Writing is a one person sport. You make the rules, you change the game, you abandon it when you want to. It doesn't matter who won or who lost because it's all the same.
And then, out of nowhere, you realize that someone is watching you play. They are watching you play your game and suddenly, your hands hang loosely by your side and you don't know where to put them. You know this turf and yet, it bothers you that someone is watching. You play to impress. You swing with flamboyance. You swing and miss. And you are embarrassed. You see the smirks coming. And then, you pretend you never did play and walk away. It's better, you think, to go elsewhere and play. Some place where nobody can see you. Because you don't wish to change your sport to please someone else.
If one wishes to write for a living, however, one cannot afford to take the sport to the closet. One has to lead it into the drawing room like an elephant. Draw as much attention as possible. Break a few doors. Trumpet your arrival. Because a sport needs its spectators and you should never deprive yours of them. A problem that many writers have is simply the lack of readers. There's a difference between readers and see-ers. The see-ers are the types who will glance through your work and say 'nice' or 'good'. The readers will go beyond this convenient list and offer you what you might not want to hear to start with.
I was fortunate enough to be blessed with readers right from the time I began to write- my mum and my brother. Both of them read whatever I wrote and gave me the sort of feedback that I didn't appreciate much back then but am very grateful for now. My brother laughed at the sappiness of much of my writing. The whining tone. The artifice of borrowed wisdom that I tried employing as my own. The ridiculousness of my sad themes when I knew so little of sadness in my own life. My mum, too, drew parallels between what I wrote and what I was like in real life. I still remember this poem I wrote in Class VI about keeping your surroundings clean. I showed it to my mum; she read it and said, "First keep your own room clean." Though that's a very mum-like response, it's a response that I've stored in my mind to restrain myself whenever I've been tempted to write about things without conviction, just because it is convenient to do so. Staying genuine in your writing is one of the principles I try to keep up in my writing. If it doesn't ring true to you, a reader will see through it in no time.
In college, I met N and got myself another reader who minced no words when telling me what she thought about my writing. College was a time when we began as insecure amateurs but led ourselves to believe that we were accomplished. In a state like that, when you have just finished tearing up over Keats and Ginsberg, and believe that you at last know what good writing is, it is very hard to take criticism. Because you are now educated in what good literature is and you should be able to create your own. It is, however, vital to recognize that the bigger your sport grows, the more important your spectator is. N read my writing, helped me shape it, told me what was trash and what was not, improved my narratives with her suggestions. Spent time over my prose. Made me tea. And also, illustrated the first batch of stories that I wrote. We've spent several hours over our manuscripts (N writes too and I've been her spectator many times as well), falling in love with what we'd written, even setting it to music sometimes, and yet...always, always keeping the honesty in it. My test by fire for anything I write is N because if I send it to her, I know I will get a response and I can trust that response to have in it an honesty that I might not find anywhere else.
Once you allow your sport, willingly, to have a spectator, your job is not just to play; it is also to entertain. And by this, I do not mean that you should give your audience what it wants and forget about what you want. Play in a way that your audience understands the new rules you are making and wants to see more. The way children are drawn to make-believe games. Admit your spectator's right to be entertained, to be bored, to tell you to play differently, or even change the game. You still hold the bat, don't forget that. But listen to the gallery calls. And oblige if you are convinced.
I managed to find writing jobs by chance. My job with the magazine grew out of freelance assignments that I took up on the side. I was working for the development sector then (a job with a government institute that my father helped me find because I was so depressed about my unemployed state) and wanted to do something concrete because my day-job was such a bore. So I'd come back home at around 8 (I was working in Sriperambadur then; it's 2 hours from Chennai), eat dinner, and edit stories till 10.30. It so happened that the then-boss at the magazine liked my views on children's literature and offered me a job. And there, out of nowhere, a writing job fell into my lap. I wasn't planning on it at all and yet it happened. And I was ready, though I didn't know it, because I'd been playing all along.
*to be continued*