Interview with Aswini Madhira, Early-Career Artist and Scientist

I’m please to bring you an interview with my friend and colleague Ms. Aswini Madhira. Aswini is a cognitive science researcher, and an artist in her spare time. She has previously contributed a personal essay to this blog. Today we speak about art and science; and about passion vs. pragmatism in choosing a career.

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Amita: How did you become interested in art? Did you have formal lessons? Mentors?

Aswini: I think my experience with art started with me, no different from any other toddler, scribbling on the walls and my parents giving me a sheet of paper and a couple of crayons to save the walls from meeting their doom. As a kid I have always enjoyed filling up colours in the colouring books. Multiple volumes of colouring books were a part of my birthday gifts for a very long time.

Slowly I started recreating the images from those printed drawing books. This had become a weekend ritual when my mom noticed it and enrolled me into drawing classes. But the impatient kid that I was, wanting to turn Picasso overnight, got bored of the circles and strokes that I was asked to draw over and over again. What followed was a chain of events of me joining classes and quitting classes as a kid.

I was an impatient kid when it came to learning art and I wanted to become an artist overnight. As kids, we look for immediate results and we are vulnerable to disappointments, but we are also quick to overcome it and start all over again.

I hardly knew the concept of something being innate, somebody being born with it. Now I do think that it’s easier for someone who has a predisposition to art to develop the skill, but it is not impossible for someone without the predisposition to pick up a skill and master it, too. As a kid I don’t remember associating my failures to myself as a person, which as an adult I find myself doing more often than I like. I’m working on changing that.

I should say that not only have I become less impatient now about immediate success at a new endeavour, I’m also learning to value mistakes and failures for what they actually are – stepping stones.

Amita: The changing art-classes frequently – was that from impatience?

Aswini: My impatience was only a small factor. That resulted in me cribbing rather than in me moving on to another teacher. The quitting and joining different art classes was because of my father’s transfers. Sometimes, the class timings and my school timings would clash which led me to shift from opting for daily classes to weekly ones… I kept changing mentors every time we moved to a new city.

Amita: Did these moves interrupt your learning?

Aswini: Partly yes. I found myself going through the basics quite a few times over, because every time I joined a new class, the teacher would test my knowledge up until that point, and then only take me under their wing. And each of them had a new style of teaching. It made me very adaptable as a student and also made my basics strong. But had I spent the same duration learning under one mentor, I definitely would have learnt more.

Amita: When did you become serious about art?

Aswini: I think it was when we shifted to Chennai when I was 10, that I had started practicing drawing at home and enrolled in Carnatic Music classes out of compulsion (or rather, my mom’s passion for singing). I should thank her for pushing me then, for ever since, drawing, painting and singing have been my go to. I think I indulged in art when I was too young to understand the concept of ‘inspiration’.

The first ever artist I was introduced to was Raja Ravi Varma and the first ever singer I was introduced to was M.S Subbalakshmi. Personally, art has been my inspiration more than the artist. I am amazed by quite a few artists, but I still stick to the art for inspiration.

Amita: How did you discover these artists?

Aswini: I came across Raja Ravi Varma paintings in an art exhibition that I had visited in Hyderabad. The paintings were so lively, I was in awe! M. S. Subbalakshmi’s ‘Bhaja Govindam’ was the first thing I used to hear waking up. My grandfather used to play it on his tape recorder every morning immediately after he woke up.

Amita: Did your school have an art programme? Was art as important to you as academics?

Aswini: I am a proud DAV’ite [Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Trust group of schools]. Having studied in DAV school for 6 years, part of the pride is the immense exposure we got as students towards co-scholastics. Every week we had a 45-minute class for art, and we also had an art exam every year. It was probably the only exam I looked forward to.

Added to this, we were encouraged to participate in many inter-school competitions, be it art and craft, music, dance, literary activities, sports and many more. Consequently, I had participated in many such competitions and bagged prizes, which majorly boosted my morale to not take art lightly.

Amita: How did your family respond to your artistic pursuits?

Aswini: My parents never stopped me from taking part in such competitions in order to focus more on academics. I am fortunate enough to have parents who, till date, have only encouraged holistic growth. They never let the societal ‘trend’ or ‘fad’ influence the career path that their children chose to walk.

Although I had not considered art as a full time profession, I never wanted to give it up even as a mere hobby. The reason for not taking it up as a full-time profession was the naivete that came with growing up in a society that emphasised on ‘education’ and ‘marks’ and also needing to do a ‘real job’ and not wanting to let go of the comfortable life other ‘promising’ careers offered.

Amita: That sounds like a wonderfully nurturing environment. But you never considered doing art full-time? Has technology changed the viability of an artistic career?

Aswini: Yes, it was a question of whether I wanted to pursue it, myself. Given that the scope of ‘success’ in the field was less back then, it didn’t seem like a fair deal to me.

Times have definitely changed. I feel the success of an artist as a professional lies in how far your work reaches. And for our work to reach far and wide, it had to be of higher credibility.

