* Note: This article was originally published on The Morning Bell, an English daily based in Imphal, Manipur (India) on 25th October 2020
It’s an anniversary of sorts this year as I complete ten years of writing, a celebration in spirit with the person I used to be a decade ago. So much has happened since then, so many places travelled, challenges accepted, attempted, failed/succeeded, learnt from/celebrated and moved on since, heartbreaks and disappointments, opportunities and excitement, seasons and the wait, but one thing hasn’t changed even today- my love for writing.
It was The Sangai Express, Manipur’s largest circulating English daily that first gave me an opportunity to write a weekly column, ‘Sunday Sentiments’ where most of my submissions used to be short stories, real and fictional and I was into creative writing. The readership I acquired from my stint with the newspaper has lasted me till today. Irrespective of which district I travel to within Manipur, I have often met up with people who ask me why I stopped writing on The Sangai Express. Once a college girl told me she had cut-outs of all my stories and preserved them in a book form. Wonder if the first chapter in her book is, “A Little Puppy Followed Me”, my first article.
This was followed by a phase where I took up professional writing assignments in the social development sector which included lot of travel and interaction across the country, majorly in rural regions and my work got published in social issue- based media platforms like the India Water Portal, the Alternative to name a few. An unforgettable experience was Nirmal Bharat Yatra in 2012, a pan India sixty-days-non-stop-travel-cum-writing mission organised by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Rural Development and UN agencies for the way it exposed me to the issues of rural India, prepared me to live out of a suitcase with over five hundred professionals who were part of the mission, sleep under the sky in tents shared with five other women journalists, use a common mobile toilet, wear unironed clothes and weaned me off any concept of privacy and comfort I may have been accustomed to. This phase made me field-ready.
I could contribute articles on a plethora of subjects to World Pulse, a USA based media platform committed to amplifying women’s voices around the world, Afghan Zariza, a Kabul based magazine, The Guardian, Youth Ki Awaaz, Imphal Free Press, The People’s Chronicle, Northeast Sun Magazine, a popular magazine showcasing the eight states of north-eastern region of India, the Gaanphiu Mail, a bilingual newspaper from Tamenglong district and Aja Daily from Ukhrul in Manipur from 2014 onwards.
During this period, I was to also experience a rare problem where I developed a factual, evidence-based and rather curt style of writing from my job in the NGO sector in knowledge management and communications space. After writing monthly reports, quarterly reports, annual reports, project ending reports, Standard Operating Procedures, technical briefs, training modules and minutes of meetings, the damage done to creative writing was mostly irreversible. In spite of the new complication, I would still not trade those years spent in documentation for anything else for the richness of experiences it brought.
By 2018 I had taken a plunge into social entrepreneurship and found myself focussing on strengthening my organisation which worked on women empowerment and women’s health which left very little time for writing. At first, I tried to do both but it led to so much of stress that I decided to let go of one. While many would think that social work and writing can be complimentary, they differ in the way we are invested in each. For instance, the former involves extreme physical investment while the latter draws out your emotional and mental capacity. When taken up together it can drain you. This is the phase when I realised what writing meant to me when I drew away from it due to circumstances. I realised that we write in order to fulfil a deeper need.
After a long gap, I resumed my writing when I was offered to write a weekly column “Diamonds and Rust” on The Morning Bell and ever since I have completed several writing assignments and projects.
Each media engagement has left something valuable within me. World Pulse taught me the importance of communicating thoughts and feelings on issues, boldly and effectively and facilitated understanding that giving out my perspective as a woman could never be wrong. My biggest take away from World Pulse program till date is the ‘elevator pitch’. Over the years after having worked with several editors, I learnt the art of elaboration if volume was desired and being brief when needed, to join the dots between different thoughts and communicate till the end without leaving anything left unsaid, and understanding the importance of global and local issues and sentiments.
If I am asked to write similar kind of stories that I used to write in 2010, I am afraid I can’t, even if I try, because I have changed as a person during this period.
Writer’s block is real. When a person is unable to begin writing, its due to the fear of not being able to do justice to what the mind wants to convey.
Each award I received for my writing has made me more careful about what I write because I carry the responsibility of quality and character. In the process my writing has improved immensely and writing has become one of my professional strengths.
In mentoring sessions on communication, people often ask me how to improve their writing skills. My advice to them is to open up as a person and not be guarded or overtly private in nature because writing involves a kind of freedom with which you share a part of you with others. More than the beauty of words and composition, what counts is the content of the thought, feeling or idea you share.
Express yourself using every medium at your disposal, be it social media, blog or even a personal journal. Writing is like Mathematics, it takes practice.
My daughter often makes me a cup of ‘chai’ when I sit to write to encourage and support me because she knows very well the struggles of a writer to begin writing. There is a tradition in my family where my parents always read my articles in the newspapers, send me pictures of my articles, call the hawker and take additional copies to give them to me when I visit Imphal. Family support is a gift for writers.
I began writing for the national newspaper, The Statesman in 2019 and in Deccan Herald, one of the leading English newspapers in southern India from this month onwards with my own column “Half the Sky” opening new doors and access to a much bigger audience going forward. I know a new chapter is beginning in my life but I will always cherish memories of my formative years and people who helped and supported me.
They say that if you keep walking and doing what means a lot to you, opportunity comes looking for you and bangs on your door because passion is as important as skill and that is the story of my life.
The written word has immense power. Words can give wings to ideas and thoughts, build a social movement, garner support for a community or cause, bring business avenues, remove misunderstandings, uplift a society, heal people and help them to make peace with the past.
(The author is a journalist and social entrepreneur in the field of women empowerment, women’s health and digital literacy. Urmila is an alumni of World Pulse flagship program Advanced Digital Empowerment Program)