Josna Rege

338. Self-doubt

In blogs and blogging, Books, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work, writing on July 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm


A talented artist-friend once said to me, during a conversation about our creative aspirations and our best selves, “Would you want, ‘She wrote a good blog’, inscribed on your tombstone?”

Boy, did that hurt! I knew that she hadn’t meant to hurt me, though, and was wrestling with unfulfilled aspirations herself, so I tried to take it as it was intended: that is, to invite me to explore what I really wanted for myself.

Another friend, a prolific writer and a mentor whom I honor and admire, put it this way: “I too turned to small personal pieces during a dry period. I found that they got my creative juices flowing again and helped me return to my scholarly writing with renewed energy.”

This too was hurtful because it dismissed the blog as a means to a higher end rather than something of value in itself. And, of course, because it reminded me of what I was not doing—as if I needed reminding!

A last anecdote, this one from literature. In Shashi Deshpande’s Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning novel, That Long Silence (1988), the protagonist Jaya retreats to an empty apartment while going through a family crisis. The time away from her workaday life precipitates a period of self-examination, in which she realizes, among other things, that she has been selling herself short in writing little pieces for a women’s magazine, “light, humorous pieces about the travails of a middle-class housewife (148-9, Virago edition). She has been afraid to take her writing seriously, so, instead, has created herself in the image of the “little woman.”

I often ask myself whether this is what I am doing in Tell Me Another. It is easier to write these short pieces, and I get instant gratification in the responses of readers all over the world. And then, in part because this is a public blog written under my own name and read by family and friends, and—who knows—employers and enemies alike, I must of necessity keep it relatively light, humorous. Is it self-deprecating? Ingratiatingly feminine? Or is it simply written from another part of myself?

Of course, it isn’t a question of either/or, but and/and. The blog is a kind of writing unto itself, and because it is a new medium, it gives me the opportunity to experiment, to develop a new voice and perhaps a new genre, in which I communicate critical concepts and issues of concern in a reflective, narrative form. Human beings are story-telling animals. We define, create, and understand ourselves through stories, and the art of storytelling is one that we neglect at our peril. At its best, this new form and personal voice is every bit as valuable, creative, and fulfilling for me as my scholarly writing, and reaches a much wider audience to boot.

At its worst, though, it is my equivalent of Jaya’s “little woman” column, something I resort to because it’s safe and easy, and because it sidesteps the arenas of publishing and scholarly judgement. If, year after year, I simply keep churning out the same kinds of stories without finding new ways to make them inform and enliven my scholarly writing (and vice-versa), then I am being driven, not by a joyful creativity, but by self-doubt.

Thankfully, at the moment, joy is winning.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. I too struggle with some of the same issues. Especially with the fact that while these short pieces are especially suited to writing personal stuff, once the blog becomes too big, too many people know it’s you (in your case you have your name here) and that means you can’t really reveal much.

    • Yes, Bottleworder–thank you for your comment–this is always a challenge for writers, especially for women, who have a horror of hurting the feelings of others and of revealing secrets, especially in their/our birth or marital families. Even if you write a novel and insist on its fictionality, readers will assume that you’re drawing directly from your life. I try to tell personal stories that resonate for me, and hope that they will ring true for others as well. It’s not always the explicit, literal truth that is the most revelatory in the telling; the trick is to get at the deep truth. Another thing I try to do is to tell my own stories, not those of others. So even if someone figures in a story of mine, I focus on my own experience with them rather than re-telling the story, secondhand.
      But you know all this, and do it masterfully.

  2. Human beings are story-telling animals. This is a key phrase in this post. Big stories, little stories, true narratives, tall tales, anecdotes, funny jokes, whether we do them as blog posts, magazine articles, screenplays, novellas or trilogies or go on TV and radio and broadcast our thoughts or scripts. Narrative exists, whether in static artworks or in all those great mediums that allow expansive storytelling — drama, ballet, films, opera, musicals, animations, poetic epics, graphic novels — as well as in those mini-tales — nine-word-stories, haiku, limericks, epigrams — that draw our attention.

    My point? Why should one define oneself by letting others limit our perceived output to one form? You’re a blogger-cum-writer-cum-academic-cum-feature-writer-cum-whatever, perfectly able to segue from one discipline to another without faltering, when you want, when you choose. As you say, “it isn’t a question of either/or, but and/and.”

    And anyway, it’s possible to be too snobby about academic writing: one or two people I knew of were just human factories churning out papers of little or no consequence just because quantity not quality was the defining factor. I’d rather read a good insightful blog post any day than a badly-conceived and badly-expressed paper that added little to the sum total of human knowledge.

    • Thank you for this terrific response. Stories are everywhere, and in myriad forms. We can and do tell many kinds of stories, shifting our register to the situation and the audience, as appropriate. And yes, the goal is to to have something to say and to say it well, no matter what the medium. Echoing Linda: Well said!