But nowadays with increasing networks on social media, sitting at one place I can get 100 people to see my art at the least in the one hour of me posting an artwork online. Whether they like it or they don’t comes later, but the reach has definitely widened and that increases the opportunities that an artist could get to become successful. More of art is exposed and thereby greater the chances of it being an inspiration to many. The field sure seems to be providing greater opportunities which might not have been possible if there aren’t  as many takers. So I think art inspires artists and artists make art. It’s interlinked, if one could say.

3) What inspires you to do art? Do you have a schedule? Do you wait for inspiration?

Aswini: I really wish I had a schedule, but I am bad at sticking to it.

I think my art is deeply driven by two things – my emotions and my primary job. Most often than not, me indulging in painting or singing has become a consequence of the workload that I have.

I’m of the opinion that when your passion is not your whole and sole profession, it becomes very difficult to balance both. Irrespective of how much I try, my primary job starts to determine the time I get to spend with art and music. At times, I manage to do three paintings in a week, and at times one painting in three months.

The only promise I have made to the artist in me, is to not ignore the urge to do art when an idea hits me, and at least make a quick drawing if not something elaborate, so as to not lose touch with the artform. In a way, during such hectic work schedule, singing helps, mostly because I can do it from where I am sitting (Thanks to my mom for pushing me to learn music too, I don’t think I can ever thank her enough for that).

Amita: I’m delighted that you make time for art in your busy schedule. Do you revisit your sketches later, to develop them?

Aswini: I’m afraid I don’t. Art and its perceiver share a unique characteristic. It may or may not elicit the exact same emotion every time. For me, it’s a different thing every time. As much as there are chances of me developing them, my fear of me spoiling them is dominant. Hence, I don’t as much as touch the paintings once I feel like it is done.

Amita: What role does art play in your personal life?

Aswini: Art is a major pick-me-up. When I have something running in my mind and I really need to think, I tend to sit and paint. Sometimes even just doodling helps me organize the tangled mess that’s in my head. Similarly, music calms me too. Just singing some songs or randomly singing Carnatic lessons that I was taught as a kid, helps me get through daily chores easily.

Amita: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? How important is a support system for artists?

Aswini: I would call myself an aspiring artist too. I’m no professional. I don’t personally believe in advice when it comes to art, to each their own.

If I could, I would tell my naive self from a couple of years ago to have more patience and that no skill can be acquired in a day. Had I not been impatient, I probably would have been one of those child artists who get interviewed for the art they do. Just kidding.

I’m of the opinion that  more than anyone else, it is the artist who needs to be patient with oneself, for if we don’t respect our skill, no one else will. With the will to pursue it and the brains to propagate is, any artform can become a profession in our country.

Amita: So you’ve become more patient about taking the time it takes to acquire skills. When and how did this change happen?

Aswini: I don’t think I can recollect how the change happened, but I think interacting with people who learnt/were learning different skills helped. The interactions helped me realise the amount of time and practice it took to be so good at something and from then on I started having expectations proportionate to the amount of time I invested. Slowly, I started investing more time in practicing. 

Amita: How did you become interested in science?

Aswini: I don’t know to which extent I deserve to answer this question, for I had always run away from science as we know it – physics chemistry and biology – back in school. It wasn’t until recently that I acknowledged myself as doing sciences.

I decided to be a psychologist towards the end of my schooling. Getting to study how we think and behave, getting to observe people intrigued me a lot. I had come across the subject called psychology when my mom was pursuing her post-graduation in Education, in distance and I was in my 12th grade.

Coming from a family of engineers, contrary to my belief, my choice of career was considered a breath of fresh air. My interaction with the subject per se was very little prior to me taking it up as a major for my under graduation. However, I do not regret my choice till date.

Amita: Do you think psychology and the behavioural sciences should be introduced in school at an earlier date? Both fields are growing rapidly in India, and there is demand for both in public policy and in industry.

Aswini: If you mean to introduce them as possible fields that one could opt, then may be yes. But if you meant to introduce them as subjects at a school level, then I am not sure if introducing the subjects at an early stage than is already will make a difference. I wasn’t aware of what happens in an engineering course nor the details of the subjects it covers when in 8th or 10th grade. Yet engineering is relatively a better known field than psychology or other behavioural sciences. I think it’s more important to talk about the profession rather than the subject per se.

Amita: How did you become interested in cognitive science?

Aswini: During my undergraduate days, I was exposed to a couple of mental health centres and the life of a counsellor and a clinical psychologist, as a part of my internship. I had understood that it was not my cup of tea, but the thought of not being able to study the same was not sitting well with me.

Amita: Tell us more about this. Many people still believe that psychology means just ‘clinical psychology.’

Aswini: True. Psychology is often associated with just therapy. It’s either that, or the moment I mention that I am studying Psychology, the first thing that people ask me is “Can you read my mind?”

We do not read minds. We study them. They are two completely different things.

Therapy and mental health were not my focus primarily. I wanted to go beyond that. It is one thing trying to study what is ‘healthy thinking’ versus what is ‘unhealthy thinking’, but I was talking on the lines of ‘How does thinking happen in the first place?’

One of my seniors then suggested that I consider a post-graduation in cognitive science where I would get to study human behaviour but from multiple perspectives. I was sold.

The first cognitive scientist I admired was Jonathan Smallwood, for his work in the concept of mind-wandering. I had related to the concept of zoning out and daydreaming, for I have caught myself engaging in the act multiple times. It intrigues me that something which is considered as lack of concentration, lack of focus, being very distracted, and is often frowned upon, became a phenomenon of fascination to this man.

