Experience Required: Be All the People You Can Be

(Originally posted on bloom-site.com, an excellent literary site featuring authors who first published over the age of 40. As they say, "Late" according to whom? )

In my grandparents’ dining room in a suburb of Boston, there was a shelf devoted to the books by our family members. My grandfather was a poet—a witty, brilliant one, but also humble and unpractical, and so although there should have been many by him, there was only one book with his name on it, a delightful volume of light verse titled Shrinklits. Then there were books by my uncle on philosophy, law and the environment. Books on 18th century English literature by my aunt. My mother’s Dharma’s Daughters, written clickety clack on a typewriter—the same one I used to teach myself to type at age ten, my pinky finger slipping painfully between the keys. From my place at my grandparents' table every summer that I visited from France, I had a good view of these volumes. And yet, it never occurred to me during those years to become a writer myself, beyond my own journals and classroom writings, which did, admittedly, garner some praise from teachers. I didn’t start to write, really, until I hit 30. And I’m so grateful for this. It was the accumulation and the confluence of all the people I had been during those thirty years, and then those that I was during the ten years of writing since then, that enabled me to truly become a writer—not only to find my story ideas, which essentially found me, but also to structure writing into my life, and to maintain a long term vision over many years. From each stage, each person, I gained something invaluable. I’m so glad that, despite being shown by example that writing is a worthy pursuit, I was too dense (or wise?) to read into it any implication for myself. 


A hybrid child

Growing up on three continents, one gets used to explaining and describing, and one also learns when there’s not even a point in trying. My father is Indian, from Calcutta. My mother, the daughter of a Jewish family from Brookline, Massachusetts. When I was a few months old, they moved the family to France, and 41 years later, they are still there. There have always been people in my life who are familiar with a part, maybe two parts, of me, but the third baffles them. In school in France, I was American, because the French have an obsession with America. In the US, despite my perfect American accent, I was French, because that’s glamorous. No one could figure out the Indian thing, even in India. My eyes are grey-green, my hair brown. People still think I got my first name from hippie parents.

I developed a habit of describing things to myself as I experienced them—in my head, but with fully formed sentences, searching for the right phrases. It gave me practice with conveying differences to others. I experienced most things as an outsider, even while being on the inside, noting their particularities. For example, I found the Kmart in my grandparents’ suburban town exotic every summer when I visited. The smell—I described it to myself even as I stood there picking out Trapper Keepers to bring back to my French friends. It was a smell of watermelon and juicy fruit gum, with a trace of ammonia from the latest round of floor-cleaning, laced with “Spring” scented dryer sheets. Clean, sweet, processed.  


An urban planner

It took me a couple of years post-college to figure out what type of career I thought I wanted. For a long time I'd been fascinated by infrastructure networks: street maps, subway systems, the maze of sewer tunnels under the city of Paris, where I dragged any vaguely consenting visitor. As a teenager, I devoured books by Balzac and Zola, books in which 19th century Paris was likened to a monster, a tentacled creature with functioning systems—lymphatic, digestive—that kept it alive. So I attended graduate school for urban planning. I took half my classes in civil engineering. I was delighted, after the looseness of the curriculum (or lack of it) at Brown University, to delve into a concrete world at MIT. I fell in love with Gantt charts, with large, complex, multi-year projects, with figuring out how to rebuild a bridge while keeping traffic flowing over it. I thought I’d found my niche. 

For some years, I did work as an urban planner. I traveled—fun, exotic travel for work to places like Sao Paolo and Cairo and Istanbul and Abidjan—and I was doing something I knew was worthwhile: helping extend infrastructure systems to slums, to new areas of development, to low-income residents. But it couldn’t last. I was 28. Suddenly I wanted a child. The planner in me realized I needed to figure out my own system, my own way to keep the traffic flowing through major interruptions. A six month freelance writing gig landed in my lap, and I thought: this is it. Flexibility of schedule, license to research and write, self-directed work. I didn’t look back. 


