Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life
June 18, 2020 § 16 Comments
By Shiv Dutta
For years, like Steve Jobs, I looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I still want to do what I am about to do today?” And when the answer was ‘No’ for far too many days, I knew I had to change something. So, in 2013, I asked myself the same questions that had held me back from pursuing a full-time literary life since my adolescence: Am I financially solvent enough to support myself for the rest of my life? Yes. Does anyone depend on me financially? No. Would a full-time literary life keep me sufficiently engaged? Yes. Would I enjoy such a life? Yes. Armed with these reassuring answers, in January of that year, I bade farewell to a life of physics, computers and corporate world that had sustained me and my family for so many years.
At the time I parted with my job, I was close to retirement. That I was setting a new goal rather late in life was of no concern to me. All my life I held the belief that one was never too old to have a new beginning. I took to heart George Eliot’s advice: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” More importantly, I didn’t want to find myself in a situation years later when I’d suddenly realize I didn’t have much time left to do the things I wanted to do and feel sorry for myself.
I had a vague idea about what it was that I wanted to write about. I remembered what Flannery O’Connor had famously said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And I believed it. I could write on myriad of topics—essays based on the sciences, commentaries on current events, short stories etc—but I really wanted to write about my journey at a very young age, almost penniless, from an obscure small town in India to an alien culture in the late sixties for a PhD in nuclear physics. I wanted to write about my subsequent decision to settle in a foreign land as a new immigrant, far from the folks I grew up with, and what impact it had on me, and on the family I left behind.
While I wrote and published a few stories and poems during my high school years and some political commentaries during my college days, I never really had a serious training in the literary arts. But I read voraciously: Maugham, Hemingway, Lawrence, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wodehouse, and any other writer I could find a book by in the local library.
My literary training began in earnest five years before I quit my job. I devoured books on literary crafts like a glutton. I attended many writing classes, workshops, and writers’ conferences where I had the privilege of meeting and making friends with many writers. We discussed and debated the tips, tricks and techniques of good writing. From them I learned their first hand experiences of what a writing life was like.
Above my writing desk up against the wall, I posted two quotes to keep me grounded: “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation. – John Updike” and “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett.” With these two quotes as my guide posts as well as talisman, I started writing personal essays and submitted them to literary magazines. The rejections started coming. I didn’t give a damn. I wasn’t discouraged because I was in it for the long haul. I persisted, and the persistence paid off. Soon, along with the deluge of rejections, acceptances started coming in dribs and drabs, some of them from magazines and journals of some repute. I felt inspired and encouraged and continued writing.
It has been exciting since I turned to full-time writing. I am currently working on my memoirs which will contain many of my published personal essays. I wrote these essays because I wasn’t willing to agonize over untold stories tearing me apart inside. I didn’t want these stories to be forgotten and lost either. Many of these stories are family stories, and I wrote them because, as Lee Martin says, silence wasn’t an option. I didn’t know any other way to get them out of me. They are my stories. I owned them, and I alone could write about them. There have been moments during the writing of some of these stories when I felt they saved me. I wrote many of them when I couldn’t speak. By writing them, I wanted to live my life once more. I wanted to find out who I was growing up, who I am now, and who I want to be going forward. Does anybody care about these stories? Who cares? Paraphrasing Abigail Thomas I say, “I care!”
Should my memoirs remain unfinished for any reason, I can still say it has been a fascinating ride, this literary life. I made so many writer friends and earned their love and encouragement. They accepted me as a member of the community of my tribes. My mentors, echoing Albert Schweitzer, I gratefully say, “At times when my own light went out, it was rekindled by a spark from them.” With my published essays, I’m already leaving something behind for posterity to remember me by. I wouldn’t just be dead, gone and forgotten.
Shiv Dutta’s publications have appeared in several magazines including Tampa Review, Under the Sun, Tin House, Hippocampus Magazine, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Connotation Press, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Eclectica Magazine. He has also produced 45 technical papers and co-authored two technical books. Two of his personal essays were nominated for Pushcart Prize. He is currently writing his memoirs. When not engaged in literary pursuits, Shiv spends way too much time on CNN and Facebook.