There started my quest to research how one mind-wanders, how one thinks out of the box, how art happens, so on and so forth. What better way to club my love for art and my respect for science.

Amita: So Smallwood’s work questions the prevailing view that mind-wandering is a bad thing, the product of a lack of self-control? What were your own views of the intersection between mind-wandering and creativity?

Aswini: I didn’t know that the act of falling into self-induced thoughts that I engaged in was called mind-wandering. But the phenomenon as such was definitely not novel to me. Smallwood studies this phenomenon. I don’t think his aim was to question the stigma behind it.

Have I been scolded for mind-wandering, no. I did realise that mind-wandering could be a good thing slowly when it helped me come up with ideas (not considering the quality of the ideas) for painting. I would often just go into a thinking frenzy from one topic to another and end up with some kind of a muse for my next artwork. I have not really considered about what facilitates mind wandering as such, but somebody calling my name definitely snaps me out of mind-wandering. I don’t think I plan, decide and engage in mind-wandering. It seems to just happen.

The moment I get into a PhD and study either of these questions, I shall answer better! Until then, I am only a silent observer of my own mind blissfully wandering away. Just kidding.

Amita: Tell us a bit about your work in cognitive science.

Aswini: I study creativity cognition. I want to know how people come up with creative ideas, what does it take to come up with something novel, how do we identify something as ‘being creative’. It is not too long since I entered the field so I don’t think I can unravel any Pandora’s box, but so far my work entailed understanding if a wandering mind can brew rather creative ideas.

Amita: How do you study creativity? It’s often considered undefinable?

Aswini: I don’t think creativity is undefined. It is definitely defined and the most common way we understand it is as being something different from routine. I think the question is, are we (the research community) satisfied with this definition of creativity.

One of the experiments that we did as a part of my masters was to ask people to take part in an activity that vaguely required them to think out of the box and come up with novel functions for some regular objects. In a way creativity tapped in the lab is close to creativity that we see outside, but how practical is it to ask someone to ‘get creative’ within the four walls of a lab, within some stipulated time period and to which extent do we tap creativity in its true form, is indeed a question I am seeking answers for.

It has been little over a year since I completed my post-graduation and till date I have only enjoyed my journey.

Being a researcher, we are often found reading something or the other, picking up a new skill within the field or outside the field, interacting with people, having discussions on any given topic (silently cribbing about the salience of random articles on the internet that start with ‘Researchers say’ or ‘Research has found that’) and taking some time off in the whole of 24 hours to do absolutely no’think’ing.

Cognitive Science being an interdisciplinary field requires us to interact with people not just from the same field but any given field in general. Personally, I have yet to come across a field that does not concern mind or humans (aren’t we a self-centered lot).

I agree we get a lot of work done from inside the laboratory with proper facilities bolstering our work, but I’m of the opinion that a researcher with a mind that observes what is happening outside the lab, in the real world, will benefit more from the resources that any University or Research centre has to offer. I come from a family that highly respects the Indian culture of ‘Guru Parampara’ and ‘inheriting’ knowledge, not just acquiring it. I would say, having a mentor is of utmost importance in any field, not just cognitive science.

Amita: Tell us more about this concept. I’m not familiar with it.

Aswini: The way I understood it, the passing of knowledge is the key aspect of “guru parampara,” the lineage of teachers in other words. Taking the gurukul system of teaching, a Guru tests the eligibility of the person seeking to be taught before he accepted the person as his student. In a way, one had to earn the knowledge that one wishes to learn from the Guru. I think respecting that system, my parents have always emphasized that we work on becoming an eligible student worthy of learning something new from experts in the field, rather than learn things by ourselves.

Amita: And do you have mentors? In cognitive science, in other aspects of your life?

Aswini: Yes, I do have quite a few mentors from different phases of my life, who I go back to, who have helped me at times when I was confused or lost regarding a couple of decisions with respect to my professional life and sometimes even with respect to my personal life. My mentors have always been there to show me things from perspectives that I might not have been able to see from.

I think a mentor plays a major role in making us believe in the possibility of attaining a goal. When I believe that I have what it takes to be their student, I seek and approach potential mentors and ask him/her if they are willing to take me as their student. That’s my side of the argument. Now how did my mentors pick me, is something only they can answer. I’m not sure if I want to know their answer.

Amita: Cognitive science is a new field in India. What are the pros and cons of being a cognitive scientist in India?

Aswini: The awareness for cognitive science in our country is definitely less compared to other fields. It does seem to be increasing, but I feel it’s going to take longer for cognitive science aspirants to hear ‘Oh! That’s a good choice.’ and not ‘Oh! What’s that?’ whenever we speak of picking a career in this field. Even within the field heavy research is observed to happen in select topics when compared to the available spectrum of research abroad. With time, I hope to see that change.

On the brighter side, I have enjoyed the flexibility that cognitive science provides. During my post-graduation, as a batch we were all from varied educational backgrounds. From psychology to computer science engineering, from physics to medical research and life sciences, we had students with diverse backgrounds come together to study cognitive science and further continue as cog sci researchers.

