Feet in two boats

A writer struggles to follow professional and creative journeys at the same time.

Feet in two boats

In the hands of every writer lie two facts – one, the sheer certainty that in the writer’s head exists a peapod in lieu of a brain, and second, the firm conviction that they are the sharpest mind who ever picked up a pen.

This balancing act boggles the mind, especially when the writer throws in another ball to juggle – that of the day job.

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At the dawn of the internet era, I was a sprightly twentysomething girl-woman wandering the aisles of the New Delhi World Book Fair held in Pragati Maidan. One of the world’s largest book fairs, it hosted crowds who braved high temperatures to reach the venue. Sound air conditioning preserved the enthusiasm of the readers as they jostled amid bookstalls peddling everything from educational textbooks to award-winning literary fiction.

My mother picked out cookbooks, devotional guides, and even a paperback that extolled the virtues of badminton coaching. One slim volume captured my attention – the words “Be a Successful Writer” lay splashed across the cover, alongside a beautiful picture of a pen poised over ruled lines. I tossed it in the shopping basket, and, after hours of traipsing around the large hall, we shuffled our way to the counter, the weight of our loot dragging us down.

At home, I holed up in my room with the book, absorbing the instructions but shying away from the exercises. The book roused my interest, but the fear of writing dreck held me back from taking pen to paper.

Until this point, my achievements in terms of creative writing would fill no more than a Post-it note. While a high school student, my stories and essays drew praise from my English teacher, but programming injected fire in my spirit. I graduated with a degree in computer engineering and queued up to work in a software firm.

My day job demanded no writing skills whatsoever, aside from the occasional nasty email to sniping colleagues and technical documentation that bored me to tears. My work kept the cogs in my cranial machinery running, but the book pulled at my subconscious. By evening, I craved to escape the four walls of my cubicle so I could return to the book for just one more nugget of advice.

After much dawdling, I hunkered down and wrote my first-ever humor piece. Even as I penned the last sentence, the thought had occurred to me – where could I get it published?

 

“You’re the writer, aren’t you?”

These words, spoken by a deep, authoritative voice on the phone, stunned me. The voice belonged to the hiring manager who had interviewed me for a programming position that I hoped would turn into my second job.

What surprised me more than his question was that he remembered me, and the reason he did.

The week prior, I had attended several rounds of interviews at a major insurance firm that was hiring for its software division. A quick survey of the room alerted me to my slim chances – an array of experts were vying for the position.

Despite my apparent greenness, I succeeded in impressing my interviewers.

In the second round, I faced the senior manager – a hulk of a man who towered over me as he shook hands. I steeled myself to maintain eye contact, and when I did so, I found myself looking into the eyes of a gentle giant.

He ended a brief interview by throwing the last question at me in a casual, offhand manner: “Do you have any hobbies?”

I hesitated. My writing career was an infant, flailing and struggling to find its feet and losing balance in the process.

But he probed a little, suggesting in so many words that a person without a hobby is only half a person. I succumbed and let it slip that I wrote in my spare time.

He threw me a dare. “So why don’t you write something?”

“Now?” I questioned, incredulous.

“Now.” To show his seriousness, he slid a piece of paper and pencil toward me.

Under his watchful gaze, conscious of the seconds ticking past, hopeless, inadequate words spilled from my pen to the pristine white sheet. I handed it to him, and watched as he read a short rhyming poem of two stanzas narrating my experience in the interview. The poem and its words are long gone, having receded to the furthest reaches of my memory that I cannot even fathom. I only recall that it mirrored my state of mind and contrived to show my literary skills while operating within the confines of a corporate vocabulary.

To his question on the phone, I replied, “Yes, I’m the writer.”

He was sorry, he said, that he couldn’t place me in his team. He had offered the position to someone more experienced. His remorse sounded genuine, but I wasn’t listening. My own words were echoing in my mind.

Somewhere in the month between my interview and the follow-up phone call, I had gained the fortitude to proclaim myself a writer.

 

The terse, ungrammatical email in front of me set my pulse racing. I almost fell off the chair when I read it.

I had crawled through the tunnels of the internet for advice on querying magazines for my humor piece. Guidance on pitching nonfiction articles filled the web, but how did one query for humor?

I scoured the web for days, gleaning information from multiple sources. I vacillated wildly, wondering if I should query my work or send the completed piece straight away. The collective wisdom of the web frowned upon sending completed articles to editors with whom writers hadn’t already struck up a working relationship.

