There are at least two authors I know of, for whom, the act of writing is closely connected with meditation (or rather, the extreme form of meditation, namely, tapas — penance). One is Raja Rao, for whom the word is a mantra, which, uttered in the proper fashion, can work wonders. The other is the Tamil writer La. Sa. Ra, who believes that if the writer puts his/her heart and soul in to his/her writing, then when he/she writes “fire”, the word will have the power to burn — and, having read his short story Jamadagni and felt the intensity of the writing, I would tend to agree. And, of course, there are other writers who are not so explicit, but echo the same sentiments; for example, Bharathiyar says, “When the true light dawns in the mind, the words uttered will have the light too”; and, Vivekananda is said to have meditated on each of Patanjali’s yoga sutras for a few hours before he dictated his commentary.
So, what is this tapas? According to Atwood, it is a journey to the land of the dead; and, hence the title of her book Negotiating with the dead. Atwood also indicates that this journey to the land of the dead is in some sense a result of the dichotomy between the mortal author and his immortal work. Thus, the thesis that Atwood prescribes to is that writing is a reaction to the fear of death. The examples that Atwood choose are mostly from the Western Canon — Gilgamesh, Odyssey, Orpheus, Dante, Aeneid, and so on. I would personally add the story of Nachiketas, the boy who went to the land of dead and brought the secrets of immortality (and, not surprisingly, knowledge is the secret of immortality — Amrutham tu vidya, and the Upanishad is called Katha) to the listing. Of the few encounters with the God of death in the Indian literature/folklore, both Nachiketas and Savitri have some parallels as well as differences from the other “meeting-the-god-of-death” stories that I have heard of. For example, Nachiketas goes to the God of death on his own volition (and not with the thought of bringing anything back–wealth, knowledge, a dead person, fame, etc–though, in the end, he gets all this and much more!).
Apart from these, the other things that Atwood says about the tradition of writing and story telling have their own parallels too in the Indian literary tradition. For example, one is usually asked to “Say a thousand, but do not write down even a single one” — of course, this is usually with reference to laws since what is written down becomes permanent while some of the laws are based on the time, place and environment and not for ever. Similarly, curses at the end of a book to those who will change even a line, or a word, or a comma, and instructions as to whom the contents of the book are meant are also well known. Finally, as A K Ramanujan points out, many a times the story telling ends in a very quaint note — apparently, in Andhra, they say, “Then the story went to Kanchi, we came home — katha kanchi-ki; manam inti-ki”; in Assam (or in Orissa?) they say “The other day I saw the King in the bazaar; but he wouldn’t recognize me”.
To summarise, Atwood’s Negotiating with the dead is a very enjoyable read; it is a must-read if questions about writing process (who, why and how) excite you. The book set me thinking (as you might have noticed from the comments above) about Indian writing/story telling tradition; in that sense, I think this can a be a nice complementary reading to A K Ramanujan. In fact, in some places, I guess the emphasis of Atwood is misplaced, while Ramanujan gets it right; for example, the writer feeling that the stories have a life their own could be more of a folkloric tradition and might not be specific to written texts, “their having been conceived, gestated and given birth to by the author”. The book also set me thinking about the parallels between scientific writing and the type of writing that Atwood talks about in her book; for example, compare the famous article of Poincare about mental processes involved in mathematical discoveries with Atwood’s journey into the other world, or “the art for arts sake, and hence good art should be of no use to anybody” argument with Hardy‘s apology for mathematics. Finally, the book also set me thinking about folkloric elements in Harry Potter series; may be there are a few PhD thesis to be written on that topic!
Get Atwood, curl up on the sofa with some hot coffee, and have fun — I can not envisage a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon!