What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

This is a blog post that appeared on Huffington Post India earlier this week.  The original blog post is at http://www.huffingtonpost.in/radhika-swarup/whats-luck-got-to-do-with_1_b_7605686.html

When Napoleon was a young soldier, he visited a renowned palm reader to ask if he would ever become Emperor. The palm reader told him dismissively that he didn’t have a fate line.

Napoleon drew his sword and etched a deep line – and so a fate line – on his palm. He turned his bloodied hand to the palmist and asked, ‘How about now?’

His subsequent exploits are now the stuff of legend, and what is clear is that Napoleon wasn’t willing to compromise on his ambitions. I admire his attitude, even though I prefer a less gory way of making my way to my preferred destiny.

Determination and persistence pays off. I believe that with the right attitude, and with a reasonable understanding of my talents – I know I’m never going to become a singing superstar – I can succeed. This belief is what kept me going when I left my lucrative career in investment banking and turned to writing. I hadn’t studied English literature at university. I didn’t have a degree in creative writing. I hadn’t contributed to the university newspaper as a student. In short, I had to start learning my craft from scratch.

What I did have was a love for a certain style of writing. I knew my genre. I knew the themes that mattered to me and those I wanted to give voice to. I spent hours – months that turned into endless years – writing. Practising my craft. Tossing away reams of paper, starting the same story over and over again. And reading through as many books as I could get my hands on.

Slowly, I came to realise some of the flaws in my writing. My tendency to over-explain. I put it down to my being a bossy older sister, but I learnt, and still am learning to curb that instinct. My invariable bent for quiet stories. For the ordinary and the unremarkable, as I felt they mirrored real life most closely. I soon learnt these stories were unsaleable – often unreadable in those early iterations – and learnt to steer away from them. There is still a lot to learn, but any read through my cringe-worthy early writing assures me that I have since improved.

But all throughout my writing, I have always believed that any success or failure in landing a publishing contract would be mine. And that it would be talent and hard work that would take me there. Not luck, not contacts, but my blood, sweat and tears. The latter two especially; I wasn’t planning on a literal interpretation of Napoleon’s immortal gesture.

And when, on an early morning of this year, my agent emailed to tell me that she had found a publisher for my book, I felt it justified my effort. Of course I knew the publishing industry was recovering from a stultifying financial crisis, and that the upward climb of eBooks – and hence eBook retailers – had finally stabilised. The publishers were now happier to take a chance on a debut author, and so my timing was fortuitous, but I felt my unsuccessful submissions from years before had their worth. They allowed my agent to figure out the editors who were receptive to my work, and equally, they allowed me vitally useful feedback on the weaknesses in my writing.

Still, the outlook was bleak. Early in 2014, my father showed my horoscope to an astrologer and asked if I would ever be published. A natural question, given how unpromising things had been looking for so long. The astrologer pronounced that I would be published, but that the stars were inauspiciously positioned. Things would shift by September 2014, and I would then – and only then – get a contract.

I told my father I didn’t believe in astrology. That it would have to be my writing and not my stars that would get me published. September 2014 came and went. A major book fair was held in Frankfurt in October, and I half expected – despite my protests – to get a book deal. Nothing materialised, and though disappointed, I felt justified in rubbishing my father’s belief in the stars.

Then I landed my deal in January. Three short months after my inauspicious period was due to pass, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me or my stars that had succeeded. Perhaps it was all luck after all. Perhaps it was finally meant to be.

But I have never believed in luck. Not in relying on it, in any case. That would have led to a passive attitude to my life. I wouldn’t then have kept on practising or chipping away at my flaws. I wouldn’t then have formed the links with the editors who liked my style of writing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers examines the factors that contribute to achievement. He mentions culture, environment, being in the right place at the right time – all of which point to the fate I take exception to. He then mentions his 10,000 hour rule, which represents the hours of practice a person put into their field of specialisation at an early stage. Programming computers for Bill Gates, practising the tabla for Zakir Hussain, or batting for Sachin Tendulkar.

And though I hesitate to offend any benign luck that’s looking my way, it is this, the practise – my 10,000 hours – that have helped me become a better writer. The writer who sent submissions a few years ago with her long, wordy, quiet stories wouldn’t and shouldn’t have been published. No matter how promising her stars were.

I may not have won my publishing contract this year had my stars remained inauspiciously aligned. But I do know that I have, in my way, been working towards fashioning my own fate line. With a pen, in my case, and not with Napoleon’s sword.

