I have been reading books on the art and craft of writing ever since I found a whole shelf of them in the British Council library in New Delhi, at the age of fourteen or so. I would bring home books on dialogue, setting, narrative and characters. I read articles on writing query letters and doing research and getting an agent - all the traditional aspects of being a writer, before the advent of indie publishing. I read every book I could get my hands on, and yet almost never wrote anything myself. I didn't believe that anyone would want to read anything I had to say, in fact, I believed that I didn't really have anything to say. I was what Julia Cameron calls, a "shadow writer".
Sure, I wrote essays in school for assignments and tests. I got back my English exams with glowing praise on the margins of my essays - I remember one comment from my English teacher, someone I particularly adored and respected - she had said "It's a pleasure to read your writing, as always!" I loved the praise, and yet couldn't bring myself to believe it. She was just being nice, I told myself. I entered competitions in school for essays, and won certificates. And yet I continued to believe that I wasn't any good at writing - after all, if I had been, I would have won first prize. I was waiting for external validation, a stamp that told me I was a writer, and that now I had permission to create. And yet I rejected every form of validation that I did happen to receive, as not being good enough, or not conclusive enough to "prove" my writing talent.
By the time I graduated high school, I had an idea at the back of my mind that one day I would write books, and be a "real writer", but that it would be something I did along with my primary career. It never occurred to me that I could ever earn a living solely by writing, or that I would want to. By this time I had stopped asking myself whether I could write, but I still wasn't writing anything that wasn't assigned.
In college, I started to rub up against the writing life by fantasizing about writing freelance articles, and collected writer's guidelines for magazines like the way some people collect stamps. I carefully filed them away and dreamt of the articles I could be writing, deluding myself that just one of these days I would get around to actually writing something.
In the meantime, I had been commissioned by an Indian publisher to write a study guide on the poems of Seamus Heaney (how this came about is a story for another day). I was thrilled, and working on the book while juggling law school and many extra-curricular activities, but I still didn't really think of myself as a writer, published or otherwise. I tried to get a gig writing reviews on arty events on campus, but the editor probably didn't like the one review I wrote for him, and never asked me back. That one rejection did more to convince me that I couldn't write (and couldn't ever hope to) than all the compliments I had received over the years made me think I could.
It was only after graduation, when I came across a yellow book in a bookstore on a day when I was browsing the writing reference section, as usual, that I finally started to have the courage to put down words on paper without waiting for an external assignment. Julia Cameron's book "The Right to Write" gave me the tools to tentatively explore writing without expectations, although it was predictably rocky going. Although I didn't necessarily get very far with my first attempts, at least I had begun.
In one of her other books, Julia mentions the notion of "shadow artists", who desperately want to make art, and thus try to stay close to their chosen medium in various ways, when they lack the courage to actually try to create art themselves. Thus my years of reading books about writing, even when I wasn't writing anything myself. And when I finally did start to write, I almost gave up just as soon, because those writing books filled my head as I tentatively put down one word after another - I started to think about how difficult it was to get an agent or write a good query letter or how writers got hundreds of rejection letters before they sold anything. I was putting the cart before the horse - worrying about something that wasn't likely if I never finished any piece of writing.
Last year I published four books. I am currently working on what will hopefully be my sixth published book. Yesterday, I was at an event where when people asked me what I do, I waffled, and talked about my consulting and research projects, and then finally, tentatively announced - "I write books". The reactions were varied, and some people showed a lot of interest. I found myself hesitatingly explaining what my current book was about - and although I could have sounded more confident - I realize that I'm no longer in the shadows, cowering. I stepped out, shrugged off the cloak of invisibility, and decided, however shakily, that I would claim my identity as a "real artist". I am a writer - I repeat to myself over and over, hoping it sticks. I might find it hard to always claim my title, but at least these days I no longer need to covet my art from a distance. I write, often, and regardless of the quality of each individual piece, as the work piles up, I know that my artist self is as much a part of my life as any other part.