  3. What I perceive here is a wonderful blog and a chance for me to mull over the thoughts and issues that you expose me to. You reach me, move me and no doubt many others. Is it art? I dunno. Does it matter what is ultimately written on our tombstones and many of us will be cremated anyway! Keep on and up. Maybe this is more enjoyable than academic writing? Go with the flow.

    • Thank you, Nina, for your vote of confidence. What more could I want than to reach and move people? Yes, this is more enjoyable, in the short term anyway; though there is a deep satisfaction in completing a longer, more complex writing project, even if it is a tortuous process.
      And I was going to say, as a P.S., that anyway, I am going to be cremated! x J

  4. Keep embracing the joy! 🙂

  5. hi Josna, well written piece as usual 🙂 the emotion is the indicator, of whether we are doing the right thing in the moment or playing out lesser versions of ourselves. Our emotional guidance system … will tell us what is right in that moment for us. Joy happiness and a sense of lightness tell us we are on gthe right path in that moment. reading a blog after a long time.

    • Thank you for your wise words, erica (is modhukori your blog name then–not to pry, but my Dad’s name is Madhukar, so of course the name interests me.) and thank you for visiting and leaving me a comment. It’s good to hear from you and to know that you’re back in the world again. Hope you are well and that joy is returning to your life; and if not yet, then trust that it will, perhaps when you least expect it.
      A confession: that last sentence of my piece was an afterthought, added when I re-read it and thought it ended on a pretty gloomy note. I suppose it’s true; but the doubt still lingers. . .

      • i know, this lingering of doubt…. i know it in the context of so many decisions that i take, which goes against mainstream wisdom my dear friend (i hope i can call you that 🙂
        ) yes Erica is my name (A Bengali born in Germany and named by the nurses there, because my dad refused to name me… said it was my grandfathers prerogative), and yes modhukori is my blog name ( a name that the bauls of Bengal call themselves, it means collector or maker of honey ). Hugs, am getting back internally, the outside world will soon reflect my inner peace and joy.

        • So glad that you are coming back to yourself. Take your time. I love your naming story! We had a somewhat similar experience with our son. My Dad was in India when he was born earlier than expected, and I had asked Dad to bring some names back with him. (I specifically wanted my cousin in Pune to suggest some Bengali names.) So for two weeks, while we waited, our son was officially “Baby boy ___.” Then my father returned, but without the names, only two Indian name books. I stayed up all night with them and finally came up with it.
          Stories of how people got their names are endlessly interesting to me, and meaningful to them as well. I often ask my students as a short writing assignment on the first day of class, to write about their names–formal names (both given and family names, pet names, what they’re called at home and at school), how they got them, and how they feel about them.
          Got to go start my day, but I’ll say more about Modhukori–which I love–another time. x J

  6. I’m glad you are blogging because I would never in this life have come across your scholarly writings. You don’t at all come across as a “little woman”.

    • Thank you, Kristin. The same goes for me. I wouldn’t have come across your writing if I hadn’t been blogging. And it’s very reassuring to know that you don’t hear that “little woman” voice when you read Tell Me Another. The thing is to keep writing, keep exploring, digging deeper, and following where it take you. That’s what I see you doing. x J

  7. A couple of people have asked me if my blogging has stopped my creative writing (my novel). The answer is no – my blog is a different kind of writing, and helps me to keep up the discipline of writing when my creativity falters.
    I think a good epitaph would be “She Wrote”. Then it doesn’t matter what she wrote, just that she did.

    • You are a very versatile and prolific writer, then, Linda: your blog, poetry, and a novel! I like “She Wrote” (though I like “She Writes” still better!). x J

  8. I started blogging as a way to teach myself who to write. Having not written a word ( creative writing, that is, not professional reports 🙂 ) when I finally started out to write “my book”, I found that after writing 3000 words that I had no idea how to write. So I resurrected my blogs, merged them and started experimenting with different styles.

    The blog then took on a life of it’s own and now feel obliged to keep up the pieces there. There was a time when I thought the blog would lead me to writing a column in a magazine or something. That hasn’t happened yet. Then came a period when I obsessed over reader statistics, audience growth numbers etc. At that stage all thoughts of my book / story became meaningless.

    Then one day, a short story appeared out of the blue. I showed it to a friend or 2, took some feedback and it grew bigger and bigger and has now morphed into a 3-act play. I have Acts I and III more or less done. Over the course of the year I hope to complete it.

    I see the two types of writing as distinctly different “types” of writing. Certainly, one is not inferior to the other.

    • Thank you for sharing your own experience and experiments with blogging, and with writing in general. I have enjoyed following your blog over the past 2-3 years and watching how it has developed, more or less organically, it seems. I can see that you have been wanting to write longer pieces and think it’s great that a play has emerged from the process. I would love to have the opportunity to read it when it is done, and hope you’re having fun with it. Am glad, too, that you see the different kinds of writing as different but not better or worse than each other.

      • Blogging is to theatre and published works is to cinema. Both require acting. The resulting feedback is delayed in one and instantaneous ( well, almost ) in the other. 🙂

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