My Weekend Away

I could have picked a better time to go away.  The groceries I had ordered hadn’t arrived, and the meals I had planned to leave for them hadn’t been prepared.  My family – husband, 5 year old son, 2 year old daughter – would have to fend for themselves.  I imagined them eating junk all weekend – pizzas, burgers, endless sugar.  And they weren’t in the peak of health either.  My son had a cold, and my daughter was in the middle of potty training.  The cold could be dealt with, but it was the potty training that really worried me.  I was certain my husband would buckle under the pressure of accidents, dirty laundry and our daughter’s tears, and that he would soon have her back in nappies.
‘Don’t worry,’ said my husband, as I packed. ‘We’ll be fine’.
I closed my eyes with dread.  I would have my weekend’s break to write in, but I fretted I would return to baby armegeddon.  I imagined soiled carpets; unwashed dishes; my children noxious from too much sugar and too much TV.
And then I left.  After about an hour, I checked in on things at home.  They were sitting around the kitchen table, eating fruits and reading a story.  So far, so good, I thought.
I got to my station.  My phone reception started waning.  I reached the retreat I was booked in to for three nights, and here too, there was no reception.  There was some internet access, so I could keep in touch with my loved ones, and a landline where they called me once a day, but that was it. No mobile reception; no texts; no endless Twitter updates.  No keeping in touch with everyone.  I grumbled for a while, but in hindsight, this communication blackout was the biggest boon to me.
For better or worse, the members of my family were shackled to each other.  They would survive a few days without me.  In any case, there was nothing I could do about it.
I set to work.  My lovely hosts Deb and Bob at Retreats for You took care of everything.  Forget helping lay the table, we were actively – and assertively – discouraged from even tidying away our dirty plates.  We got three generous meals a day as well as far too many sweet treats.  All food preferences were catered for.  On my stay, there were coeliacs, vegans, and mere eccentrics like me – eating chicken and fish but no red meat – and Deb somehow managed to cater for all our requirements.  There was a roaring fire in the living room; there were hot water bottles in our beds at night.  There was good wine and stimulating company at night, and we were free to have our meal served in our room if the muse proved intractable.  There was a library filled with books, our clothes were washed for us and our jugs of water automatically refilled.  There were bracing walks at our doorstep if we needed inspiration.
All our needs were taken care of, and all we needed to do was to write.  In the beginning, it was hard.  I found I had the attention span of a goldfish, and I suppose our lifestyles – with a million competing demands on our attention – are to blame.  I always thought I was good at multi-tasking, but perhaps I was sacrificing my focus.  Now though, I had no distraction.  No excuse not to work.  Not one single one.
So I wrote.  Haltingly at first, but then with increasing fluency.  I went for walks, I ate too much, and I finally sorted out the plot of a novel that has been inhabiting my consciousness for the best part of a year.  I now know my protagonists’ names.  I know what they look like; I know how they interact with each other.  I know what drives them.
For my new knowledge of this world of my creation, my eternal thanks go to the gracious team of Deb and Bob.  They allowed me space to escape my worries and to inhabit my characters’ worlds.  They let me loose on their house in a dressing gown and slippers, and they let me imagine for four heady, treasured days.
And my children?  They had a blast.  They went to the park, practised their tennis, spent time with their father.  They did eat more junk food than I’d like, but then it was a break for them too.  And my daughter is still out of her nappies.  There have been accidents, but everyone has survived.  And as for me, I’ve been able to breathe in my book’s air, and that is worth more than I can ever express.

The blessed sound of whining

We have all known weeks that drag on forever. Ones where the Mondays seep slowly into endless Tuesdays, which refuse in turn to give way to the promise of mid-week. By the time Friday rolls around, we’re ready to throw our hands up and give into the powers that be. Let it end, we cry, desperate for the relief that a brand new week will bring.

The past two weeks have been a bit like that for me. For my entire family, in fact. Torrid, never-ending.

There I was, still basking in the newness of the year. Still firmly sticking to my resolutions. I was disciplined with my writing. The edits I had struggled with at the end of last year now seemed under control, and I hoped to have the next draft of my novel ready by the end of the month. And I was sticking to my plans of posting fortnightly on this, my fledgling blog.

That’s when my husband (we’ll call him H, shall we?) fell ill. The kind of ill that stops you in your tracks. Nothing serious, no, just your seasonal ailment fraught with misery and self-pity. He coughed through the night, he monopolised the living room – colonising the sofa and the TV – so we had to step around him while feeling guilty for invading his space.

