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What Cathy Ostlere learned from writing Karma

The Heart is a Muse
Nine Things My Last Book Taught Me

by Cathy Ostlere

In the spring of 2008, with my first book off to the printer, I was excited but deeply exhausted. I wondered if I had another book in me. Afraid to stop writing—if I put the pen down would I have the strength to pick it up?—I knew I needed a story, and fast. And it needed to have nothing to do with water. Lost: A Memoir involves drownings—real and metaphoric—so I wanted to get far from the unknowable, unforgiving ocean and the color green.

But what to do next? Perhaps something lighter than a tragedy about a boat that goes missing. What about a love story for teenagers—how hard could that be? I followed the advice Arthur Slade gave at a workshop and searched through the labyrinth of my computer files for writing that had begun with promise but had long been abandoned. I discovered a Word document called “India”: 30,000 words of stream-of-consciousness prose written after a six-month trip through Asia in 1984. The piece was set in a desert. No water, the driest of all landscapes. Lots of bright colors bounced across the pages: yellow and orange; pinks and purples. And there was a young woman in love with a young man. I would write a book about joy, I imagined. It would be so sweet my teeth would hurt. Six months, I told myself. That should be all I’d need. Simple language. Lighter fare. Two hundred pages, max. And in this story, no one would disappear.

Five months later I realized that I could not have been more wrong or more woefully naïve.

The beautiful girl from my Word document turned out to have quite a tale to tell. It was romantic like I wanted but it was also sad, tragic, difficult: Someone she loved had died. Oh, dear. This was soundingserious. But I followed the girl I called Maya as she raced through Delhi, Jodphur, Jaisalmer. Together we traveled on trains and through deserts as I had done in India in 1984. I mined my memories: the good ones and the nightmares. I gave her some of my experiences, but Maya’s journey was much more difficult than mine had ever been. In hers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated on the day she and her father arrive in Delhi; the city explodes with violent riots while she hides alone in a hotel room; later there are genocidal murders and witchcraft persecutions. Not only was this not the book I had imagined, but Maya was not a mere love-struck teenager. She was smart, feisty, assertive, and independent, but how much more could she take of the brutality around her? When Sandeep—her cocky love interest—showed up, I thought: Finally, we have the love story! But as Sandeep stole Maya’s heart, he also stole mine with his humor and new tale of a tragic childhood. Karma was expanding.

Page after page the manuscript grew. Page 278. Nasty Akbar appears (rather late) and tries to run off with the narrative—later my editor would step in and slash Akbar’s influence and power. Page 356. Finally, a kiss between Maya and Sandeep. Page 483. A silver blade appears. Another murder? The worst kind of all? But still, there is more to come. And I feel like I am hanging on for the ride. When the 500-page mark is crossed, I am dreaming about this book.

Now, at this moment, it would be fair to question whether the author had reasonable control over her work. And I think it would be honest to reply, only occasionally. One of the characters wants to die. Is the author willing to write a second suicide? One of the main characters wants to make love. But the other is refusing. What should the author do? Let a 15-year-old Sikh girl and a 17-year-old Hindu boy have sex? The cultural ramifications are enormous. Later, a character wants to commit an atrocious act of mass murder that is based on a real-life event. The literary agent is getting nervous. And the writer? What is she to do about the love story that has gone awry? Where is the sweetness that she first imagined?

After exploring the story of Karma for what had stretched into two and a half years, I learned many, many things, the least of which is not to underestimate anything when it comes to writing. But here, I will keep my list to nine (like the Muses*) realizations.

First off, I was worried that Karma wasn’t publishable. I thought it might be too political and too poetic for the YA market. So I went looking for books that were similar in length, style, historical accuracy, and intensity. I read widely, delighting in writing that was gutsy, dangerous, accurate, and informative. I revisited my own question: How hard could it be to write a teenage love story? Crazy hard, it turns out. I learned that YA readers demand authenticity, and they won’t be fooled by a lazy writer looking for shortcuts. I chose five books to sit on my desk and act as buoys and reminders of excellence: Melanie Little’s historical The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, Ellen Hopkins’s brutally honest Crank, Helen Frost’s poetically perfect Keesha’s House, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s painful, first-person story Speak. And though it’s not a YA book, I also kept a copy of George Elliott Clarke’s verse novel Whylah Falls to remind me to take risks. These authors taught me to be brave. (#1) Bravery is what readers want.

