Once upon a time, there was something called a struggling writer. The struggling writer would write a novel and send it out to multiple publishers, only to be drowned by a barrage of rejections. All the while, the writer had been working at a clerical job with meager pay, pitting all his hopes on that one novel. Well, now that dream was shattered — the writer had to submit to an unpublished, unrecognized, undecorated existence. Of course, the writer’s novel would gain immense fame after his somewhat tragic death. Alas! The struggling writer’s wandering soul would lament, “If only I had got this during my lifetime…”
Fast-forward to today’s internet enabled age of immediate gratification. The struggling writer is almost a thing of the past. Writers are getting their stuff published quickly to gain fame. Also, many writers have highly paying careers right through the time of writing the novel, getting it publishing, and through the ‘happily ever after’ phase. And in many cases, the hotshot careers are preceded by engineering or management degrees at prestigious colleges in India. If you have seen the slideshow at the top of the post, you will know that all the people listed below are best-selling authors, and that:
- Chetan Bhagat graduated from IIT (1995) and IIM (1997).
- Ravi Subramanian graduated from IIM Bangalore (1993).
- Amish Tripathi is an alumnus of IIM Kolkata.
- Arnab Ray graduated from Jadavpur University (1999), and then got a PhD from SUNY (State University of New York) at Buffalo, USA (2004).
- Ashwin Sanghi did a BA from St Xaviers College, Mumbai and then an MBA from Yale University
The list can go on, but two patterns are already evident —
- All these famous writers attended world-renowned colleges and universities.
- All of these writers pursued degrees that were not even remotely connected with writing books and novels.
Now all budding writers amongst you might have the following questions in mind:
What is it with Indian novelists and famous universities?
Do famous universities teach you how to write a best-seller?
And if so, WHAT ARE THOSE TRICKS?
Read on to find out the answers…
Why did I make the above list in the first place? I did so because I wanted to learn some lessons from these writers, and pass those valuable lessons on to you. To answer questions such as:
- What were the common traits between these writers that you too can imbibe?
- How could an engineering or management degree equip a person to be a writer?
- And finally, what if I could not make it to IIT or IIM? – Does that mean my future as a writer is doomed?
Let us tackle these one by one.
What’s the secret? The secret is bloody hard work.
Let us step back to our school days, and rewind to the `ghisa-pitaa‘ tapes our Moms would run for us everyday, “Betaa, khub mehnaat karke paro. Accha college mein ghusnaa hai naa?” (Study real hard son. Gotta get into a good college, right?) These golden words make us realize that most people get into prestigious colleges out of sheer hard work.
Those who have gone through the grind of IIT and IIM preparation will agree. Those who have cracked the state level entrance exams will agree. Those who studied real hard and got high marks in Board exams to secure entrance to a good college will agree. Kids with enormous IQ-s and kids with rich parents may not agree to the hard-work part (their route is a little different), but let us ignore them for the moment, shall we?
So the common trait is hard work. Sheer slogging. Sweating it out through assignments, tuitions, and mock tests. You get the general drift, right?
But one might ask, hard work can help in exams that let you get into good colleges.
How can hard work help in writing books? Wasn’t writing mainly about creativity?
Well, creativity is a major factor and probably one of the most important factors. But so many people are creative in today’s world (take a look at photos uploaded by your friends in Facebook, and you will begin to think that creativity is passe). But after creativity, the rest is all about badass hard work. And not many people can do the badass hard work for weeks and months and years.
And writing a book is hard work. Sh**-loads of hard work.
Writing definitely does not “come on tap”. An occasional blog-post is something many of us are able to manage from our busy work-life schedules. But writing an entire book is quite a different story. It requires a disciplined writing regimen through weeks, months, and sometimes years to go on and finish a book.
And that is where these kids who slogged their asses off to get into good colleges have an edge — they can do the “hard brick-lifting” to finish their work. They can slog through it all to write the book of their dreams.
Let us take a few examples from our earlier list:
- Amish Tripathi wrote most portions of his book in the back-seat of his car when he was being driven to and from office.
- Ravi Subramanian and Ashwin Sanghi burned the midnight oil and worked on their books while their families were tucked away in bed. (That’s exactly what good students did, remember?)
- Chetan Bhagat worked in an investment banking job (we all know that the working hours in this industry are long), and still managed extra time to write books. Of course, Chetan acknowledges that he did some of his writing in office to vent anger on his boss, but Chetan was always one to do naughty things.
- Arnab Ray got a Ph.D. (that is usually a life-draining experience by itself), did a research job in U.S.A., created and constantly updated one of India’s top blogs greatbong.net, and still managed to write two best-selling books.
One wonders what stuff these people are made of. Well at least one thing’s for certain — they all work bloody hard.
But why engineering?