Work was impossible. Suddenly the complete burden of childcare fell on my shoulders. I undertook the school drop-offs and pick-ups, took the children to the playground. I did all the cooking, all the cleaning around home while H lay on the sofa and complained how exhausted he was.

And then, just as he was beginning to recover his health and equanimity, our two children came down with the flu.

At the same time.

They had been running around the place, clamouring to be taken out to the playground. We’d fetched their woollens; it being early February in London and all. And as I reached to lower my son’s jumper over his head, I felt something as comforting as a hot water bottle in bed at the end of a cold, gruelling day. Except, the comfort of this touch was fleeting. It was my son placing a burning hot palm on my face.

I turned to H. “I think,” I said, “he has a fever.”

H felt our daughter’s forehead. He nodded grimly. “She does too.”

Out came the thermometers. Both children registered a temperature of 40 degrees. Ignoring the genius of their synchronisation, this put paid to any hopes of our family outing. For the day, and for several to follow.

We gave up our work for a near fortnight. I forgot about my writing, forgot to check in on the world. We abandoned all hope of personal hygiene and routine. Instead we became soothing machines. We sang lullabies. We made puzzles. We read books. We cooked soups by the gallon. We fed them water, sip by slow cajoling sip. And in a move that saved our sanity, we let them watch TV.

It was bad, worryingly bad before it got better. And most worrying was seeing them listless at home. There was no clamouring to go out, to meet their friends. There was no stubborn insistence on doing things their own way.

They were too tired by their flu, and that, more than anything else, brought home to us how poorly they really were.

And then, one morning, my son woke up ready to return to school. “Not today,” I reasoned. “Wait till you’re better.”

And to my delight, he argued. He whined. He unleashed the dreaded ‘but I’m bored’. And I was thrilled. Finally, after the fortnight when time stopped for us, my son became conscious of how still things had really become.

My daughter was on the mend too. Her energy returned as suddenly as it had disappeared, and all at once, her toddler demands resurfaced. Instead of TV, it was now park, or blocks. She wanted to be on the move.

And they were suddenly hungry again. They turned away from soup now, from the lentil and rice khichdi that has always brought me succour when ill. They wanted pasta. The wanted cake. They wanted something different.

And as they discovered their resistance, as their voices grew plaintive and then high pitched, H and I discovered that after the weeks of bated breath, of sleepless nights and endless worry, time was starting to move forward for us again. Tomorrow I’ll worry about my missed deadlines, but today, while the clamour of bored, healthy, childish whining builds to its inevitable crescendo, I’m grateful for its noise.

The importance of listening to myself

I was a good girl as a child.  Obedient.  Well behaved.  I listened.

And I wrote.  I kept diaries.  I wrote stories I placed in the most volatile setting I could think of.  The first Gulf War, which was then playing out several thousand kilometers away from my protected middle class life in India.  My family read all I produced, then advised me to avoid unfamiliar settings.  I listened.

As I grew, I was advised to study Economics at university, and to try for a career in Investment Banking.  That’s what a lot of cousins were doing, and they were making tons of money.  They were working long hours too, but we never saw the unglamorous side of their lives.  Banking seemed the sensible option.  I listened.

I read Economics at university, joined a bulge bracket investment bank.  I worked late, made money.  And then, as I spent a birthday at an anonymous Private Equity conference in an anonymous Frankfurt, I had an epiphany.  I hated banking.  Absolutely loathed it.  The poring over accounts, the painstaking projecting cashflows years into the future, the constant touting for business.  I looked around me at the sea of grey – men and women, all bright, well educated, well turned out, and now all uniformly consumed with the acquisition of money – and I realised that I wasn’t one of them.

And that birthday evening, as I sat alone in my anonymous hotel room, I wrote.  It was all forgettable and formulaic, but I finally felt like I was doing something I wanted to.  It felt like I was listening to myself.  It felt like coming home.

I wrote around work for a while.  Between meetings, during my commute.  On weekends.

And then I decided to leave finance.  I told my husband, and though the loss of one income would hit us, he was supportive.  I called my parents, and they panicked.  It was a perilous life I was about to choose.  Who knew if – and when – success would come.  In the meantime, it would be better, both for my equanimity and my solvency, if I continued to work.  I didn’t listen.  I was past it now.  My own voice sang loud and clear.

