Why do you Write? Part 1 – Paying it Forward

“Ambal, why do you write?”

That is a very tough question to answer. It is sort of like asking me “Why do you climb mountains?” The answers are so multi-dimensional. It is hard to capture them all.

But, since you asked, here is my attempt to answer the “Why do you write?” question.

  1. Paying it Forward

I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference. – Jimmy Carter

My parents didn’t have a camera when I was growing up. If they had had a camera, most of the photos would look like this.

Little-Girl-Reading-Ambal-Balakrishnan

I think my brain was hardwired to read and love storytelling due to several factors. My mom was an avid reader herself. She has probably read every Tamil classic possible. Also, I was surrounded by a family (grandpa, grandma, aunts, uncles) that told stories to me and sung lullabies long after I had crossed my childhood days. My family had a lot of differences (like any other family) and a lot of differing viewpoints on life. All of those differences and different views enriched my childhood experience.

My family and childhood teachers encouraged and fostered my love of reading. Even during the financially tough days, my dad always managed to buy me copies of Reader’s Digest from a used book store. My friends loaned me books. My teachers taught me the love for both poetry and prose. For all of that, I am eternally grateful.

I have read all my life. I have read almost every day. My life has been shaped by how much I have read. I have read multiple genres and subjects – history, psychology, philosophy, science, classics, biographies, poetry, religion, spirituality, mythology, thrillers, business, and more.

If I counted all the years of experience that I have “lived” by immersing myself with characters and authors in books, then I am a zillion years old. No wonder my friends sometimes call me a very old soul. That is because I have lived through the experiences of all the books that I have read.

Books have made me who I am today. I started life as the eldest daughter in a middle class family in South India. I have come so far from where I started. I have travelled the world, lived on two continents, gotten a top class education, worked at Fortune 100 tech companies, climbed mountains and done much more.

Books have shaped my life and life choices. Books have led me to seek education and adventure. Books have taken me to places that I have never been.  Books have taken me back in time and taken me to the future. Books have taught me every idea to know, every mistake not to make, every value to uphold. Everything that is to be learnt is already in books.

Books have made me a life-long learner with a growth mindset. I feel thankful for all the authors who put their pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard and helped me grow.

I used to love fiction. But, as I start growing up, I have come to realize that no fiction can match the drama of real life.

When I was much younger, I thought I had nothing to add. Everything that was to be said had already been said in a book. But, now I know otherwise.

My life and life experience is unique…just like each of the authors had a unique life experience. That is what shaped their writing. Whatever genre they wrote in, they brought all of their life experience and unique perspective. That perspective is what made each book special.

So, I am at that point in life where I feel the strong need to pay it forward.

To pay it forward one story at a time.

To pay it forward to one person at a time.

I am not in a rush.

I have my entire lifetime to tell stories that matter.

I have my entire lifetime to tell stories that are going to alter the trajectory of a reader’s mood, a reader’s day, a reader’s choices. If I dare to write the right stories with all my might …and if a reader dares to observe what I am saying closely enough, we might, together, even alter the trajectory of our lives.

Now, I don’t want you to get all worked up. I am not going to be telling any BIG stories. In most cases, what I am going to write about is going to sound like an every day frivolous occurrence. It is up to you to interpret that story….with your own unique perspective.

One starfish at a time.

If there is one weary person on this planet that I can move to action, one sad person on this planet that I can make laugh, one tired parent on this planet that I can energize, one young child’s life course that I can change, one dormant soul on this planet that I can urge to go seek adventure….just ONE…then all the effort that I put into reading and writing would have been worth it.

Hence, I write.

To pay it forward.

By the time I am done, every one of the authors who made me who I am today and every one of those people who ever told me a story or sang me a lullaby are going to be so proud of what you (the reader) and I have accomplished together.

Are you ready for the ride?