Amita: “Flexibility” in what sense?

Aswini: Cognitive science being an inter-disciplinary field has a diverse course structure. From research and statistics to neuroscience, and mathematics to psychology, computational programming to judgement and decision making, we had covered wide horizons. In a way if one was good at certain subjects owing to their background, they faced difficulties understanding certain others. End of the day it was about which approach one would like to take to study mind/brain, what is the philosophy or school of thought that one would stand by, and so forth. That is the flexibility that I was referring to.

There are differences in how a psychologist vs a physicist approaches cognitive science, whether one comes up with a formula that explains a behaviour, or one uses codes and numbers to spin a theory, or one purely observes behaviour from the outside and speculate a trend, it is influenced by what a person’s belief is, and also what he/she is comfortable with, I guess.  

Amita: Has being a cognitive scientist changed your approach to daily life?

Aswini: More than cognitive science as a field per se, I find myself influenced by the complete experience of post-graduation. Having studied about certain irrational biases we experience when we make decisions, it is easier for me to notice it now when I am being biased or making irrational choices (I still fall for biases. Now I just feel better knowing I’m not alone in falling for them). I do observe certain small changes in my personal life, in how I think, how I handle my emotions and attributions, and so forth, but to which extent do I owe it to cognitive science as a subject or to my experience of post-graduation I’m not sure. On a lighter note, I definitely enjoy mind wandering more now and I don’t blame myself for zoning out.

Amita: Working in academics is often costly to mental health. How do you prioritise your health at work? Are there accessible formal structures in place to get help easily and without shame?

Aswini: Research is an on-going process. So far, I haven’t come across any researcher who treats it like a 9-to-5 job. We are reading on the go, we are discussing on the go, we are thinking on the go. Of course, I don’t mean it in the sense of being a workaholic, it’s just that an idea could come from anywhere. Building it into a hypothesis, and converting it into a project requires that we sit at it, but the muse, in such a field, could be everywhere. Being in the atmosphere where everybody is constantly researching something, publishing their work, and so forth, it is difficult to keep calm. That could eventually take a toll on how we define our success. It helps having a schedule for oneself and voluntarily ensuring to not vex ourselves with things and take healthy breaks in between.

Academics not being a 9-to-5 job might not be the actual cause of stress. Not having a scheduled on and off time, results in us charting out our schedules by ourselves. Unwinding becomes the researcher’s responsibility. If the zeal comes from within then I don’t think that would cause someone to be stressed out. On the contrary, it is healthy that they are pushing themselves to do something, or produce papers, and so on for their own satisfaction. But falling prey to other’s zeal and enthusiasm and making ourselves believe that its either that way or highway is not healthy. Publication bias! I have heard a lot about it. I haven’t really reached the stage where I experienced it first-hand. But it’s sad if one is to assume that ‘non-significant results’ don’t carry the significance that ‘significant results’ seem to do. Is research all about confirming to things? I’m not sure.

Amita: Researchers often work alone; we end up feeling isolated. What role does working in isolation play in stress in academia?

Aswini: Do they work alone? Hmm, maybe I have confronted only the rosy side of it in the past few years of my association with research. For, I have always had my peers and seniors holding my back during my post-graduation and the help of my colleagues now as a research fellow at work. I think it depends on how one likes to work! I have learnt to be open about asking for help if I am stuck with something and so far I haven’t received a negative response, and even if I did,  I was at least directed towards another source that could help me. Bringing multiple skills to the same project sounds like fun, but I don’t think we can rule out the difficulty of co-ordination when it comes to such a thing. I personally haven’t encountered such work myself, so I’m not sure if I can comment on that. When it comes to writing papers, yes it’s a one man’s job. But again, I like it that way, so I’m not complaining!

Having said that, we are not immune to stress and mental disorders, neither are we immune to the taboo that is attached with it. We do find people (within the academic community) to be more considerate when it comes to matters concerning mental health. If we reach a place where people can listen to someone talk about their visit to the therapist without feeling awkward, I think that would be a good step to begin with; being open enough to support a discussion, but not casual enough to conclude things about mental health, that is where I’d like to place myself.

Amita: What advice would you offer someone embarking on a PhD in India (any field)?

Aswini: I am embarking on that journey myself. All that I tell myself throughout the pursuit is that, getting admitted into a doctoral program doesn’t make someone an eligible doctoral candidate and getting rejected doesn’t make someone any less knowledgeable in the topic one is working on.

Academia in my little experience is a vast ocean, one can only be prepared to an extent and over a period one needs to surf based on the waves that hit them. The thought of embarking on my postgraduate studies came automatically while I was pursuing my bachelors and I don’t think I want it any other way.

My motivation is basically to continue research in the field and contribute back to the field.

Added to this, I have always wanted to teach. Interacting with students keeps me motivated. As a package, PhD seems like the next step towards becoming a professor and teaching. Hither forth I’m passing information that I have been enlightened with, for my experience is not yet first hand.

The topic we choose to work on for our PhD plays a major role in how we spend the next 5+ years. As much as it is possible to work on different things in the span of one’s career, the 5+ years of work and experience and the subject knowledge one builds during one’s PhD, drives the path forward. Further, having a mentor who is experienced in the field makes the transition into academia relatively smooth.

