What I’ve been reading and listening to

I recently listened to the audiobook of ‘The Artist’s Journey’ by Steven Pressfield on audible. I recommend it to all writers and creators of art. Here, the author gives his own example and says that the artist’s journey begins after the Hero’s Journey ( Ref. Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler). The author discusses the qualities of an artist, the subject, medium of expression, point of view, style, voice etc., with examples from popular culture and the movies.

The author also introduces concepts such as Yetzer Hara, resistance, and the soul. He recommends books such as The soul’s code by James Hillman and The Creative Habit – Learn it and use it for life by Twyla Tharp.

I’ve also been savouring the essays of 114 writers from across the globe about being a writer in ‘I, the Writer’ – a Sweetycat Press Publication. Although I bought the book, it is also available for free on Kindle Unlimited. I’ve picked up The Creativity Book – a year’s worth of inspiration and guidance by Eric Maisel, which I had started reading at the beginning of the year and then shelved. I’ve also dug up an old book from my bookshelf – Unleash your creativity – Secrets of creative genius by Rob Bevan and Tim Wright to keep my creative juices flowing.

Before I sign off, I’d like to share my poem ‘The Artist Within Me’, which was published recently in WE MAG and We Qip Magazines. You may read it here.

Hope you like it. Do share this post on your social media if you enjoyed reading it or found it useful. See you. Stay safe!

The Merits of Journaling

I write mainly because it’s what comes naturally. Writing helps me put into words what I feel about something. It is cathartic and it helps me heal. It also helps me discover myself. I know- some people would think “Isn’t it a bit late in the day at 43 to be discovering yourself”? But I truly think that the process of self-discovery can be long and arduous. Sometimes, we lose ourselves navigating through this maze of a life. It is heartening that we can find ourselves again. The act of writing helps me get in touch with the deepest part of me and brings it to the surface. Also, sometimes, one has so much to say, but the “words don’t come easily” as the famous song by Tracy Chapman goes. It’s easier when you write.

Writing in notebook. Close-up.

When one’s speech is stifled, one can become ill. Self-expression is so important. But sometimes, what we may want to say may not be well-received. In such cases, I think journaling is the solution. And for those who believe anything online is open to hacking, keep an old-fashioned notebook and write in it.

I think most writers are their own harshest critics, and they need to work on being kinder to themselves. I think journaling will help with that, too.

So let me sign off this post, by encouraging you all to write for yourself, even if it isn’t for publication or money, since it is very important, especially in these stressful times, to be in touch with who you really are. 

Book Review of ‘Coping with Suffering’

The author Tomichan Matheikal has been a teacher all his life and has authored several books. In this book, he talks about how different religions approach suffering, without trying to thrust any one particular religion over the other. He discusses how “Buddhism is very like Christianity in its views on suffering.” I particularly enjoyed the portions of his book where he talks about philosophy and philosophers, making a complex subject accessible for the lay reader. He has discussed Schopenhauer, Viktor Frankl, existentialism and the role of God in dealing with suffering, outlining “The footprints in the sand” story. The author says “We need not seek out suffering” and quotes the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The author stresses the need to ask “How” questions rather than “Why questions” i.e instead of “Why did I fall” or “Why did this happen to me”, one must ask “how questions” like “How do I get out of this mess?.” He then discusses the role of literature in showing us the inevitability of suffering and says ” Literature makes suffering meaningful, which, in turn, makes like bearable if not beautiful.” That reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

The author discusses characters from literature such as Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and concludes that “the ultimate answer lies in the heart, according to Dostoevsky. He then discusses Camus’s views on intellectual honesty. He says the world has moved ahead from Camus, too, and we now live in a “post-truth world.” He introduces the concept of the banality of evil as showcased in Milan Kundera’s work.

In his conclusion, the author points out the difference between being religious and being spiritual. He says “Suffering can never vanish from our life. We learn to cope with it. We learn to see it from a different perspective. It is the perspective of the heart. It is the with the heart we can see certain essential truths clearly.” “The answers to quite a lot of our problems lie in our own hearts. And we keep seeking them in a lot of other places…” I found this book soothing.

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The Magic of Writing

What is it about writing that gets some people thinking it is an esoteric art that originates from a magical place, while others feel that anyone who can read can be a writer? I belong to the school of thought that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Good writing can be taught, and I have conducted training sessions on English grammar during my stints with several corporates, but I do believe one must have some basic pre-requisites to be able to grasp what is being said. Nothing can take the place of reading. Some writers may not be entirely on top of the nuts and bolts of English grammar. Still, due to their extensive reading, they have developed an ear for the right word, imbibed the art of crafting a good sentence and developed the ability to tell the difference between good writing and mediocre or below-average writing. Others never read but sign up for content writing courses, and, unsurprisingly, have a tough time stringing two sentences together in flawless English.

