VIKRAM CHANDRA is in the news these days for the mind-boggling advance that he has earned for his forthcoming novel Sacred Games. If the occasional snatches of the work-in-progress that one heard in Washington DC are anything to go by, the book must be a riveting read. But Vikram came to mind for an entirely different reason. Faced by a blank screen for a rather longish while, I could feel the creeping panic that most writers feel, more often than not. This is it, the panic seems to say, this is the end. The blank screen is going to remain blank and the sentences complete with loops and swirls are simply not going to happen. The mind then went back to the adda that Vikram used to organise in an appropriately brick lined, dimly lit lounge on fourteenth street in Washington D.C., at the edge of the "civilized" part of the city beyond which one was advised not to venture after dark.
The main event of the adda were the readings by the somewhat subconscious just-published or unpublished writers leaning against the wall amongst comfortably old leather sofas and entrapped in the sophisticated decadence of red wine. But the spirit of the evening was hidden in the sub-text. Most of the audience was made up of people who wanted to be writers; many had novels at various stages in their minds, or on their computers. A careful glance around the room would reveal tentative literary ambition and silent envy of the published gods. A desire to seek help with a recalcitrant manuscript usually overcame a natural tendency to shroud the pending masterpiece in secrecy. Inevitably, the writer of the evening would be asked — When do you write? Evenings? Early mornings? In long hand or on the screen? Is it autobiographical?... Sometime the red wine would help foment more private conversations in which the writers in the making would then exchange every possible idea about the writing process, searching for the secret mantra that would finally end the painful search for elusive words for a blank screen and result in a completed book, publication, fame... In one such weak moment I recall telling an-investment-banker-during-day-budding-novelist-by-night that I could write a novel only on a computer screen and a short story only with a fountain pen, and the scratchier the nib, the more time I had to find the right nuance.
Mythology aside, the fact is that most writers tend to quickly give up faith in nebulous inspiration and are quite willing, at least amongst themselves, as at Vikram's adda, to confess to the importance of the mechanics of the writing process. That probably explains the popularity of writers groups, which go against the classic definition of the writer as recluse. These groups are made up of people who have actually paid to be amongst those who endure the same tribulation, a pitiless alchemy of blank screens, sleepless nights, unsympathetic literary agents and rejection slips. Here 10 or 12 writers in the making can unburden their soul and hope to find reassurance and perhaps the key to success. They can also of course pour vitriol on another's work all in the name of constructive criticism. Most of these groups are appropriately named — Writers Workshop, Noveldoc, Novel Advice... and so on, though why anyone would like to join the group Writer's Cramp in west Seattle beats me.
Some justification for all this angst lies in the fact that even the most successful authors have put faith is some talismanic secret to please the Muse. Honore de Balzac would try and write 24 hours at a stretch and then take a five-hour break before starting over again. He consumed huge quantities of black coffee to beat fatigue and actually became a victim of caffeine poisoning at age 51. Alexander Dumas suffered from indigestion and the pain would wake him up in the small hours. He would then work on his writing desk till breakfast that usually consisted of a solitary apple under the Arc de Triomphe. His poetry would be written on yellow paper, fiction on blue and non-fiction on rose-coloured. Victor Hugo would give away all his clothes to his servant with instructions that he should not return until Hugo had completed his day's work. Ben Franklin and the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmund Rostand, preferred to work in their bathtubs. Mark Twain and R. L. Stevenson could only write when lying down and Virginia Woolf, Thomas Wolfe and Lewis Carroll had to stand up to deliver. Thomas Wolfe, at least, who confessed to finding it easier to add 75,000 words than cut down 50,000 must have been very tired on finishing Look Homeward, Angel. D. H. Lawrence found stimulation in climbing mulberry trees in the nude. Voltaire used his lover's back as a writing desk.
The poets, of course, had favourites of their own: Coleridge is said to have dreamt up the scene for "Kubla Khan" under the influence of opium; Eliott would revel in writing if he had a head cold; Poe liked to have his Siamese cat on his shoulder and Schiller liked sniffing at rotten apples every once in a while.
And let's not even begin to talk of those who find the answer in alcohol. Hemingway's advice, in his classic tell-it-like-it-is style, was blunt: "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." Somewhat odd though, coming from a man who is also supposed to have written standing up.