OK, so the hard work part makes sense. But how the hell does an engineering degree help in writing? Or an MBA for that matter?
In an interview with NDTV, Chetan Bhagat acknowledged that his main motivation for going to IIT was that his parents wanted him to do so. He hailed from a middle-class family. Like so many other middle-class families in India, his parents wanted him to get good degrees and settle down with a good job. And what better way to do that than getting degrees both IIT and IIM!
The story of Arnab Ray’s choice of engineering is probably the most interesting. As a young boy, Arnab Ray told his father that he wanted to be a writer. His father gave him some sound advice:
Son, I really encourage you to follow any career that you want. But if you want to make a career of music or writing, you have to be the absolute best in your field. Otherwise you will just not make enough money. However, if you become an engineer, and you are just an average engineer, you will earn enough money. This is what I can tell you — the choice is yours.
That just about sums up why so many people in our country opt for engineering and/or MBA. Engineering / MBA is the safe bet. Writing or pursuing the arts is madness. [Watch the TEDx talk to hear the story in Arnab’s own words: http://gounconventional.com/2011/11/11/tedx-talk-by-indias-top-blogger-arnab-ray/]
Well now we know why all these writers pursued engineering or MBA. But I still did not answer the original question — did those degrees help these authors to write their books?
First let us look at the contents of some of the best-sellers. Arnab Ray’s ‘The Mine’ is a horror story set in a mine. Amish Tripathi’s Meluha trilogy is semi-mythology semi-fiction as it retells the story of a nomad called Shiva (name sound familiar?). Ashwin Sanghvi narrates the original story of the great Chanakya, and then retells the same in a modern setting. Chetan Bhagat incorporates his experiences in IIT and IIM into his books, but with heavy dollops of fantastical imagination (see infographic below).
The bottom-line — engineering or MBA ain’t gonna help these guys. It’s pure imagination for some, grueling historical research for another, and for some, a chance conversation with a beautiful stranger on a train journey (Chetan Bhagat’s ‘One Night @ The Call Center’, or was that imaginary too?)
But their degrees helped these people in another way — by dint of their reputed degrees, all these people snagged high-paying jobs in India and abroad. They had rock-solid careers at the time of writing their books. Chetan Bhagat was a investment banker in Hong Kong. Arnab Ray is a full-time researcher in USA. Ravi Subramanian is a banker with over 20 years experience. Amish Tripathi had over 14 years experience in the financial services industry before he quit his job for writing.
Thus, `do-waqt ki roti‘ was not the primary thought on their minds. Each of them stabilized their careers first, and then indulged the writers in themselves. As a far cry from the tragic unrecognized authors of yester-years, these people had their financial/career backups clearly lined up.
Of course, the reputed degrees helped in other ways too — for example, management training and college networks helped Amish Tripathi to market his book. Of course, the moolah was useful too (especially when he had trailers of his books screened at theaters across India). But more on that another time.
For now, we tackle the final burning question:
No IIT. No IIM. No writer?
So you did not make it to IIT? Nor to IIM? Went to an average engineering school? Are your chances as a writer doomed?
Nope. Absolutely not.
The aforementioned list of people (Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, and others) represents those who attended famous colleges and later became famous authors. But there could have easily been an equally long list of people of people who made it big as writers through different routes. If we consider the lifetime achievements of Steve Jobs (a college drop-out), the whole concept of attending college seems over-rated anyway!
The case in point is not that it is important to attend a famous college in order to become a famous writer. Instead the evidence points to the fact that there are some common traits shared between people who made it to prestigious colleges, and people who became famous authors. Some of these traits are:
- Hard work is a must. Be it the writing of a book, or penning regular posts at a blog, the practice of writing is definitely hard work. And if the writing has to be done after a long day at your regular job, then it ain’t gonna be easy Mister.
- Self discipline is key. Great books were not written in a day or a week. Every big writing project requires a concerted effort over several months. Two approaches are very common amongst people who want to write — postponing your writing till the office pressure goes down, or binge writing sessions where you write so much in one day that it wears you out. Both are ineffective in the long run.
- A stable career is a rock solid pillar to support one’s writing endeavors. A writer cannot worry about how to pay next month’s utility bills, and devise intriguing plot details at the same time.
- Networking helps in the field of writing too. The end product of writing is to make sure that the maximum number of people read what you write. And for that, your contacts and how you reach out to others, is a crucial factor.
- Money is helpful too. Sometimes that extra bit of publicity, or hiring a graphics designer who designs that killer cover, can make a big difference.
This checklist of advice is not just for writers, but also for people following any creative pursuit. At any stage of your life, if you are burning with the desire for starting and completing your dream project, remember the points listed above. These are the basic ingredients for any creative achievement. So get your basics right, and blaze your way to becoming a creative champ.