by Suresh Subrahmanyan
When the world’s greatest humourist who ever fed a sheet of foolscap paper into his typewriter, P.G. Wodehouse, was asked what inspired him before he started banging out those first tentative words of a novel, he replied simply, ‘I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit’. Such an ironic, mock-modest admission from the Master whose brilliant opening line of the novel, The Luck of the Bodkins, runs as follows: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes, there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French’. After that, you are hopelessly hooked.
Those of us who write on a fairly regular basis, can only sit back and admire the great man’s ability to ‘nail it straight off the blocks’, as it were. Mind you, speaking for myself, I only write columns or articles, usually around the 1000 to 1500 word limit. And even then, to get an idea that can be expanded to an article can take some doing, never mind a full-length novel. Oftentimes, one is just sitting in front of one’s desktop and gawping at a blank Word document page, while a deadline stares you in the face. ‘Gosh, just three days to go for submission, and I haven’t the faintest notion how I am going to get through this’, about sums it up. But the idea somehow arrives, I know not from where, and the first sentence gets typed up, in a manner of speaking. From then on, things get a bit easier, even if it’s not plain sailing.
As I write a weekly column for a well-known daily newspaper, the challenge of dredging out ideas to stay at least two or three articles ‘ahead of the game’, is a constant struggle. As a general rule, I find going through the daily newspaper a productive exercise in obtaining information that can be usefully exploited to write an informed piece. Since I indulge in what is generally referred to, a trifle patronisingly, as light hearted or non-serious pieces (satirical is my preferred term), I can always count on something or the other being reported in our dailies bordering on the ridiculous. I usually note these down for a more reflective analysis later, and that seems a fairly good way of going about it. At least, it works for me. I am sure other writers find their own ways of coming up with ideas to expound upon.
A sure fire method, provided you are reasonably long in the tooth, meaning of an acceptably advanced age, is to look back at incidents in your own life. Frankly, if you’re 20 years old there’s not too much to look back upon. Everything is too fresh, and perspective is difficult to achieve. Which is not to say that you cannot be a brilliant 20-year-old writer. It’s just that you may have to strain your imagination more at that young age. Whereas even if you’re not exactly well stricken in years, once you’ve crossed 50, the scope for mining nuggets from past experiences that you never consciously considered as being suitable for writing about, is vast. You need to actually get down to it and put in the hard yards. Nostalgia is always gifted with a 20:20 vision, and is a wonderful weapon for a time-strapped columnist. Things you never gave a second thought to, suddenly acquire a potent strength to be exploited on the written page. I have come across many people who fancy their abilities to write creatively, who keep saying things like, ‘I could write really well you know, and I have so many wonderful recollections from the past. One of these days, I must start writing’. Of course, that day never comes. In the words of Macbeth, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly”. Trust good old Shakespeare to provide us with the apt aphorism.
Another important tool for the amateur, or indeed, the professional writer is a genuine love of the language and an abiding curiosity in words and phraseology. Very often, how you write is as important as what you write. I suspect Jane Austen could make a doctor’s prescription sound romantic. And Wodehouse could have you rolling in the aisles with helpless mirth if he were to write out an invoice for a bottle of castor oil. I usually re-read my sweat filled efforts several times to see if a particular sentence can be rewritten in a more engaging fashion. Quotations are most useful, if they help in making a telling point and if employed in moderation. The French expression mot juste, meaning the most appropriate word in a particular context, is something we hack writers constantly seek. At times we get it wrong, joining Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop in using the wrong word, which sounds much like the right word, “Illiterate him quite from your memory”, instead of ‘obliterate’ – an oft-quoted malapropism.
You wouldn’t have thought football matches, unlike the relatively more languid game of cricket, offered much scope for the display of silken prose, but I watch the English Premier League avidly, as much for the quality of football on view as for the eloquence of the television commentators, made even more challenging given the lightning pace of the game. An incisive cross from a winger that almost resulted in a goal was described as ‘a banquet of a pass’. Refreshing and so apposite.
As I conclude this piece, I cannot help but recall the acerbic words of Eliza Doolittle from the immortal musical, My Fair Lady, as she upbraids in song, her unsuccessful wooer Freddie Eynsford Hill and her irascible language coach, Professor Henry Higgins’ irritating penchant for speaking propah English, ‘Words, words, words, I am so sick of words, I get words all day through, first from him now from you, is that all you blighters can do?’
It’s true, those of us who are constantly engaged with words, in whichever language, frequently fall foul of those who consider this obsession with language a bit of a pain in the neck, or some other unmentionable part of the anatomy. My only effective counter to that charge is that it is a magnificent obsession, this love for words, and I am quite prepared to plead guilty. As the Bee Gees put it so melodiously, ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away’.