go through the experiences again consciously.  This is what I think Nietzsche was trying to say.  The words we use when we write are an assault, an undermining, on the language of everyday-ness and they force us to re-engage with the realities of the world.  They communicate the numbness and oblivion that’s taken over our hearts, and in the act of writing about it, we become aware of this unawareness.

It’s a remarkable process, and we go through it everytime we write down even a single word.

On a lighter and completely irrelevant note, Team Canada (Men’s hockey) won the highly-yearned-for Gold Medal last night at the Winter Olympics.  It was a nail-biting game that kept you at the edge of the seat and all the other cliches you can think of, and the winning goal was made in overtime.  Good job, Team Canada, it really was about time.

Ivy League is just a click away..

We truly are living in the Technology age.  It’s the Information era of the hand-held laptop, with a screen just slightly bigger than the one on our Crackberries and iPods.  We’ve synchronised not only our playlists but our entire lives based on how fast our DSL connection is and how efficient our neat little metallic gadgets are.  A whole world built on 0s and 1s can now enable us to see, learn, understand and even question whatever we want, whenever we want and from whevever we want.  This is a time where anything and everything can be accessed within mere nanoseconds through the world wide web.  I had previously thought that the only way I could receive a Harvard education was by getting accepted at the mother of all educational institutions.  But I stand corrected.

During my last literature class, my professor recommended that we all take a look at www.academicearth.org.  What a find!  It’s got online lecture videos of every course imaginable from what I like to call The Big 5 (Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale & Stanford) as well as other equally reputed universities like NYU and UCLA.  From engineering and physics to IR and law, there are loads of subjects to look into, and the lectures are all given by professors who are truly awe-inspiring and the epitome of all that is brilliant.

I personally think my own Literature professor at LUMS is a force to be reckoned with; his passion for the subject overflows and floods the rest of us who sit there, listening captivatedly.  But after watching a lecture on Literary Theory by Paul Fry at Yale, I can see where my professor gets it from.  But then again, like my father says, all these ‘literary types’ are equally eccentric and a tad bit strange.  But isn’t that what makes them so appealing and awesome in the first place?

Nonetheless, the website is a hidden treasure.  I still cannot get over the fact that I can listen to lectures like ‘The Morality of Murder’ (Harvard) and “The World is Flat’ (MIT) simply by going on a website and putting my headphones on.  I hope that one day, even lectures given by the great faculty members of LUMS will be uploaded and watched and appreciated just as much, considering that LUMS has actually been hailed as the ‘Harvard’ of the subcontinent.  As sinister as the implications of high-speed virtual access may be with regards to fraud and sexual inappropriateness, the fact that it has led to me being able to attend a class at Harvard from my dormroom at LUMS is simply and literally nothing short of a miracle.  Thank you, you geeky, overly-horny and excessively introvert geniuses of Silicon Valley.