The Remains of The Evening

A guy.
His girl.
And, their dog.
Planning world domination over a cup of coffee.
I would like to say something interesting like the above…but, unfortunately, that isn’t the story.
The actual boring story goes like this.

A guy.
His girl.
And, their dog.
The girl came back home dog tired.
The guy worked at home all day and was possibly more dog tired than the girl.
They both argued about who is going to make the coffee to help them get through the rest of the day.
After 1/2 hour of negotiation, the girl found herself making the coffee.
While drinking the coffee, they hurriedly catch up on the happenings of the day.
Then, they get on with the rest of the never ending to-do list for the day.

That is how actual stories run.
They are rather boring.

That is why I use my “writers” license to jazz up each story with way more drama than is needed.

There, I said it.

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

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.

The Starfish Story

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference to that one.”

Ari’s Birth Story

He accompanied me for 6 months to Wharton classes. He heard all the world class professors. Friends joked. “This one is Abhimanyu. He is going to learn everything there is to know about Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Finance”. He even walked with me on the graduation podium to collect the hard earned diploma.

He went on walks with me. I took him to the beach. So, he could hear the sounds of the beach even before he saw the beautiful waves.

He heard me sing and talk to him throughout the night. I winced throughout the last 3 months he was within me because his kicks were much more vigorous than his elder brother’s kicks.

Then, he was born. A Born Leo. It was a very normal delivery.

I was getting ready to leave the hospital and come back home to help Adi get started with his first day of school. 24 hours after he was born, everything started going downhill. His blood sugar dropped. There was “some” problem with his breathing. So, they started poking him (just 1 day old) to keep monitoring his blood level. It tore my heart. Then, they told me that he can’t go back home. I didn’t understand. What the heck did they mean by “He can’t go back home with you.”

He was mine. He was mine to keep. He was mine to raise. He was the one who was destined to stand beside my pyre and cry the loudest.

I didn’t understand what they meant by “He can’t go back home with you.” Then they told me. He had aspirated during his birth. He had to be moved to Lucille Packard Intensive Care. He had to be monitored. There was “risk” involved.

Every time I find myself in a stressful situation, a sudden calm takes over me. The brain takes control.

Suddenly, I was not in a rush to go back home. I used all the communication and persuasion tactics I had ever learnt. I told them “I am not leaving. Not without him.” They took me to the room where he had to be placed in an incubator. He had to be poked to put the IV in. They were gentle. They told me “Please mom, you delivered a baby. Your mind and body are tired. You won’t be able to see us poke him for the IV. Can we please accompany you outside this room?”.

In a calm tone, I responded. “I am not going anywhere. Through rain and shine, through sickness and health I am going to stand beside him. I will sing all his favorite songs that I have been singing for the last 9 months. I will hold his tiny fingers to calm him. Then you can poke him for the IV.” They obliged. I sang. They poked. There was not a peep from him.

For the next several hours, my eyes were stuck on the monitor that tabulated how good his oxygen levels were. Whenever I blinked, I felt guilty. I couldn’t rest. I shouldn’t. So, I watched the monitor like a hawk.

After many hours, Kumar convinced me to go back home and rest. That was the hardest ride ever. There was no tears. Only a very heavy heart as I got into the car and realized that the car seat was not holding him for the first car ride home with mom. I went back home and rested.

I took Adi to the first day of his school. I even humored Adi with the annual tradition of dipping his footsteps in rice flour and making him walk across the door step to make little Krishna steps for Krishna Jayanthi. Daddy and my dear friends Revati and Jagan provided incredible emotional support.

After a couple of days, the doctors gave the green signal. There was no infection. His lungs were clear. He could come back home. We brought him back home.

Then, for many months, Kumar and me would lie awake to ensure he was breathing normally.

Till today, the most precious thing in the world for me is to see his chest move up and down…rhythmically..slowly but steadily…as he falls asleep.

The little man grew up to be the one with the kind heart, shiny eyes and the naughty grin. He is most certainly the precious gift that God decided should stay with me.

He is mine. He is mine to keep. He is mine to raise. He is the one who is destined to stand beside my pyre and cry the loudest.

Ari is turning 5. Please shower your blessings on the naughty young fellow who holds my heart strings in his little fingers.

Footnote:
My heartfelt thanks to all of you who commented on this thread, called me or messaged me saying this story was touching and inspirational. Thank you also for confiding in me your “parent-child” experiences. Here is my 2 cents (for whatever it is worth). This story is inspiring and touching not because it is Ari’s or mine. It is very inspiring and touching because it is also YOUR story. It is the story of you staying awake and holding your child through out a sickness. It is the story of every parent and the special bond that they share with their child. It is the story of feeling a special bond with your spouse, your family, your community…because you realize we are all in this together. It is the story of feeling vulnerable and strong…all at once. It is the story of humanity’s struggle to protect its off-spring and send them forth to a brighter and happier world. It is the story of nature manifesting intelligence and kindness. We are the generation that is holding the baton to raise the “next” generation. I wish all of you good luck with your parenting. Stay Strong.