Writing, to me, is a lot like having a bath on a freezing winter morning in a geyser-less bathroom. Since the water spewed by the shower is bone-chilling, you rarely have the courage to stand under it straight after getting into the bathroom.
You have foreplay with the water first: you show your palms to it and slowly wet your arms. If courage still shows no signs of showing up, you raise one foot under the shower and then the other. If courage is still elusive, you put your head under the shower and wet your hair. It is only when you are left with no more choices or are running horribly out of time that you finally decide to take the fusillade of chilling water on your chest. The torture lasts for a few seconds but after that you can spend hours soaping yourself under the shower.
Something similar happens to me when I get back home every night and switch on the laptop in order to write. I stare at the blank screen for a while and if nothing comes to my mind, I get up to fix a drink. It would have been easier if I had a Man Friday who served me a drink, but that would not have served the purpose. The idea is to let your thoughts ferment while you go about finding a glass and getting some water from the kitchen to pour into the whiskey.
Once I return to the computer with my glass and if inspiration still refuses to strike, I take two sips and try writing a sentence. That’s the test. If the first sentence is spontaneously followed by another and yet another, you are on. If not, you have to think all over again. And in order to think all over again, you try not to think for a while and look up the list of friends online on gmail.
At one in the night, there are not many friends online, but those who are there are your kind: people kept up by an unexplained restlessness. They are drawn to the night like moths to the flame. It is only in the night that you talk to yourself: the rest of the day you are talking to others. And when two people talking to themselves talk to each other, you get sufficiently warmed up to stand directly under the chilling shower. By then, the alcohol would also have had its desired effect. Sentences start flowing.
I am sure the result would be the same, maybe even better, if one started writing at the crack of dawn, after a good night’s sleep, instead of midnight. Sentences will come to you if you summon them with sincerity: you don’t need help in the form of alcohol or online friends. But can’t help it. Just like you have a style of writing, you also have a way of writing. We are slaves of habit.
Also, in order to write, you need to think. What can make you think more than the silence of the night, the stimulation provided by alcohol and the solace offered by the invisible arms of an online friend?
(Bishwanath Ghosh is the author of the bestselling Chai, Chai: Travels in Places where You Stop but Never Get Off, recently translated into Marathi. His forthcoming title is Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, a biography of Chennai, to be published by Tranquebar.)