The second thing that I learned from writing Karma is that main characters can never be abandoned. (#2) Their stories (invited or uninvited) must be respected all the way to the end. Will Maya’s missing father be found? Is there a possibility for his redemption? And so, I learned to let the narrative rope out a little, a little more yet, and then follow my characters down into their rabbit hole (of hell).

Now even for me, Karma sometimes feels too harsh for YA literature. But there is something that rescues it from its slide into darkness, I think. Poetry. Karma is a verse novel. The language is descriptive but exact. The rhythmic lines move the reader around the emotional points in the story. The white space on the page offers the necessary, often needed lightness. And so here is something else I learned: Style and form can help a writer manage intense, sensitive material. (#3) Some of the scenes in Karma are horrific, but I think the spare poetics allows readers to fully understand what is happening without being swallowed by the violence.

Writing Karma also stirred up concerns that because I am not Sikh, Hindu or Indian, I was appropriating a story from a culture that wasn’t my own. I believe that every writer has the right to tell whatever story compels her, but there must be accuracy, respect, and due diligence in writing other cultures and languages. I was confident in my research—what little there was to discover about that bloody time in India’s history—but what if I had something wrong? Something insulting or disparaging? So, a few months before the final edits were to be approved I knew I needed to find Asian writers who could read the manuscript for accuracy. What I learned from my three readers was that I had captured the details, the history, and the culture. Their edits were small but they added to the authenticity ofKarma, particularly the Punjabi prayers. Karma has been well received in the Indian communities of North America. Many members of Punjabi families have thanked me for writing this story. Karma is one of the few English-language books that recount the slaughter of 10,000 Sikhs that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. With my stomach in knots while I considered my audacity, I learned why we enter unfamiliar territory: Writers write the stories they are passionate about; writers write the stories that won’t leave their heads. (#4 and #5) Writers write on their knees, with heads bowed in deep respect. (#6)

I see writers as caretakers: We hold complete worlds (real or imagined) in our palms. What fear! What joy! What mystery! And what responsibility. By writing Karma I learned something that my memoir, Lost, could not teach me. Lost pulled me into the muscle of my body where memories had to be re-experienced and grief needed to be faced. Even though loss is a universal experience, my story was personal. But writing Karma took me directly into the heart—and not just my heart, but the heart of a people, a culture, a nation, and the larger heart of humanity. Acts of murder targeted at religious or cultural groups are acts of violence against every human being. When writers choose to speak about injustice, whether it is genocide or bullying, they lift the world from their hands and heave it onto their shoulders. Writing Karma taught me that I am part of the larger world and that I must express this through my writing. (#7)

Karma also taught me that writing a book is an intense labor of love that will not yield to a prescribed time frame. (#8) This is the single thing I am absolutely certain of when it comes to writing. Love for characters drives the narrative. Love of words drives the prose. Love of story finds the ending. Love of truth makes it all matter. But ideas about Time must be relinquished.

As a final thought I want to say: Caretakers, take gentle care. (#9)

a) Take care of yourself: Remember to breathe, sleep, eat, laugh. Writing is joy, but it is still work work work—the internal kind. Its exertions not always visible or understood.

b) Take care of your writing: Don’t share it casually with the outside world until you are satisfied. Unfinished work is like thread; it can be snapped easily.

c) Rest. Characters drain us like children and lovers. Violence and horror can pull us down. Let the work rest, too.

d) Take care of your wild thumping heart. And believe that it is strong. Entire worlds depend upon this.


* Just for fun—here are the nine Muses (according to Wikipedia):

  • Clio, the muse of history
  • Euterpe, the muse of flute and musical instruments
  • Thalia, the muse of comedy and science
  • Melpomene, the muse of tragedy
  • Terpsichore, the muse of dance and poetry
  • Erato, the muse of the lyre and love poetry
  • Urania, the muse of astronomy
  • Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred songs and the art of mimic
  • Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and eloquence
This article was taken from Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts literary journal. Hunger Mountain is both a print and online journal of the arts. It publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, young adult and children’s writing, writing for stage and screen, interviews, reviews, and craft essays. Print issues come out annually in the fall, and online content changes on a regular basis.
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