On Your Desk
On Your Desk

Trading Stories

A_wlahiri_0519 Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers, has a gorgeous piece in the current New Yorker Magazine: "Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship."  (You can read it in the June 13, 2011 issue , or online on the New Yorker website.) In this short memoir, Lahiri describes her journey from book-loving child to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and examines the mindset that turns some of us into writers  despite every other intention.

I found "Trading Stories" of particular interest because, despite our vastly different family backgrounds, Lahiri and I have one thing in common: we were both children who wrote incessantly in youth...and who then stopped writing (for a time) in young adulthood, channelling our creativity into other areas instead. She writes:

"As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years. Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it, so that I spent the second half of my childhood being gradually stripped of the one comfort I’d known, that formerly instinctive activity turning thorny to the touch. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me. I preferred practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script..." - JL

For me, too, the writing impulse was channeled into theater work, and I actually entered university intending to major in theater -- an intention so ill-suited to my nature that it seems little short of insane to me now. Fortunately it wasn't too long before I found my way back to my true vocation.

Lahiri explains her own detour away from her proper vocation with the following words:

Unaccustomed "For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?" - JL

This too I can relate to. As a child growing up with a mentally ill parent, tossed between various relatives, all I wanted in adolescence was to be ordinary, from an ordinary family. The very things in my background that give me strength and compassion as an adult, both as a woman and as a writer, were the things things that mortified me in adolescence; and I was no more willing to "alchemize" them into prose than I was to strip in public.

"It was not in my nature to be an assertive person," Lahiri continues. "I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to re-conceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'

"This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life."

I can't help but wonder how many other young writers have likewise faltered in making that step -- or, worse, have stopped in their tracks altogether. It takes courage to write, and to expose oneself. And to be oneself. But then, all art takes courage.

And stubbornness.

And foolishness.

Stirred together with a teaspoon of talent, a tablespoon of craft (or maybe it's the other way around?), a heaping cup of plain hard work, and a pinch of luck.


I want to cry.

"This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life."

I know that statement intimately. Finding balance....

I started writing very young. Back then, I never finished a story. I had so many ideas, I'd be in the middle of one story when a new one would take over and I'd write that. Everything I wrote was crap. But I wrote with absolute joy. I wrote for the sake of writing and I, being so young, had no thought of any process beyond the writing. It was just something I enjoyed doing. But then as I grew older, I began to think, "Maybe I can be published one day. Maybe I can make a living at it." The moment I began realizing that there was a process beyond the writing, that this could actually be a vocation, I froze up. I began to lose the joy, because writing suddenly seemed "important" and that I should be a "serious" writer. Doubt crept in and stayed like a mangy dog in the corner of my mind, always barking until I no longer wanted to write. So there were several years when I did other things. Not nearly as creative or fulfilling. I just couldn't face that doubt. I gradually came back to writing because the things I had been doing were making me unhappy, and now I write every day. I just had to remember, and understand, the joy I felt when I was a little girl writing stories for the heck of it. I cup that joy in my hand like a precious flower. My words and imagination are now tempered with the vision of an adult and the innocence of a child.


I've never read Ms. Lahiri. I think I need to now.

"Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'"

Indeed, all the creative and magickal arts are like that. Are there any of us who don't struggle with that leap?

Thank you Terri, for sharing your own reflections on this theme. Real food for thought to start my day.

May we be stubborn fools, all.

Thank you, Terri and Jhumpa.

Thank you so much for sharing this. It hit me right in my center. This is a description of my struggle with painting and illustration that continues even after 57 years. The inner critic still whispers those same comments that were born in adolescence. Some days they positively take over. The attempt to channel one's own artistic expression into other forms......oh yeh. I want to reread this and should probably hang it right on my drawing board.
Thanks again for this and especially thanks for the new Bordertown. I wished that the story you and Ellen wrote would have continued for 900 more pages. It was so beautifully written that some of the characters ended up in my dreams.

She wrote, "For much of my life, I wanted to be other people..."

And like her, I sought that in acting when I was young. Now I find it in writing. It's such a pleasure to hold all these people inside my head.

Thank you for this timely post. Being a writer is not an easy choice in life, and many people seem to seek for other answers before finally listening to that soft and insistent voice inside. Instead of acting, I went into health and natural medicine - a vocation that still helped me to feel connected to nature, to stories, to people - but I was in the background, shedding the light on others and their stories. It wasn't until a situation at work brought me to the breaking point of stress that I started to ask myself again: was this really the life I wanted?

It surprises me over and over how writer's so often have similar experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I know the desire to be invisible -- a means of staying out of harms way. But what I've wanted most in life is to be heard. I'm still trying to determine if it's safe, but as you say, there will always be risks. Worthwhile risks.

"For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis"

I relate so strongly to this! I have spent much of my life trying to be someone else, and of course, it is impossible to be authentically creative if we cannot be ourselves first. Thank you for pointing me towards this post Terri, I hadn't read it before. I haven't read Ms Lahiri's work either, but her name is going on my list.

Growing up with a mentally ill parent must have terribly difficult and painful - the unpredictability of mental illness can be very difficult to be around, I know.

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