The most undervalued part of one’s PhD is the lab and the peers not just for the guidance and support concerning subject matter, but also to bolster us throughout the journey. Afterall, they would be our warm cup of coffee on a gloomy day, and as I have been warned, there would be many such gloomy days. After a hectic week of sitting with research papers and writing articles, if an interaction with a bunch of students can make me feel better, I’d consider myself happy in academia. The way I see, being in academia is an amazing exposure if only we grab an opportunity as and when it comes our way.

Amita: Any parting words for people considering, or beginning, a career in art or science?

Aswini: The journey is not going to be smooth. It is not a bed of roses. You are most likely to encounter sticks and stones. Being as they may be, they don’t come with the career choice you make. I don’t think the difficulty is a trait of the career choice. It is the trait of how efficiently you want to traverse the path. One could make any career choice a bed of roses, if mediocre work is satisfactory enough, but if one wants to make the most it, I think we’ll have to prepare ourselves for a roller coaster ride!

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Aswini enjoying a spirited student performance at her Freshers’ Party at CBCS, Allahabad University. To quote Dorothy Gale: ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Aswini is an artist by passion, and a passionate researcher by profession. She is currently employed as a junior research fellow at Centre for Creative Cognition, S.R.University, Warangal. She is an avid reader, and enjoys reading books on philosophy, sci-fiction, satirical humour and majorly cognitive science which she claims, comes as an occupational hazard. She is trained in Indian Carnatic Music for 6 years. Occasionally, she tries her hand at poetry too. If you are on a solo vacation to one of the least happening cities and if there is a lady with a Murakami book in her hand and a cup of coffee in front of her, sitting in the silence of an empty cafe with some slow jazz music playing in the background, you have most likely found the woman in question. She enjoys discussions on topics with which you can never reach a conclusion. She safely promises that most often than not, they end with both the parties going back home in one piece.

Follow Aswini’s art on Instagram: Fauve_2020

Email Aswini: aswini.m@cbcs.ac.in

Interview with Poet J. L. Moultrie

[Image: J.L.’s library and keyboard]

J. L. Moultrie writes poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction. We met through our writing. J.L. has previously guest-blogged on this site: offering a previously published poem, “Memento Mori,” and an original essay contextualising it. Today, I pick J.L.’s brain about how he discovered writing, how he approaches the creative process, and where he finds inspiration.

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Amita: Tell us a bit about your childhood. Did you enjoy school? How did you spend your time as a child? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

JLM: Me and my mom moved around a lot, so stability was nonexistent. I went to numerous elementary schools and I enjoyed some more than others. I seemed to thrive in environments where there was a lot of diversity in terms of ethnicity, curriculum and ideation. I did well in school and enjoyed it most of the time. I was terribly shy, so when I was selected for an academic competition, I tried to avoid it at all costs, but couldn’t. I participated in plays too, but my favorite activity was going on field trips because it broke up the relentless monotony.

I didn’t have a concrete ambition or dream, but I wanted to be really good at something. I rode my bike, climbed trees, played video games, collected Pokemon cards, raced and played tag. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d likely be a professor.

Amita: How was your experience at university?

JLM: I attended community college and earned a liberal arts degree and only went to university very briefly, majoring in philosophy and minoring in English. I was really struggling to fulfil my dream of being a writer but had sort of outgrown the classroom experience in a lot of respects.

A certain university counselor talked with me for hours – imparting a lot of wisdom and truth. He told me about how he’d once entered the same university decades ago and had aspirations to be a successful writer, but as the years went by, his dream faded and he still felt anguish because of it. He encouraged me to hone my craft and fully trust in my ability. At the time, I was unpublished, but I knew I had something to say, so I went for it. I kept his card and years later gave him a call to thank him for his advice. I don’t think he remembered me, but his words helped a lot. I’ve not experienced teaching.

Amita: How did you start writing? Have any writing classes or books been particularly helpful to you?

JLM: I began writing as a makeshift form of therapy when I was around twenty. I would just write down what I was thinking, my hopes, fears and ambitions. Before then, I wrote poem sketches occasionally, but was later encouraged by relatives and friends to continue doing it. I’ve taken a plethora of college writing courses, which opened me up to the power of expression through the written word.

Reading The Poet and the Poem by Judson Jerome was huge for me – it refined my poetic sensibilities and staved off my forming problematic habits. I don’t currently keep a journal. I think waiting is the hardest part, the palpable and often crushing uncertainty.

Amita: Waiting for…?

JLM: Responses from journals. Some journals take up to six months to respond, but these are often small teams of dedicated individuals with personal lives and responsibilities, sometimes made up entirely of volunteers. In a certain way, it challenges me to develop patience.

Amita: How did your college writing courses shape your writing?

JLM: The courses did a lot for my confidence – I was forced to think deeply about subjects which were alien to me. I was introduced to a ton of writers I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I think The Poet and the Poem made me realize I enjoyed writing without the constraints of meter, scansion or rhyme. I’ve experimented with these devices, but I feel at home with free verse. It also made me realize that I was depriving my mind and poetic growth greatly by not reading other poets. That book is rather matter-of-fact and I recommend it to anyone who is thinking of pursuing poetry.