Another thing that is oft overlooked is that a good writer has to be a good thinker. Everything that he or she commits to the page must flow well. A series of sentences must flow into a paragraph, and a paragraph must convey a thought. A string of such paragraphs with varied sentences must convey the meaning that the writer intended. One must have the ability to translate ideas onto the page by using precise words. That’s the power of an array of words. I believe that a love for the language is non-negotiable. Above all, consider the audience: the reader. Business communication would entail a different vocabulary and emphasis distinct from that of a novelist.

 I know so many people who think that “anybody” can get into content writing. The difference between such writers and those who are serious about their craft is as stark as night and day. And then others say they don’t get the “time to read.” For a true bibliophile, reading is like breathing. You don’t “try to make the time for it”. It is like survival. You somehow find a way to do it. True bibliophiles make the time to read, and not because they “have to” but because they “want to.” And that makes all the difference.

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn

My Book Review of ‘Anxiety: Overcome it and Live Without Fear’ by Sonali Gupta

I’d bought the kindle version of ‘Anxiety’ by Sonali Gupta earlier this year and posted a brief review across social media. I truly felt it was a book that was timed well. 2020 is a year like no other what with the pandemic upending our lives. And anxiety levels are on the rise.

I opted for the paperback of this book when Blogchatter offered me a choice of books to review for their Book Review Program. I wanted to re-read the physical copy of this book.

Sonali Gupta, the author, is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist with sixteen years of experience in the field of mental health. She writes a weekly column for Mumbai Mirror titled ‘Terms of Engagement’. She currently runs a private practice in Khar and South Bombay.

Jerry Pinto has penned a beautiful foreword to the book. He says there is a lot to be anxious about, so one is not alone in feeling anxious. He says in today’s world of social media, we curate our world and decide what’s instafriendly just as much as the other person does. What’s on our feed may be giving anxiety to the person viewing it in the same way that someone else’s feed gives us anxiety.

“This book will help you make a good servant out of an emotion that was built into us so that we might survive. For when it takes over, say in the middle of the night, when it’s often at its worst, you can ask yourself in a stern voice: “What have you got to be anxious about.”

He goes on to say “I believe that if you use this book, rather than just reading it, if you make it your own, it will help resolve some of the questions you’ve been asking yourself, the most disturbing of which often is ‘Is this normal or am I going nuts.’

Sonali, in her introduction, says, ‘I have begun to realise that while we all are so different as people, at the core, we are similar and possibly connected to one another through our shared vulnerabilities. Maybe we are all together in this collective anxiety.’ She adds, ‘The idea of writing this book is for people to have an emotional toolkit that can help them take care of themselves.’ She adds, ‘I suggest that as you read this book, keep a diary and pen next to you so that you can do the activities mentioned in the book and use them to introspect and become aware of your patterns.’

The book is divided into three parts and 20 chapters. The first part is ‘ Understanding Anxiety.’  In the first chapter, ‘Age of Anxiety,’ the author explains anxiety, details how it manifests itself and talks about triggers.

She lists some common triggers of anxiety:

  • Getting engaged/planning a wedding/marriage
  • Death in the family
  • Ending a relationship or a divorce
  • Hospitalisation
  • Moving/Renovating a house
  • Changing a job or a promotion
  • Moving cities or countries
  • Planning a holiday
  • Birthdays
  • Retirement
  • Paperwork and finances

She also dispels some common myths around anxiety.

Myth 1: Some people never experience anxiety.

Myth 2: Anxiety is a negative emotion, and we need to rid ourselves of it.

Myth 3: Happy events don’t lead to anxiety.

Myth 4: Development milestones are a fact of life. We don’t need to reach out to qualified mental health professionals even if we feel overwhelmed by them.

In the second chapter, ‘What’s Normal Anxiety and What’s Not,’ the author gives us a checklist to help us determine the level of anxiety we face. She essentially says that it is best to understand anxiety in the context of a spectrum. She also says some people are highly sensitive and touches upon the work of American psychotherapist Dr Elaine Aaron, whose book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ was first published in 1996. The author also differentiates between anxiety, fear, depression and stress.

In the third chapter, ‘High-functioning Anxiety,’ the author talks about clients who are doing very well, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you hear stories of psychosomatic illnesses and anxiety. The author also touches upon ‘Productivity Guilt’ and ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

In her fourth chapter, ‘Anxiety and the Brain,’ the author talks about a movie called ‘Inside Out’ from Pixar Animation Studios. I’d watched this movie a couple of years back. She discusses the fight-flight-freeze response and explains how anxiety affects the brain. She also describes how anxiety medication works. She gives us a checklist to see if we would be at risk for anxiety.

In Chapter five, ‘Thinking Anxious Thoughts,’ she explains cognitive or mental manifestations of anxiety. She also touches upon rumination and overthinking. She then explains six common cognitive distortions like catastrophising, minimisation, over generalisation, all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, and labelling and mislabelling. She draws upon the work of Dr Aaron T Beck and his book ‘Feeling good: The new mood therapy.’ Dr Burns pioneered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT.

In Chapter six, ‘Investigating irrational beliefs’, the author touches upon the work of Dr Martin Seligman, the American psychologist who is considered the father of the Positive Psychology movement. She quotes from his book ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and your Life.’

