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Last month while reading with a local book club from my short story collection, “A Happy Place,” I was asked, “Why do you write fiction?” Distilled to its essence this boils down to “Why do you write?” This query follows me around from reading to reading. It also worms its way into the conversation when people hear that I am finishing work on a novel.
I hear it said in many intonations:
Why write when yet another editor’s rejection letter has damned your submission with faint praise? (censorious inner critic)
You’re writing this weekend? Again? (miffed friends whose weekend plans I end up saying no to)
Why do you have to write? Why can’t we go play in the park? You’re not my favorite aunt anymore. (miffed six-year-old niece)
Time is the biggest casualty of the writing life. Juggling a hectic day job and my writing, I am left fantasizing about days that expand on demand. In said scenario, I would have enough time to meet my daily word count, keep friends, family and colleagues happy, and also catch up on a whopping deficit of sleep. Twenty-four-hour days just don’t make the cut. I slice and dice and compartmentalize and still end up begging for more hours. Writing hijacks your time like a possessive lover. It’s all or nothing, baby. There’s no middle path here.
Heartbreak, rejection, incessant demands, odds that are stacked against you at every turn – the writing life is a tough road to take. So what keeps a writer going? Why write?
I write because I am addicted to the pleasure of language. There is nothing more thrilling than to search for the right words, to scoop up them up and string them together to tell a story. Words can unlock the whole universe. To get under a word’s skin is sheer joy. To tap into the incredible power of language to shape a story is a grand adventure. The more you keep at it the better you get at making words your own. They start to come alive at your touch and reveal hidden meanings. They sing
to you and let you soar, gifting you visions that open up infinite possibilities.
Words set me free. Words set my imagination on fire.
They are my holy grail. The rock on which I rest.
But writing isn’t just about the joy of word play. I chose to be a writer because writing offers me unconditional freedom to raise questions. I have never been the sort of person who accepts things as they are. My brain is hardwired to question. Accepted wisdom sets off alarm bells in my head. Preachers and teachers are not my best friends.
To state the obvious, there is no shortage of things to question in this world. An extensive range – whether it is the workings of organized religion or crony capitalism, arranged marriage or corporate imperialism – is on display around us. We live in a time where the divide between the powerful and the powerless has taken on grotesque dimensions. War games are in full swing. Race and religion polarize us like never before. Parochialism dressed up as patriotism is on the rise. Dictators mushroom across the globe overnight. The air is polluted with talk of stricter border controls to keep “the other” out, calls to wage war in the name of democracy, demands to execute policies that alienate disenfranchised factions in an already fragmented world. We live our lives under surveillance every day. Our fundamental freedoms are increasingly at risk. Tolerance for independent thought and opinion is at an alarming low. Freedom is a myth in our times.
Writing gives me a safe space to raise the questions that I feel compelled to ask. Despite the challenges and occasional body blows, I carry on writing because it is a perpetual search. To give up the search would be to give up on life itself. Stories help me re-imagine the world. They let me ask dangerous questions and give a voice
to the silenced.
To me, writing is a journey without a fixed destination. My readers walk with me every step of the way. When I am tired or disheartened, it is reassuring to know that I am not on my own and that the search isn’t mine alone. On a lucky day, my readers and I stumble on answers. But for the most part, it is our shared journey that counts.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).