Amita: Do you write full-time? What advice would you give aspiring writers in choosing a day job and finding time for their creative work?

JLM: I’m a full-time writer. I’ve worked various jobs over the course of my life, but none of them felt right or added meaning to my existence. Most of them consisted of menial tasks or manual labor, which only chipped away at my soul. Going to college provided me with so much confidence, direction and self-assurance – it nourished my soul.

I would tell aspiring writers to follow their dreams and don’t ever give up on them. As James Baldwin said, “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.” It won’t be easy and there will be many hurdles, but you can do it!

Amita: Mind telling us a bit about some of these jobs? What variables do you think go into whether someone does better as a full-time artist vs. a part-time one?

JLM: They were all entry level positions comprised of lifting, packing and shipping – basically grunt work. One co-worker I met told me he’d worked at the same entry level position for decades. His hands were full of callouses and he was a character. His situation made me consider my future and what I wanted out of life. I greatly admire writers who work jobs to support themselves, especially if the job is not entirely fulfilling.

Whether to write full-time or part-time – I think it comes down to one’s constitution, disposition and situation. I don’t have any children, so I can remain selfish in this regard. Obviously, if one wants to have a certain lifestyle or financial security, they’ll be motivated to endure the ennui and discontentment. I think working a job can be healthy for some artists… We’re all different.

Amita: I appreciate your optimism! In all our conversation, that’s one thing that’s shone through: your even-keeled, steady optimism.

JLM: Thank you! I think one can seek financial independence without sacrificing artistic integrity or merit. I haven’t done any editing or freelance writing, and make modest sums from my creative endeavors. However, I would advise one not to conflate career with calling – a career is a worldly tool, while a calling gives your existence and place in the world meaning. Both can energize and enhance one another, but your calling should always take precedence.

JL’s growing library, and his keyboard.

Amita: You’re an avid reader, but you began reading relatively late. Which writers have most influenced you?

JLM: I started reading out of desperation. Nothing else provided catharsis or made me feel understood. I was gifted the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff by a friend during a period when I was very frail. From there I went to The Power of Now and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I feel that James Baldwin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky cultivated my attention by making me aware of inborn expanses that were not alien or abhorrent, though they rose from the “human muck,” as it were. I encountered The Brothers Karamazov first then went to Just Above My Head – I was no longer alone. The words of both authors tore through layers of ignorance, callousness and neglect to penetrate and resurrect my spirit.

I feel that I’ve also been influenced by Ernest Hemingway, Anton Chekov, Franz Kafka, William Shakespeare, Raymond Carver, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac to varying degrees. I began as one of those individuals who considers themselves a poet but doesn’t read poetry.

Some of my favorite poets to read are Rainer Maria Rilke, Hart Crane, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickenson, Ai Ogawa, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas and Pablo Neruda. All of them inspire me in different ways – I suppose the common thread is that they’re wrestling deeply and sincerely with what it means to be human.

Amita: A diverse reading list, leaning classic.

JLM: I experience a certain comfort and affinity with classic prose for some reason. Now I have gotten into the habit of reading more contemporary work, which I used to avoid. I think it’s because I’m largely still finding my voice when it comes to prose, particularly fiction. I feel I can learn the fundamentals from classic writers and their work. My poetry is more developed, so I feel comfortable venturing out into contemporary work.

Amita: Which of Shakespeare’s work has most influenced you?

JLM: Macbeth, King Lear and Titus Andronicus. I’m a beginner when it comes to reading Shakespeare, but even encountering a modicum of his work produces a profound effect. I have his complete works but have not made it to his Sonnets yet.

Amita: You’ve described yourself as “a literary abstract artist of modernity.” So far you’ve written and published primarily poetry. What is your process like when writing a poem?

JLM: The genesis of a poem is usually a fleeting, but arresting emotion or short combination of words that holds my attention. From there, I try to build on and keep that initial inspiration in mind, just stretching and mining it in all sorts of ways until I’m satisfied.

The timeline from the germ of an idea to submiting it to journals varies with each poem – it may take me an hour or a few days of intense focus, which borders on obsession.

Amita: Does your process vary when you’re writing prose rather than poetry?

JLM: I think sincerity and originality are the most important aspects of any writing, but especially poetry. It may be my favorite form of literature – every minute detail is so highly charged because there is nothing to hide behind, every word calls for you to put something at stake. I typically try to write only when I’m “feeling” it, which may be around two poems a week – I really try to practice restraint and not get in the way of what’s trying to be said. Inspiration hits me often at the most inconvenient times, such as when I’m driving, running an errand or taking a bath.

Until recently, I haven’t written prose nearly as much as I’ve poetry, but that’s changing. When writing prose, I have to keep so many more things in mind – the reader, plot, characterization, sentence variety, pacing, scene building, exposition, etc. I used to get overwhelmed by this and doubt myself often in this regard.

Recently, I’ve gotten into more of a consistent rhythm writing prose and it feels good.

When it comes to memoir writing, I feel that truth should be the top priority, though it is often shot through with our own inherent biases and perspectives. I try not to let the opinions or feelings of others contaminate my work, no matter how dear they are to me.

Amita: So it sounds like writing poetry is a more personal, purely expressive process – whereas prose is more audience-directed?

