Writing for Your Soul
By Tanushree Ghosh
My first taste of success in writing came early in the form of praises received at the age of 10 from uncles and cousins – for having drafted letters of leave of absence and applications in English for them. At 10, that is the only success that matters. Add to that the proud smile on the faces of parents when my piece was published in the annual publication of our housing colony. Every housing colony in Bengal has a publication coming out during the days of Durga Puja, just like the major newspapers in Bengal. The latter is read by thousands, the former by 100-700 people. But that didn’t matter—what mattered was that the piece was on paper, in real print, in the hands of others. What mattered was also the smug smile with which my mother walked, and the ‘could be better’ from Chotomama, who was terribly hard to please. What mattered was a 10-year-old heart skipping a beat in excitement.
But as more important tasks – securing admission in a good college and such – took over to ensure I didn’t end up miserable in my adult life, writing fell through the cracks. Writing was left like a favorite book in a hidden corner, or a friend for life who was not in regular touch. Always there, nevertheless, and always will be, so it can be retrieved any time with no sense of time passing in between. My Baba says swimming and cycling can’t be forgotten once learned. I believe that writing, too, comes back to you every time you try. So I kept writing aside, knowing one day I would return—if all else goes well—or if all else fails.
My resolve to write returned a few years back during an interesting phase in my life. Love and marriage happened. I had a job secured and green card, too. And my other passions, like traveling the world and volunteering for NGOs, were mostly taken care of. But I wanted to do more. I had experiences I wanted to share—not because they are unique—but because they are so common. The issues that mattered to me: women, immigration, mental health, glories, and regrets. So many thoughts within my head needed to be put on paper. I started writing again with vengeance. I knew this was going to be easy. The only challenge I could think of was finding time.
I found time during lunch breaks at work, the time between meetings that I would have otherwise invested in coffee chats, and during jet-lagged nights from India trips. But so much time was needed and all this added up to so much less. I started with googling how to write because so many thoughts that could be put to paper easily in words in my mother tongue didn’t convey the same meaning when I wrote in English. I signed up for free classes on writing in English on MIT’s website, learned to differentiate fiction from non-fiction, and became familiar with the genres in the former (although understanding the differences—literary versus others and memoirs versus essays—didn’t happen until much later). The lessons on character building, plot creation, and phrasing taught me how to write a good story. They didn’t teach how to sell one, though. But I wasn’t worried about that yet. I was sure that once I found time and penned my stories, I would just have to google ‘how to get published.’ In the meantime, there was so much to learn, so much to read, and so much to write. So when I got pregnant, I waited with anticipation for the three weeks of pre-birth and six weeks of post-birth leaves that would allow me hours of writing.
From 2012 to 2014—2 years— I completed 12 stories and had numerous unfinished ideas. I thought the hard work was done. I sent the manuscript with enthusiasm to my best friend, Chotomama, and to Professor Roald Hoffman, the noble laureate in Chemistry and poet, whom I was fortunate to have had as an advisor in Cornell. They both liked the stories. There were suggestions on endings, typos, and guidance on how to make the English sound less non-native, but they liked them. I sent them more, trying to improve each piece based on the suggestions received. And Roald started loving them. He would always read—and respond back within a day or two—regardless of whether he happened to be in the US or in Europe. One by one, he read and approved all 12. If Roald loved them, so would the world—so I started googling on the next step.
Starting on this journey, I had heard the saying: it’s better to write for yourself and have no people, than to write for people and have no self. But I didn’t comprehend the intent fully, as the two would be one and the same to me. Only writing for your soul, which I embody as self, could create pieces that would be loved by the people. I was up for a rude awakening. It’s not that good writing doesn’t matter—they do tremendously—but to get them though the door, writing for people matter more.
Once I had finished writing in the summer of 2014, I allocated myself until September of that year to sign on with an agent. Looking back, I laugh at how naïve and ambitious that goal was. But in June 2014, I honestly thought that four months should be enough time for an efficient and strategic person to achieve this goal. So I purchased a book from a pavement seller on how to get published in 100 days, wrote proposals and queries based on direction provided (by this time I was getting a little concerned, though—as the book also outlined how incredibly hard it would be to get an agent—but not too much yet), and started researching agents. I would try to find the ones who were interested in Women’s Fiction and interested in working with new authors. I started putting them into my excel sheet. I also booked a trip to attend the Writes Digest conference in NYC, as the book highly recommended attending one. My strategy was that if no one responded to the queries by then, I would for sure meet and interest an agent during the pitch slam in WD. I am glad I attended WD, but for completely different reasons.