After much deliberation, I stuck to a brief query using a sample I had found online. I described my humor piece, ended with a line about myself, and dispatched it to the editor of a women’s magazine. Even as I pressed the send button, I began mentally composing an apology for when the inevitable rejection would arrive, admonishing me for sending such drivel their way.

A month later, a one-line reply from the magazine, featuring one typo and one grammatical error, sat in my inbox, urging me to send the full article immediately.

I closed the screen in a hurry before my colleagues could catch sight of it. Hours later, in the comfort and privacy of my home, I read it again. The words remained the same. It shocked me – an unbiased impartial stranger had requested me to send something I had written. I doubted they would publish it but consoled myself that I had passed one hurdle.

I dispatched the article and boarded a 10-hour flight to visit my sister in Northern Ireland.

A few weeks later, while I sat by the window, watching the world through a curtain of rain that constantly drizzled down upon the roads of Belfast, a friend emailed me. Congrats, he said. I read your article in the latest issue of that women’s magazine.

I set down my cup of Earl Grey. “What article? Can you send me a link or a scanned copy?”

He promised to send me a scanned version.

I called my father back in India and demanded he instantly purchase five copies of the magazine, lest the issue flew off the shelves before I could grab them.

He called me later with a copy in his hands. Beautiful, he said. High praise from the man who routinely thwacked me on the crown with a rolled-up newspaper when I got my homework wrong.

 

“You are definitely an asset to our organization.”

I sat across from my manager at my first-ever performance appraisal. Unbeknownst to him, I was burning the midnight oil on a regular basis, working 10 hours a day and then rushing home to add precious lines to my novel.

I bagged a promotion at work. This left me with even less time to dedicate to writing. Higher responsibilities and a plumper paycheck only meant more hours whiled away in the office.

With every milestone I crossed at my day job, weeds grew around my writing. I penned an entire novel in three years while hurtling through frantic days. I leapt from one role to the next higher one at a breakneck pace, but in my writing, the only thing that moved as rapidly was the pace at which rejections flew into my mailbox. Agents requested partials and responded with ear-pleasing notes that stroked my ego but brought me no closer to my goal of publication.

Nine years after I picked up writing with a view to publishing, I attended a workshop conducted by an acclaimed published writer. Over two weekends, under his guidance and in a room full of talented writers, I discovered myself.

 

Four years ago, as I wrapped one project at work and embarked on another, the fragments of an idea for a story started gnawing at me. I began writing it in a frenzy and completed it at around 2,000 words. Prior to this, I had written entire stories composed more of dialogue than narration. Thick blocks of text never featured in my stories. I had also made no conscious effort to be literary, and always chose the first word that came to mind. I never swapped it out for a more appropriate word even if one was available, despite laughing at Mark Twain’s famous witticism: The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

The story contrasted with everything I’d written before. I had infused beauty into the prose. I had researched common plants that a passionate gardener’s terrace garden might contain. I had not provided a clean resolution but ended the story on an open note, inviting the reader to surmise what might follow.

All of this came easier than I expected it to. I did not freeze at the sight of a blank screen or demur at revising the story endlessly until every word echoed perfection.

As I pondered where I might send it, I realized – this was eminently doable. Why did I not attempt this every month? Surely I could rustle up a story every 30 days and refine it over the next few months. The old adage “practice makes perfect” would hold true and the dedicated exercise would improve my craft. I could publish my stories in literary journals online and in print.

Over the next 24 months, I didn’t miss even once. My story was ready well before my self-imposed mid-month deadline, but I invariably waited until the last moment to send it off.

In my day job as a project manager in a software company, I grew accustomed to hiding the creative side of me. It became my version of the Jekyll-Hyde transformation. I tucked it away as if it was something to be ashamed of, like a wart that must be concealed. When my colleagues discovered I moonlighted as a fiction writer, murmurs of surprise mingled in with nuggets of support.

Every time I set aside my office laptop and pick up my personal one, my mother utters three words that give me pause.

Dui naukāya pā – Bengali for “feet in two boats.” One cannot balance oneself while setting each of their feet in two different boats – one will find themselves thrown into deep, icy water.

It rings true, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

—Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night, and a mother of two. She writes fiction and humor in an effort to unite the two sides of the brain in cerebral harmony. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print. She maintains her portfolio website at gargimehra.com or catch her on Twitter: @gargimehra