JLM: I keep the reader’s experience in mind when writing both, but I try not to let it be audience-directed. When I’m close to finishing a piece, I try to imagine what it would be like reading it for the first time. I think both forms benefit from considering the reader, but one must be careful not to compromise artistic integrity for mass appeal. I believe serious readers want to be challenged, unhoused and made to feel something genuine. I think all great art is inwardly directed – by pain, longing, imagination, curiosity or a combination of each. I feel it can be helpful to keep the reader in mind when writing because one can use their expectations as a literary device to create irony, humor or unexpected profundity.

“A Recurrence.” A painting JL did some years ago.

Amita: You’re currently working on your memoir. How far along are you? Do you set aside time to work on that? What are your favourite memoirs?

JLM: I’m afraid I only managed to get the rudiments down so far – it’s in a very early stage. Sadly, I haven’t worked on it in months as I’ve been focusing on poetry, short stories and a series of essays.

My writing life is fairly unstructured – I don’t set deadlines, but I like to get things finished in a timely manner, without letting them build up too much.

My two favorite memoirs are The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Notes from a Dead House by Dostoyevsky. Both are illuminating portraits of metamorphosis and integrity – they both probe the often catastrophic nature of our humanity while never cheating the reader with sentimentality or parochialism.

Amita: How do you grapple with the potential problems with writing about real people in your life?

JLM: I am very private when it come to my work before it’s published and only share it with a select few. My parents aren’t exactly internet savvy, so they haven’t read much of my work.

Amita: You’ve been published a lot! How do you select which journals to submit a piece to? Which journals do you enjoy reading?

JLM: I’ve gotten better at reading submission guidelines and editor interviews on Duotrope to get a glimpse of what the editors are seeking. I enjoy reading Coffin Bell, Occulum, B O D Y, TRACK//FOUR, GASHER, THRUSH, Sidereal Magazine and The Fiction Pool.

Amita: How do you handle rejection? What’s the most helpful feedback you’ve ever had from a journal editor?

JLM: If I go too long without an acceptance, doubt and restlessness sink in or I am forced to look at my work in a more critical, but honest, light. Waiting four months for a form rejection is brutal but is to be expected. I admire the work that journal editors do, but I don’t envy their responsibility.

I seldom revise a piece after it’s rejected – I’ve learned to have a short memory. I used to discard all my poems or scratch out most of the words until only a few were legible. Now, sometimes I edit as I go, it comes out in a stream and I leave it alone or I obsess over each detail for a few days – it’s a spontaneous and unpredictable process with each poem.

I get a ton of encouragement from concise, personal rejections. Some will say, ”I liked these very much, but not enough to publish,” or “We can’t retain certain pieces we greatly enjoy.” 

Recently, I got some feedback on a short story – the editor said that the conclusion felt rushed and an important character wasn’t explored thoroughly enough. It made me aware I needed to invest more care and time into my fiction.

Amita: Scratch out the words – so you write poetry with paper and paper? What about prose?

JLM: Yes, I have a single notebook dedicated to both poems and stories. I used to write in pen but switched to pencil a long time ago out of necessity. Writing in pencil makes me feel more in control for some reason – just seeing the words written in my handwriting works for my brain. I have a decade’s worth of notebooks full of rubbish sketches, poems and stories. When writing essays or my memoir I “vomit the anguish up” in a notebook then refine and sculpt it on my computer.

Amita: Writing can be an isolating activity. How involved are you in the writing community?

JLM: I think there is power in this isolation – it places you in a cauldron where you can learn what you believe and what you’re made of.

I don’t currently belong to any writing groups. However, I go to readings and stay in contact with a small group of writers.

Amita: Do you have a mentor?

JLM: My mentor’s name is Rayfield A. Waller. He was my poetry instructor in college. I’ve known him for over five years and he is constantly encouraging me with his humor, wit, fervent love of poetry and truth-telling. We have both been touched deeply by Buddhism and he recently shared with me that he’d known I would be a great writer since I walked into his classroom.

Amita: How do you connect with other writers? What advice would you give about networking to new writers?

JLM: I meet writers and curators at events where I read poetry, we exchange contact information and I make it a point to stay in touch.

I largely reject mainstream forms of social media. But I have a profile on Ask.fm and I just signed up for Medium.

I would advise aspiring writers to be judicious when selecting a writing circle – these spaces are vital but be sure you connect with people whose work you respect and whose character you can trust.

Amita: That’s sound advice. What is your attitude to promoting your work? You’ve done some poetry readings.

JLM: I try to make as many organic, lasting connections as I can. One of my doctors is a huge poetry fan and goes to readings all the time. When he read my work, he told me he admired it greatly, which did a lot for my confidence.

I usually meet people who appreciate poetry at readings, however. That’s mainly how I book events – someone in the audience would be an organizer and extend an offer after hearing me read. I think doing readings is a surefire way to build a regional, loyal audience.

Amita: What is the audience and market like for poetry today? Is it true that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’? Do you think there needs to be more public funding for the arts in general, and poetry in particular?

JLM: I think poetry is quietly starting to make a resurgence. There’s all sorts of ways audiences consume poetry these days, such as on Instagram.

