with an empty cup
Often, I forget to remember my own words. There is alternate version of this sentence that exists in my head which goes: Often, I fail to remember my own words. It means the exact same but the word fail sits within, like an imperfection, a piece of lead in a pure slab of steel.
In my drafts folder, this newsletter you are reading is named December 2023 V2. A V1 exists within my folder-cloud, where much like the rest of the internet voices, I made an end of the year list. Not a list of anything useful, it was a list of all the times this year I failed.
I felt it had some edge, all my failure listed down like a set of sharp dragon teeth, cutting through the noise, something different from the other lists celebrating the self, much different from the ones recommending things. In the earlier draft, one point on the list was that I failed to read/watch/consume many great recommendations I was given over 2023. Why should I place the burden of failing-to-get-to-my-recommendations on you?
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I’m fascinated by failure. Of life, words, sentences and time not going according to plan, like a path not leading to your choice of destination, almost like getting lost but worse. All the nots. Failure is a long time companion and though I should know it well, I don’t. I’ve failed at that too.
It’s not unlike hope in the shape that it persists. Like certain words and ideas that linger.
A single sentence from V1 survived into V2. It’s a good sentence, if I can say so myself. It made writing that whole list of my failings worth it.
Which brings me back to the words I often say to young writers: the first draft is you just purging all the words within to dig deeper, to get to the good stuff.
In my writing workshops (I really miss conducting these and if enough of you are willing, I could host an online workshop in January, just reply to this email and let me know), I’d designed a new exercise that my friend and fellow writer Gayatri Aptekar described as Emptying the Cup. I’ve since named the exercise that. It reminds me of the old Zen saying: to learn more, you must first empty your cup.
The exercise is simple: take an object, anything dull and boring like an ordinary red brick. List down 5 adjectives to describe it. Do this again. And again. Now, you should have a list of 15 adjectives that describe that object. Once you’re done, write a page describing the object. The only rule: avoid each word from your list. This is the fun bit. Or the hard bit.
What you end up with is what real writing is made of. Metaphors and allegories. Nothing more. Nothing else.
A first draft is similar to that list of adjectives. Once it’s out of your system, you can write the thing you really want to say. I keep forgetting this.
This year 2023 has been quite a curve ball, not a year that I can summarise in a list of events in a single newsletter. I have failed this year, far more that I thought I would. Far more than I was prepared to fail. But I have succeeded too, in life, in words, in getting closer to my dreams, in ways I did not imagine. The lines blur, Venn diagrams blend. But when I count it all on my fingers and my toes, I know I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. Maybe some years are like first drafts too, ones you have to live through to get to the good stuff.
Which brings me to the only sentence from V1 that survived: My biggest failure of 2023 has been that I fully failed to fail fully. Come tomorrow, and the day after that, and the year after that, I’ll be here, every morning, unscrewing the cap of my pen, feeling the weight shift as the ink inside sloshes this way then that, stare out the window at a grey blue sky with clouds rushing toward their ultimate demise and slowly, with the sluggishness that comes from emptying your cup, I’ll let the nib touch the page. And I’ll scrawl one word. Etch another.
For the most part, that is enough.
Literally on the 30th of last month, after I’d sent out my newsletter, 3 things happened.
1. An interview I’d given Arrnavv Chawla earlier this year — somewhere in April — went live. You can read it here.
2. My short story Anomalies got published in Skulls Issue Three. Read it here.
3. I met Christopher Paolini and thanked him for writing the World of Eragon books and got my copy of Murtagh signed.
All of my personal failings and minuscule successes feel so small when kept in the light of the genocide taking place in Palestine, the slow degradation of freedom in India and the collective deteriorating faith in humanity. My only hope is that we find better versions of ourselves in the coming year.
Until next month,
May each sleep be restful,
You’re reading Missives from an Island a newsletter by Akshay Gajria. This newsletter is delivered to your inbox on the 30th of every month. You can also find Akshay on Twitter (X), Instagram, and Medium. If you enjoyed reading, consider tipping him by buying a cup of tea (or three) here or buying his ebook (linked below). You can discover his work at akshaygajria.com