“In a world like this, you pay it forward, ’cause more than likely you didn’t deserve it when you got it the first time.”
― Mindy McGinnis, In a Handful of Dust

In reality, to live a happy life we need to know and practice very few skills

In reality, to live a happy life we need to know and practice very few skills.

That is all there is to it.

For example, every time we hit a tricky situation, if you and I could remember to say the serenity prayer, we could save ourselves a lot of pain.

Unfortunately, we don’t. We tend to bang our head against the brick walls sometimes.

Memorize this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Use it when the situation calls for it.

Drop me a note know if it helped you from getting a bruised forehead.

Nostalgia Reminds us that some Beautiful Moments are Past Us

Sometimes love arrives in a carefully packed zip lock bag after traveling 10,000 miles across oceans and continents.

Nostalgia is defined as the “sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The feeling can sometimes be evoked from music, a pleasant memory of the past, or any sensory perception that was crystallized in time by a fondly experienced moment.”

Nostalgia. Has is struck you how nostalgia strikes when you least expect it? A whiff of a perfume as somebody passes by. The smell emanating from somebody’s cooking. A voice that reminds you of somebody long gone or somebody far away. A face that looks so familiar.

I met Subha in Trichy during Fall 1993. We became fast friends really fast. I got to know her family. They are the kindest and sweetest souls. Whenever we visited her house, her mom fed me and my friends. Over the next three years, I slowly acquired the acquired taste for mahali kizhangu pickle.

My grad school friend Rathna once told me that there is a quota for everything. Eating mom’s rasam has a quota. You don’t realize the quota is done until it is done.

I didn’t realize my quota for mahali kizhangu pickle was done until it got done. My four year stint in Trichy ended in Summer 1997 and so did my quota of Suba’s mom’s mahali kizhangu pickle.

After two decades, we remain good friends.

When I visited her in Summer 2014, mahali kizhangu was on the menu. I teared up and (as usual!) laughed my way through it with some dumb jokes.

This weekend, she sent me a zip lock bag full of mahali kizhangu pickle with her family members who were visiting Austin. Thank you to her family for bringing the goodies.

I opened the ziplock bag today evening and nostalgia hit me hard. My senses took a ride through a time long gone by. My mind was transported to Tiruchy. The hot weather. The dryness. The cold curd rice her mom served with so much love. I can almost hear her dad’s voice “Ambal, Nalla sappadu di. Innum konjum mahali kizhangu pottuku. Unnaku piddikama di.” (English Translation: Ambal, eat well. Take some more mahali kizhangu? You like it, don’t you?)

I wish I could go back to those days. Relive them. Relive them more fully.

Alas, I can’t. None of us can.

But, here is the beauty of nostalgia.

Nostalgia reminds us that some beautiful moments of life are past us. It reminds us to live this moment. To live this moment more fully.

Because, there is a quota for moments that we have. As Rathna said, you don’t realize the quota is done until it is done.

I’ll go back now and eat some more of those cherished mahali kizhangu pickle.

I hope this post rekindled your memories of a day long gone by. A taste long gone by. A smell long gone by. A person who is special to your heart.

I urge you to pick up your phone and call that old friend and start by saying “Remember when we….”.

Candid Footage of the Hail Storm that hit Austin

Our very own resident journalist Adi brings you candid footage of the hail storm that hit Austin yesterday evening between 9-10pm CST.

The last time I encountered hail was in Summer 2010. Hail hit us hard (literally and figuratively) in the wilderness at about 12,000 feet as Kumar and I were trying to race towards Mt. Whitney’s peak at 14,500 feet. We couldn’t find a place to hid and save ourselves from the hail. Well, that is another story.

Yesterday’s hail storm was loud, but much less dramatic given that we were safe at home.

Here is how the 3 boys reacted to the hail storm:

Ari kept asking me the following questions: Why ice was falling from the sky?  Could we taste the ice?

Adi grabbed the umbrella camera and went about shooting pictures and videos.

Kumar worried about what was going to happen to our cars that were parked outside.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.