Weekly Deadlines, Insecurities And My Sweet Spot
A good columnist elevates bits and bobs into something bigger, more meaningful; has access to a never-ending river of ideas.
Aakar Patel joked that when he spoke to an online class of aspiring writers, he gave them a version of these key tips to write a book: “Rise, shave, sit at desk and begin.”
But then this is a man who just submitted yet another manuscript to his editor, the fourth in as many years. He wrote to that classic Bangalore background score of a jackhammer. The noise didn’t matter because his prime distraction—Twitter—was inaccessible. Patel even writes longhand when travelling on a plane and at dawn before others awake.
‘Any plans to write a book?’ This was a well-known writer-publisher’s conversation starter at a recent party. When I said no, she advised me to begin with a novella and revealed that she was writing one at the pace of 100 words a day.
That’s when I realised that between my regular assignments, my recently launched Substack newsletter and some other assorted work, I probably write a few thousand words every week.
Like most people who juggle WFH responsibilities, I write amid multiple distractions; curt responses to phone calls that begin, ‘I know today is your writing day but…”; and things that break down in the house even before the first 100 words are written. Covid taught me how to write with a bored preteen hovering around me.
In Jerry Pinto’s words, I’m firmly in the ‘rhythm of creation’. The prolific writer and translator, urges his Instagram followers to get into this zone by writing something every day. So that by the time they find that perfect mountain retreat to write their magnum opus undisturbed, they will be limbered up and ready for an uninterrupted marathon.
Who knows if I even want to go to that isolated writer’s cabin in the woods. I’ve always been more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner. Thousand words is my sweet spot. I enjoy conquering deadlines and insecurities and doing this week after week is quite a therapeutic exercise.
I have been known to compensate for my why-should-anyone-care-what-I-think anxiety by over-reporting and over-researching my columns. Or maybe it’s easier to put words in someone else’s mouth rather than stare deeply into oneself and extract the meaning of things unfolding around us.
I may be doing exactly that in this column. Akash Banerjee recently shared some ideas for how to be successful on YouTube and these apply to column writing too: Find out what works for you; be very careful about making mistakes and ensure you get your facts right; remember anything you say can be weaponised against you; get out of your comfort zone.
While I agree with Banerjee that it’s important to experiment with ideas and formats, a column writer must stand for a point of view they believe in. I like to revisit certain themes so that any regular reader of my writing feels a certain sense of familiarity and comfort. I like them to feel like they know me. I’m happy with any response my writing elicits—a columnist’s worst fear is that her writing affects nobody. I’m also paranoid about being a lazy columnist. I can’t write when I don’t have enough in the tank.
Incidentally, the tag line of Banerjee’s YouTube show is another important pointer for any good columnist: Question everything.
Readers have a very sharp memory and a column writer is always at risk of alienating their biggest fans. I stopped reading one of my favourite columnists after he began talking about how change would usher in development in the run up to a key general election. Though he indirectly conceded that he had been wrong, nearly one decade later, I still haven’t gone back to reading him.
Writing a book gives you the fancy title of ‘author' but being a columnist is mostly all hard work and some reader reinforcement that you’re on the right track. You also need access to a never-ending river of ideas. A good columnist elevates bits and bobs into something bigger, more meaningful.
Elena Ferrante it best, in her last of 52 columns for The Guardian newspaper over a year: “Writing this column has instead made me tense every Saturday. It has been the permanent exposure of fragments of myself; I couldn’t free myself from one before I had to think about the next.”
You want to see what’s buzzing in my head at this precise moment? The Instagram accounts of Zeenat Aman and Neena Gupta, both older women, actors and role models. How in recently released books, both and talk of navigating a divided world and where they find hope and strategies to be ‘less paralysed’ (Obama’s words). Why Pramod Muthalik has learned absolutely nothing about Indian women’s right to choice despite the ‘pink chaddi’ campaign that targeted him more than a decade ago. An India caught between the murders of two Junaids (a beat me to this though). A quote on time and how it assists in healing by psychiatrist Phil Stutz from the Netflix show by Jonah Hill. The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon so soon after Jacinda Ardern. Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam playing on a ferry in Kerala. The evil couple from Gurugram who tortured their domestic worker. Why are we like this?
Some day I’ll have the confidence of the man who teaches an course titled ‘Writing Columns That Editors Can't Resist’. Until then, I’ll continue labouring for you, week after week.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.