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Advice on Writing Personal Essay

Take Your Time. Let the Wine Mature.

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The best writing advice I’ve received, scattered over twelve years, was from three people, none of them a writer.

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I was 20, and struggling to make my writing work. I thought I just had to produce more. More words. More stories.

A friend and I were moon-gazing. She remarked that meditating helped clear her mind of words. Naively I asked, “Why would you want to do that?”

She told me how, when confronting an experience – cloud-shards clawing the full moon, your friend dying – if you allow words to come prematurely, then words shrink and distort the experience to fit themselves. As storm-clouds obscure the moon, so words obscure the experience itself.

I shrugged. “I don’t mind that. All I need is words. Some words, any words, about some experience. Something that can pass for a story.”

So I hurtled, from word to word. Until, retrospecting years later, I was ready to heed this first piece of the lesson: Pause. Absorb your experience. Words premature, salad-tossed together, are ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

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At 26, to my chagrin, I fell in love. I’d seen what love did to my peers – obsessive love, the only kind available in our shared situation of an interminable PhD, with a frustrating lack of structure, in a dead-dull town. Reluctant to admit my love, I flooded my beloved with rambling emails. To avoid saying three words, I buried him under thousands.

‘This isn’t actual writing,’ I told myself, ‘Just emails.’ As if I could simultaneously write shoddy emails and well-crafted fiction. As if mental discipline could be compartmentalised.

Sensing my circumlocution, he told me about a Jewish wedding ritual:

“The bride and groom sit together. Either one may speak, but only when s/he feels compelled to. Sometimes, hours pass in silence… In my own life – whether it’s writing a paper, or emailing you – I do nothing until I feel compelled to.”

The second piece of the lesson: Whether in conversation or at your writing-desk, let your ideas develop before you succumb to words.

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At 32, I met a younger student: a high achiever, but laidback. He set no deadlines, and enjoyed both work and fun. I, plagued simultaneously by time-anxiety and a feeling of worthlessness, was intrigued. This juxtaposition of calmness and achievement was, to me, paradoxical.

Later, in a shared marijuana high, my preconceived notions about success suspended, I felt ready for advice. I confided my problem: I loved writing, but my compulsion – to write more, write better, finish things both quickly and perfectly – made writing often the last thing I wanted to do.

“You have talent,” he said. “Just relax. Trust yourself: to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. Don’t push yourself. When you’re tired, take a nap. When you’re restless, take a walk… When you wake up tomorrow, when you come back next week – you’ll be ready to write. To love writing again.”

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Words of advice are bottles of wine in the cellar of your soul. But it’s you who must mature before you’re ready to uncork an old bottle, savour a sip, and be better for it.

The best writing advice I’ve received was: Take your time.

Take your time to absorb an experience. Let this moment exist for you. Don’t rush to manufacture it into a product for other people.

Take your time to hear yourself. Often, what you really want to say can be said in a few words. All those other words are you deferring, with the hollow comfort of word-floods, the one moment of clear, simple meaning.

Take your time to write. Attend to your other needs, animal and human. When you’re ready, you’ll find yourself writing. And loving it.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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