Thrity Umrigar about writing...
first writing I ever did was the anonymous poems I wrote to my parents
when I was angry at them and fuming over some perceived injustice. I
must’ve been five or six years old then. I’d wait until the coast was
clear and then dart into their bedroom and stick these anonymous poems
on the door of the teakwood wardrobe my dad had built.To my amazement,
and despite my best attempts at concealment,my parents always figured
out the identity of the author. I thought they were geniuses.To my
chagrin, the poems seemed to amuse them rather than convince them about
the errors of their ways.
Looking back, it seems to me that my reasons for writing have not
changed since those early days—now, like then, I write for two reasons:
one, to express my deepest feelings about something, and two, to protest
some outrage or injustice.
By the time I was seven, I knew I wanted to be a writer.But I didn’t
have the guts to say out loud—or even to myself—that I wanted to write
books. A brown-skinned kid in Bombay wanting to be a writer? I may as
well have said I wanted to be a Broadway actress. Then someone told me
that people who wrote for newspapers such as The Times of India (whose
stately stone building with the printing press at street level I loved
driving by) were called journalists. So that’s what I went around saying
I wanted to be when I grew up. It seemed safer than saying I wanted to
be a writer.And indeed, a journalist is what I grew up to be.
I worked as a daily reporter for seventeen years.And since I wasn’t
writing literature, I tried to infuse my newspaper articles with as much
literary flavor as I could get away with. I gravitated toward
magazine-style stories— stories about human beings, not sources; stories
with complexity,with shades of gray; stories that challenged the
conventional wisdom.The same themes that I later explored in fiction—how
power twists and corrupts human relationships, the gap between the haves
and the have-nots, the transformative power of love—I tried to explore
within the confines of daily journalism.
At times, I succeeded.My two favorite stories were both long-term
projects that took topical issues and put a human face on them. The
first story was about a single mother on welfare raising two children. I
wanted to understand the nagging, demeaning aspect of poverty—how it
takes all the spontaneity out of life, how it makes you agonize over the
smallest decisions—and then explain this to my readers. For this, I
needed to witness poverty, and the choices it forces people to make, up
close. I moved in with the woman’s family for a week and told their
story in journal form, day by day, as it unfolded.
The second story was about a young couple who had given birth to a
perilously premature baby.Technology now makes such births possible, but
many moral, ethical, economic, and medical issues remain unresolved.But
what fascinated me most was the grace with which this couple faced the
challenges _ before them.Watching them come close to their breaking
point, and then, somehow, rise to the occasion again, sustained only by
their love for each other and their belief in their baby, was an
awe-inspiring experience for me. I reported that story for four months,
from the moment of the baby’s birth to that incredible day, four months
later,when he left the hospital.
So you see why the leap from journalism to fiction doesn’t seem all that
huge.What matters most to me is the human heart that beats at the center
of all great stories. When I look back on my writing life, I see that
the vehicles may be different—poems, short stories, newspaper articles,
novels—but the passengers remain the same. The passengers are always
grappling with the darkness and trying to find the light; they are often
inchoate and inarticulate but fumbling toward greater human
communication; and they are almost always held together by that shaft of
grace that we call love.