“Have you even had sex yet?” my professor asked me, shocking me into silence. There was a sudden hush around us.
We were at a café just below the bank where I worked. And in that office, that very morning, my boss had advised me to reconsider my decision to quit. “You must remain constantly bored and frustrated. Only then will you do very well at your hobby. You need to keep this job to be a better writer.”
The professor had surprised me by dropping in “just to see you busy at work.” He looked amused as he watched me busily stamping countless documents, stapling the papers the typist passed on to me and fetching files. My boss kindly gave me permission to step out of the office to have coffee with the professor. “But don’t take too long. People may need files.”
The professor was the one who had discovered the writer in me during my final year in college. And he took the trouble to stay in touch after I graduated, reading and commenting on every masterpiece (so I thought) I wrote and snail-mailed him.
We had barely sat at a table when he pulled out a familiar looking piece of paper from his bag. It was the poem I had sent him last. I was secretly proud of that scathing commentary on the state of the nation, with lines like “blood of our rapes flowing on the streets.” That was precisely the line he had read out before asking the question that had silenced all conversations in the vicinity: “Have you even had sex yet? And you write of rape and blood.”
"Write about what you have experienced," he advised. “I am not asking you to go around raping and murdering. Write from within. You have the potential to be a writer. That does not mean you can pass judgement sitting on a pedestal. Experience life. Meet people. I am glad you are leaving the bank. Don’t give up writing. Write honest.”
I have forgotten whether we had tea or coffee. But that meeting came back in painful detail when I recently read the warning, “turning play into work can really dull the joy.” Should I have listened to my bank boss 40 years ago?
Hobby's journey to job
A course in journalism and a stint in a newspaper told me that being a writer was not the same as being a journalist. In fact, the day I joined after chucking my bank job, the Chief Reporter put a fatherly hand across my shoulder and said, “You look like an intelligent boy. How could you make this mistake?”
Then came the job in corporate communications. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk to everyone from the worker to the director for the newsletter. Everyone applauded every issue, my creation! Except my boss. Until the day he exploded when I got someone’s name wrong and discovered it after the issue was printed.
“You think you are a great writer? Hah! You can’t even get the basics right!” The writer took two steps back; the employee responsible for carefully and correctly projecting the company’s image stepped up.
The tie was the memorable aspect of the job that followed—with a PR agency. I do not remember doing much beyond scanning newspapers, sending clippings to clients and writing endless press notes. It was a struggle to knot the tie correctly in the cab on my way to the next client meeting, especially when it was a short ride.
I got rid of that tie and left the job soon. I felt very brave and liberated when I decided to be an independent writer. It didn’t take long to miss the regular salary flow. God! When did everything get so expensive!
“You mean to say you sit at home, write and people pay you?” my mother asked. “Why don’t you admit you don’t have a job? Your father is not there now, and you have your own family to look after,” she sighed. She was probably wondering where she had gone wrong in my upbringing.
“My father was doubtful if an editor would be able to support me, when I chose you,” my wife confessed. It didn’t help that my first son had already started school and another child was on the way when my wife decided to pluck that material memory from yonder.
Many hats, same head
The tie went away for good but I did end up wearing many hats—copywriter, scriptwriter, medical writer, technical writer, web writer, storyteller, coach. Until I was commoditized as a content writer more recently.
Were there any lessons that could be bulletized on LinkedIn?
Maybe it started with my professor, but the lessons have not stopped coming.
“Your sentences are long. Very boring.”
“You write very abruptly. Too many short sentences. Almost impolite.”
“Why do you use such simple words? You are writing the Chairman's blog."
“Can you use this word in the headline? I like this word!”
“Very moving script about the farmers. Now, get moving and change it fast. Put in some charts and figures. We need this to get funding. Not win an Oscar.”
“You write so easily and effortlessly. Why do you want to charge for it? After all, you said you enjoy it, didn’t you?”
Want to vs. need to
Carys Chan, research fellow at Griffith University’s Centre for Work, Organization and Wellbeing, quoted in this article warns that monetizing one’s passion project can jeopardize its appeal, but “if the gap between your passion and what you’re actually good at is small, or they are aligned, that can obviously be a great outcome.”
That sounds very wise. The simpler formula I have learnt to apply is to enjoy what I write for myself. And I equally enjoy what you want me to write your way, provided you pay.
I am sitting in front of a potential client. We are in the office of a common friend who had brought us together.
He has just finished running through a crowded Excel sheet that began from all the products he was planning to launch within the next year and went on to list all the social media posts he wanted on multiple platforms within the next two weeks. It is obvious he has been tutored by others as to what he was expected to do.
I let him finish. Then I gently helped him close his laptop and pushed his waiting tea towards him. While I took a pull at mine, I asked him where he was from and about his family. My questions were in a language both of us were more comfortable in.
He sat back, let out a breath, reached for his cup, took a sip and smiled. “I am a farmer,” he said.
I love my job.