Writers Digest NYC gave me the rude awakening I needed, and saved me from drowning in desperation and depression from chasing unrealistic goals. I learned there were thousands of authors, desperate to pitch a plethora of novels, and only a few subjects and styles doing well commercially to interest commercial agents. In the introductory session, the conference director explained very swiftly what to expect in pitch slam and how to write a pitch. I raised my hand for the Q and A at the end and asked how to write a pitch for short story collections, given that the guidelines explained for fiction seemed to be for novels only. With an audience of thousands witnessing, I was told bluntly that there are no agents here for short stories and not to bother pitching since they don’t sell! Dismayed and devastated, I started debating if I should bother attending the rest of the sessions. But given the money and time invested (which included days away from my infant daughter), I stayed. I learned that memoirs and short stories are hard to sell. I vowed to write a romance or fantasy trilogy if I bothered writing again, and I started thinking about ways in which my collection could be restructured to seem like a novel. I learned there are different kinds of publishing options: hybrid, self, and sub-categories in each. I learnt the nuances of each type; I learned that marketing has to be done mostly by authors, no matter what publishing route one ended up choosing. I learned that writing isn’t enough anymore. Facebook, twitter, and personal webpages are needed. I learned terms like ghost writers, crowd funding, print on-demand, and I learned how shelf place is secured in bookstores and why that is so important. I learned that most publishers get none to 15-minutes maximum face-time with buyers. To sum all this up, I learned for the first time in my life that writing and publishing is a commercial industry. Just like the tech giant I work for, it has its rules, goals, profits, and profit strategies.
To be clear, once I learned the above, I wasn’t against this—I believe profit goals are necessary for an industry to survive and sustain. But I was still inexplicably sad. I guess when you write your soul out, you expect the world to accept it unconditionally, especially if you are ignorant of the fact that this is in an industry with high product output, and low profit margins for the majority of products. I now understood why none of my stories were getting a response. I met a few agents in the conference, however, who were kind and provided mentoring (which hurt at the time but has possibly saved me time and will in the long run). One of them strongly suggested I look into SheWrites, a hybrid publishing form, given my non-mainstream subject matter, and my goal being not high fame/publicity but rather, getting the message out to a small, targeted audience. This agent re-shaped my journey as an author.
Fast forward one year, I got into the author list with SheWrites, attended and pitched at another smaller, more targeted conference (NYC Angolkian Pitch), made excellent writer friends and supports, created a website, got accepted as a blogger at Huffington Post, and tremendously boosted website traffic, negated plans for SheWrites, pitched to editors at Angolkian and got my manuscript requested. Finally, I signed last month with a mainstream, highly reputed NYC agency.
Most important of all, though, is that I have worked with an excellent editor to polish my stories before I re-initiated what I call phase 2 (post WD) efforts. I worked with her to link the stories to form a cohesive collection, which will follow the model of previously successful books, re-writing them to better interest readers – reordering events, toning down characters, and expanding and contracting as needed.
So was I writing for people now instead of for myself? No, but after a lot of hard work, I have figured out how to write for more people than I was possibly writing for before, without removing myself from my pieces. And that, in my experience is the key in this journey to ensure success without troubling your soul beyond repair.
I haven’t secured a publisher yet, but even if I don’t, writing for Huffington Post is facilitating my objective of having my voice heard on the issues that concern me. And I have an excellent manuscript that I am proud to flip through in a folder in my personal computer.
Currently working for Intel Corporation, Tanushree Gosh is a mother, an activist, an artist, and a writer. Her education has been primarily in the STEM fields (She has a PhD in Material Science and Chemistry from Cornell University and has worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratories) but she has pursued ‘the arts’ defiantly throughout her life and continues to do so. She is an active and past member of several international NGOs and is currently working to open her organization—Her Rights —to facilitate resource mobilization for women in need. Her blog posts and stories are in effort to provoke thoughts towards social issues, especially issues concerning women. Immigration and related acculturation is also of close interest to her. The latter is the topic of her first book. She is also a blogger for the Huffington Post. Link to her first post for Huffington Post and blogger archive: Here. Link to her personal website for more info: http://www.thoughtsandrights.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.