I quit my job.  I set up our spare room as a study, filled the bookcases with my favourite books, our music system with my favourite music.  Everything was set up for me to write.  Except I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Days stretched before me, inspiration refused to strike.  I found distractions.  Coffees with friends, long walks, daytime TV.  Books I had never before had the time for.  And suddenly time turned unyielding.  I’d end my weekend with good intentions.  On Monday I would work.  But there was always an excuse, a handy distraction.  By the time Wednesday came around, I’d feel like it was nearly the weekend.  It would be better putting things off till the next week.  As I was starting to realise, a surfeit of time is sometimes as, no, more debilitating than a lack of it.  My folks worried about me.  ‘Go back to work’, they said.  I didn’t listen.  I was going to begin my magnus opus.  I was.  Just as soon as the weekend was over.

When I did finally begin to write, I was told to think commercially.  Not to write short stories, as it was hard to sell a debut collection.  Novels were more marketable.  I didn’t listen.  I wrote story upon story, submitted them to agents.  They didn’t sell.

I was told not to write a novella.  Was told they were even harder to place than short story collections.  And of course, I didn’t listen.  Again, I clogged up the inboxes of agents with no joy.

I was counselled to write, then put my work away for six months before returning to appraise it.  I didn’t listen.  I didn’t have the patience, or the required distance from my work to give me objectivity.

Do something, my parents implored.  ‘You’re losing your self-esteem’,  And they were right.  Now a mother of two children, I was starting to lose my sense of self.  When asked what I did, I furtively told people I was an unpublished author.  They nodded pityingly before changing subjects.  I was guilty of that social sin; giving an unanswerable reply to a casual question.  I killed conversations.

Still, I didn’t listen.

I was determined to write.  I wasn’t going to work in finance, and I would have to start at the bottom in any other field.  I was in my thirties now, and just didn’t have the will to graft for something I didn’t believe in.  I was going to write.  Only now, time had become a rare commodity again.  I had two very young children.  A three year old son, and a six month old daughter.

Not now, I was told.  It will be too hard.  Wait till both the kids are in school.  But I didn’t listen.

I wrote.  The story came to me, and after years of rejections, I found an agent.  Measured success.

There is still a mountain to climb.  A publisher to find.  And if I look at the years that have passed since I stopped listening, since I stopped working in banking, I find myself financially poorer.  I find myself more emotionally fragile, more defensive about work.  But I’m happier.  I’m fulfilled.  I love my family, and I love my work.  I’m happy to wake up at three in the morning to write in a way I never uncomplainingly did when I worked in banking.  And the mistakes I made, writing unsaleable stories and that early impossible novella, pressing the send button months too soon, well, they allowed me to hone my craft.

And so, despite the setbacks, despite the blows to my confidence, I’m glad, thrillingly, worshipfully grateful that I stopped listening.   That I let myself do what I always was meant to do.  That I’ve finally come home.

My Simple Manifesto

The first bite you take – from the flakiest croissant, the moistest cake, or from the most succulent burger – is the tastiest. The following bites are pleasing too, but – in the language of a lapsed economist – they suffer from a diminishing marginal return. So the bites that follow the first delirious, sensational bites are no less tasty, but you have altered. You’re a little less hungry, a bit more used to the taste of the sublime. The next bite is that little bit less satisfying, and the one after that is even less so.

The same must apply to life. That first tweet that connects you to the rest of the day, and to your universe is life affirming, the hundredth a little less so. My aim with the blog, as with my life, then is:

  • To declutter my life in much the same way I have my career. I’m no longer working corporate hours but writing. This brings me infinitely more pleasure than my past job of valuing cash flows did, and it allows me to work to my schedule. I can work 100 hour weeks if I’m in the midst of writing something, or I can take days, even weeks off while I wait for the next story to come to me.
  • To engage with social media in as much as it encourages discipline and conversation, but not so much that it distracts me from work, or that necessity, life.
  • To spend quality time with my children, family and friends, but not to the extent that I lose sight of myself. I work for myself, and believe me, it is all too easy to get sidetracked.
  • To take long walks, to go to more museums, to sit in cafes with pads of paper – or its modern day avatar, the tablet. To report all that delights me, and to remember there is still much around me that delights.

This then is my plan. I’m a writer, a mother, a wife, and an Indian in London. A Lindian, if you will. I will write about writing (as long as that’s not too tedious to read – I sat in front of a blinking cursor for an entire day, ugh!). I will write about my children, and my many joys and occasional struggles with them. I’ll write about London, and about an India I’m in equal parts proud and wary of. Those interested in socio-political and economic commentary on a changing India can find it on Indianaccents.wordpress.com. I’ll write about myself, and hope there’s something in it to delight more than just myself.