A dance student

Meanwhile, as I freelanced, I started taking classes in kathak dance, one of the classical dance forms of India. For various reasons, I’d set aside the martial art I had been studying, and was looking for something in the dance world with an equally rich tradition, a similar emphasis on discipline. Walking into the dance studio as a curious but self-conscious adult was the best thing to happen to me, writing-wise. I stepped not only into a studio, but into a whole world, into a deep and rich art form, into layers and layers of story. I entered a world where people were honing their art, putting in the practice, trying to better themselves. My dance classes, and my teacher, introduced me to what would become the foundation of my stories: the trajectory of kathak through the tumultuous history of India over a thousand years, and the amazing women who defied all odds to keep it alive. It was a visceral connection to an art form, and a recognition of just how much work goes into creating something beautiful.


A non-profit founder

When my dance teacher mentioned to me that she wanted to be more than just a teacher with students, that she aspired to have an organization that could apply for grants and set up a dance and music center and provide workshops in schools and community centers and even senior centers and prisons, I jumped at the opportunity to help her realize her vision. Setting up the non-profit, Chhandika, gave me an excuse to delve deeper into the history of the dance, its social significance, the stories of the temple dancers and courtesans and prostitutes and visionaries who held it aloft through upheaval. It enabled me to think about how to present an ancient tradition to a modern audience, and all the integrity and adaptation required to do so. And it gave me a crash course in what it takes, on a practical and logistical level, to run a small arts business, which is honestly what all new authors need in the current publishing climate.


A parent

And then I did have a child. And six years later, another. I could perhaps wax eloquent about how producing a human being, this very act of basic yet marvelous creation, unleashed my creative spirit, or about how motherhood changed me and made me more aware of both the resilience and the fragility of humanity, but the fact of the matter is this: motherhood redefined my relationship to time. It made me more aware of the evanescence of time, as in: oh my God, where did the day go, between diapers and feedings and trying to figure out when to fit in a shower? I had a whole new understanding of how much and how little one can accomplish in 45 minute intervals, depending on one’s perspective. Suddenly, I had to become an efficient writer. My daughter settled down for a nap, and I had to settle down to my computer right then, all too aware that, if I was lucky, I’d have two hours to get something done, and I’d better not make that “something” be cleaning up the house, or re-reading, for the self-indulgent satisfaction of it, a page of previous scribblings that I found particularly well crafted.

On a more literary plane, motherhood also provided me with an intimate glimpse into how beings (and therefore characters) are formed, how they develop, how they are influenced, how some of their actions can be foreseen while others will strike one with shocking improbability. To predict, as all parents do, the behavior of a child, to anticipate it and plan around it, is to develop a character-driven plot. And yet, those little characters have the ability to foil those plans, to render the story “unbelievable” yet true.

Any career, any change in path, any life event is filled with elements that contribute to one’s creative life and literary work. Most important is to not be in a hurry, to not see them all as hindrances, and to not lose hold of the impetus to put the world into words. I once was asked when I feel most like a writer, and my response was this: when I find myself in the middle of an experience—intense, sad, euphoric, perplexing—and I discover that I am describing it to myself in words even as it envelops me. And this I’ve been doing my entire life.


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  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Beautiful piece, Anjali! I'm looking forward to meeting you at the IAAC lit festival in NYC.

  • Tammy Flanders Hetrick

    Love this. Well written and provocative.

  • Anjali Mitter Duva

    I'm so glad this resonated with you, Teresa!

  • Teresa K. Thorne Writing

    "Most important is to not be in a hurry, to not see them all as hindrances, and to not lose hold of the impetus to put the world into words."

    Wow, that really spoke to me.  Thank you for this beautiful sharing-of-yourself post.  I have done the same thing most of my life, hearing that little voice trying to put words to an experience, even the most intense, in the middle of the experience.  It is nice to know I am not the only writer-person who does that.