Most of us would scream, ‘Textbooks intimidated us!’ We can’t point at textbooks, as Matt Riddley aptly points out ‘Compulsory, class based education of young people by teachers in preparation for exams is one of those universal things nobody ever questions!’
It’s not Stephen King’s horror novels. Rather, he is one of my favorite authors, whom I have often quoted during my motivational talks. His bulletproof focus on writing only ‘horror’ is legendary.
It’s not Mein Kempf either, which nobody in our subcontinent reads. Hitler wrote that autobiography even before he was a Fuhrer and unleashed the world’s worst genocides. If read with the right objective, it teaches the power of having goals. He built one of the great republics with a clear cut intent of anti-communism and anti-Semitism, though wrong ones.
Nor it is Religious books. They shower abundant wisdom and it is up to us what to imbibe or reject.
Then what the heck? It’s a book that teaches the writers, correct usage of the English language! Well, well, well. Why English lessons now and why would a book on language lessons intimidate? To help kids, in their homework? Oh, No. It is their mother’s duty! And how it bullied me? Let me explain.
One fine day I decided to write. Not a Eureka moment. I had to be out of my Robben Island. Unlike Nelson Mandela, who was in prison on Robben Island for political reasons, I was in my solitary confinement called complacency for the last 18 years! Motivational Guru Tony Robbins quotes, “Only two things motivate people. Pain and pleasure!” A few extremely painful moments of my life have forced me to make this decision.
Earlier I did manage to publish a few articles on my favorite subjects – Environment and Agriculture, in national dailies. An editor called me offering, “Doc your writing is excellent. They are well researched and crafted thoughts. Please be our weekly columnist.” Wow, I screamed with joy. More than the idea of becoming an accomplished journalist, the vision of handing out a check of additional income to my wife was appealing. But, reality struck me soon. The pressure of delivering a 1000 word article, right on time, week after week, was unbearable. I burnt out within a month. And losing that great opportunity pained me.
Next, I wrote two motivational books! First, “An Otologist who sold his operating microscope.” A publisher rubbished me saying, “Nobody reads Bible now. If you want to publish, cut down the words to 90k.” I was unwilling to reduce my mammoth, 250k words passionate work of 4 years, to rubble. Next time I was careful. Second, “Making of a Cochlear Implant Surgeon” was finely crafted to 90k words. Another published condemned me saying, “It is purely local. Make it global.” Leeches! They expected me to do my marketing research about my audience and reach maximum! Becoming a millionaire through writing is only a myth. These bitter experiences with the publishers stalled my plans of culminating the summary of my motivational courses in the form of a book – “How to De-focus yourself and still win at everything!”, a sure-fire New York times International best seller! That hurt me.
I co-authored a chapter for a book on Skull Base Surgery published by Thieme Publishers and only to find in the end that, I was only a third author and that did not carry much academic significance. Thieme agent kept calling me for more work until I killed his enthusiasm with my overdose of excuses. Later, when I tried to contact him, I realized that they permanently block people suffering from excusitis! That stung me.
I started a blog after paying high rentals for five years. It remained vacant until the last month when its tenure got expired, resulting in huge loss and that was jabbing!
The final kick came from Dr. Samiran Nundy, the dean of GangaRam PGIMER. According to his study published in ‘Current Medicine Research and Practice’, in the year 2014-15, only 25 (4.3%) of the institutions produced more than 100 papers a year! Indian Medical Colleges were following the Pareto’s Principle religiously. Pareto Principle or 80/20 Principle – is the observation that if you divide the world into causes and results, relatively few causes (roughly 20%) nearly always lead to most of the results (around 80%). Thus, a small number of people are responsible for great human progress (and indeed most human disasters!). And the fact that I was not part of this little group caused me intense agony.
When one fine day I sat with pen and paper, the truth struck me like thunder! I was not good enough in English. English was not my mother tongue and neither myself, not my ancestors had any opportunity to be servants of the British. I studied in the Kannada medium till the 10th and the English language was thrust upon us during pre-university education. We were taught English as a subject, never as a language. During the professional course, I didn’t speak to fellow “Carment bred!” classmates for nearly a year. When required to communicate, used sign language! Only the British to blame for my pathetic situation. Even Mahatma Gandhi had complained earlier that the British had ‘uprooted a beautiful tree’ and left India more illiterate than it had been, in displacing the indigenous private school network with a disastrously unsuccessful public one, centralized, unaccountable and open to caste exclusion. Apparently British furiously refuted, even though the evidence is strong enough, Matt Riddley quips.
Am I good at writing in my mother tongue? Ah! No. All the professional struggle in the English speaking world has driven my literati Kannada vocabulary away from me. I was forced to approach English-Kannada reverse dictionary to find the right Kannada word. With great difficulty, I managed a few articles out in Kannada dailies. One important article was “Environmental Hazards of Thadadi Thermal Power project.” Environmentalists and opposition used that piece to stall the Government’s ambitious project. Later, I made no much progress due to a limited audience, and I was forced to use the English to reach a larger audience.
After having installed this non-negotiable goal of writing in English, it was time to fix the bugs of this beta version. Search, re-search and re-calibrated internet search suggested me the book “Element of Style” by Strump and White, published in 1918, and 5-star rated and highly reviewed. I ordered that book costing Rs. 800/- on Amazon. After a month of exasperated waiting, it arrived, massively puncturing my expectations. It was just a 26-page book, appeared to be photocopied on order, bound clumsily and mailed to me. First time in my life, I felt intimidated, humiliated and cheated. I didn’t touch it for a week and cursed my online research abilities.
However, when I opened the book reluctantly after a week of trepidation, I was surprised to find that the most valuable writing skills explained in a mere 26 pages. It describes all the common mistakes committed by even seasoned authors. It pleased me supremely that to write well; I just need a maximum of 500-word vocabulary I must have revised that book at least 100 times by now, and every time I read it, I learned something new. And still, I have not been able to master all the principles taught by that book! I came to understand that, “A single drop of a meaningful word is more precious than the ocean of useless words”.
All those who are eager to write and publish your work, please start by reading “Element of Style!” Once a fool, twice shy! You need not order on Amazon like me! You can download totally free of cost from the link!: https://faculty.washington.edu/heagerty/Courses/b572/public/StrunkWhite.pdf.
With Best Regards,
Prof. Dr. Prahlada N.B
24 December 2016