Part Two of the book is called ‘When Anxiety Strikes’. Chapter seven, ‘Am I Having a Panic Attack’ describes what a panic attack is, how it may manifest, how to overcome it and deal with it.

Chapter eight or ‘Work, Work, Work’ is about workplace anxiety and how to cope with it. The author quotes from Brene Brown’s book ‘Daring greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.’ Sonali Gupta writes about coping with anxiety at work.

Chapter nine is about ‘Taking a Mental health Sabbatical’. She talks about how to plan a mental health sabbatical when one experiences a burnout.

Chapter 10 ‘Too Wired and Too Tired’ talks about social media and setting digital boundaries. In Chapter 11, she talks about how social media is fuelling our anxiety. It is much-needed in today’s world when the boundaries between personal and professional lives keep blurring, and everyone is online 24/7.

In Chapter 12, she talks more about productivity guilt and ‘perfectionism, procrastination and anxiety’ She also explains imposter syndrome and errand paralysis. 

In Chapter 13, she talks about ‘Anxiety in Love.’ She talks about behaviour like ‘ghosting’, ‘orbiting’, ‘stashing’ and ‘breadcrumbing’ that result in anxiety for the parties involved.

In Chapter 14, ‘Connected Yet Disconnected,’ the author explains how in some cases, anxiety leads to loneliness and in others, loneliness leads to anxiety. She also talks about binge behaviour and offers a test to readers to check their binge behaviour.

In Chapter 15, ‘Social Anxiety is Real’, the author touches upon clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Hendriksen’s ‘How to be yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.’ She explains the difference between social anxiety, introversion and shyness. She talks about the factors that increase the risk of social anxiety and explains social anxiety disorder and how to get help for it.

Part three of her book (Chapters 16 to 20) is about Managing Anxiety. Chapter 16 touches upon soothing rituals and how to use the five senses as a grounding ritual. She talks about behaviours that aggravate anxiety.

 In Chapter 17 or Pause Rituals, the author talks about the power of pause, journaling, reading, exercise, focused breathing and mindful meditation.

In Chapter 18, ‘How Therapy for Anxiety Works,’ she discusses anxiety from a therapist’s lens. She also talks about neuroplasticity, why it’s important, cognitive restructuring and cognitive techniques.

In Chapter 19, ‘Befriending your inner critic’, the author talks about tools to help us build self-compassion in our life. She quotes from Stanford-based psychologist Carol Dweck’s ‘Mindset: The new psychology of success.’

In her final chapter, Sonali Gupta writes about how to help others with their anxiety. This book is an important read, especially in the wake of the pandemic and all of us leading digital lives. It is set in an Indian context and serves as a go-to manual for anxious Indians, especially Gen Z and millennials.

On Writing

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with the written word. That dates back to fourth grade because my memory seems to have blocked out life before that. Starting with ‘The Secret of the Burnt Cottage’ by Enid Blyton only to demolish library after library in the neighbourhood and devour all their books hungrily, I was, to put it mildly, a voracious reader.

As Stephen King famously said ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that’.

I had, in my childhood, picked up some basic tools for my English essays. My teachers in Chennai, India, were delighted that my compositions were imaginative and conveyed concepts such as solar eclipses during which the sky went dark only to convince the ‘locals’ of the ‘tribe’ that the protagonist of my essay had supernatural powers (an idea inspired by Tintin), horses with wings and other mythical creatures.

From class nine onward, for a long time, however, I forsake reading for pleasure. I still don’t know how I let it happen. That took a heavy toll on my writing and should I say, identity. But for some sporadic reading, I didn’t read like I breathed. Which was what happened earlier. So life slowly began to ebb away from me, until I was a shell of my former self. In my quest to be a freelance feature writer, my writing lost all soul.

Now, 40, I have rediscovered the joys of reading. And writing. And editing. I feel like Voldemort who is getting stronger and stronger after drinking the unicorn’s blood, except that I’m on the good side. I would definitely choose Gryffindor if a sorting hat were to be placed over my head.

Four years ago, I was in Bangalore, India, at a café where a book event was being conducted. Yasmeen Premji, author of ‘Days of Gold and Sepia’, and wife of billionaire industrialist Azim Premji, was discussing her book. I’d been invited to the event and landed up with a copy of the book to get her autograph.

When I went up to her desk, she asked me whether I was a writer. I said I wasn’t sure. She was quick to say “Then, you most certainly are.”

I guess writing to me is like cycling. Once you learn to cycle, you don’t forget it. You get back on the bike and it gives you a sense of freedom as you propel the bike forward by pedaling. Similarly, writing about topics of my choice is cathartic. It sets free my spirit and strengthens my sense of self. I identify as a writer and editor. A published author has told me that I make a better editor than a writer, but the need to express myself never goes away. Call it my way of putting myself out there, my small way of trying to make a mark in this huge cosmos before we all become dust and return to the earth, the drive remains. The desire to get better at it remains. What I will make of myself remains to be seen. I may just continue to remain a small speck in this cosmos. But that’s okay too 🙂

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