I frequent local, independent bookstores and they have very large selections of poetry and poetry journals. The employees are usually aspiring writers themselves or of a high literary mind.

I think I would have benefitted from a poetry class in my early years of education – I sort of had to find my path blindly, but I’m glad I found it when I did. The public education system in the States has been decrepit for decades and I felt its effects directly. I feel that enriching the arts, especially for a kid’s early years, can only be beneficial. It can save lives.

J.L.’s living-room meditation space. A bell, an incense-holder, an image of the Buddha, a plant, and a candle. He rings the bell to signal to himself that his practice has begun.

Amita: You’re a practising Buddhist. How did you find Buddhism? What does your religious/spiritual practice consist of? What does spirituality mean to you? Are you involved in your local Buddhist community?

JLM: My mom and dad weren’t religious at all when I was a kid –  I can count on one hand how many times I stepped into a church. I got into Buddhism when I was about nineteen, of my own volition – I was a walking disaster, as most individuals are when they seek spirituality. I was looking for answers to what I was feeling and experiencing – I didn’t want to act out my inner anguish in negative ways, so Buddhism felt right.

I consider myself a beginner, but I go through periods of intense, focused meditation and then I won’t meditate for weeks at a time. I’m still working on maintaining consistency. I also study koans, which are succinct, potent accounts that aim to reveal the inadequacy of logical thinking, provoking spontaneous enlightenment. As you can imagine, they have a way of turning one’s world upside down.

I feel that true spirituality is meant to unhouse, unsettle, and challenge us at the deepest levels. Though I’m a Buddhist, Jesus and Socrates also thoroughly enrich my spiritual sensibilities. The Buddhist tradition continues to teach me about the value and power of sincerity. It places the responsibility firmly in my hands, which is empowering.

I’m a member of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple here in Michigan. The members are diverse, humane and warm – they embrace me with open arms and answer my numerous questions. There aren’t any physical services going on right now, thanks to the pandemic, but I’ve attended numerous online services, did one on one interviews with our guiding teacher, helped out around the temple and went to various get togethers. I hope to enter and complete Still Point’s seminary training program at some point in the future.

Amita: To be licensed as a priest?

JLM: To be a Dharma teacher. Dharma means “teachings of the Buddha.” It’s a three-year training program, which I likely won’t pursue for a long time, until I feel I’m ready.

Amita: I’ve not read any religious texts, but I have read Socrates via Plato. How has reading Socrates helped you?

JLM: Plato’s Apology is huge for me. Socrates’ thoughts about the living an examined life are, for me, the highest form of wisdom. I also continue to gain insights and inspiration from the Socratic Method.

In line 24a of the Apology, Socrates says, “What I have told you Athenians, is the truth: I neither conceal nor do I suppress anything, trivial or important. Yet I know it is just this outspokenness which rouses indignation.”

Whenever we speak candidly without compunction or intimidation, whether through artistic forms or just with words, it makes people uncomfortable, it unsettles them. This unsettling is a form of death. Without death, there is no possibility of transformation, metamorphosis, or rebirth. Whenever we get rid of an assumption or presupposition, that’s a form of death. In the Apology Socrates also says, “For to fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise without really being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know.”

I read Socrates to develop courage and fortitude, two virtues which he put on full display. I also read him to remind myself that success does not equate to greatness and popularity is an ephemerality.

JL’s guitar. Posters: Malcolm X; Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers.

Amita: You enjoy listening to music, and playing guitar and keyboards. Is music something you want to explore professionally? What did you grow up listenng to, and what are you listening to these days?

JLM: I’ve only come up with rough, brief sketches recorded on my phone or voice recorder. Some are better than others. I’m in the daunting process of completing my first full-fledged song on acoustic guitar, the instrument I feel I’m best at playing. I have the secret dream of one day performing songs for a very small audience.

Music is vital to my mental well-being – I listen to it everyday, sometimes for hours. I’ve always been a music lover, though I was largely deprived of it as a kid, except for rides in the backseat and videos on television.

I used to like modern R&B songs as a kid. I feel there is a symbiosis between my writing, music and spirituality – all three inform one another and interact on various levels. At the moment, I’m heavily into lo-fi hip-hop acts such as Navy Blue, MIKE, Earl Sweatshirt, Medhane and MAVI.

Amita: When can we expect your memoir? And a book of poetry? What route you would go for publishing?

JLM: Hopefully within two years – I want to take my time with it. I’m also working on my debut poetry collection, which I hope will find acceptance within a year. There are a ton of small, independent publishers of poetry, so I’ll likely go that route. I have a lot of refining to do before I start submitting.

Amita: Final thoughts for our readers on pursuing creativity, living the fullest life, and finding one’s path to spirituality?

JLM: Try to develop the habit of trusting your instincts and gut feelings – they won’t lead you in the wrong direction. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Don’t simply dream but be willing to invest your entire soul into your creative pursuit while honing your craft. Separate yourself from those who do not enrich or encourage you. And, above all, love.

Thank you for reading!

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J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

Contact J.L. Moultrie: Ask @JLMoultrie
Check out J. L.’s other writings at Neutral Spaces
Email JLM: JLMoultrie@hotmail.com

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Guest Post: Book Review: Milan Kundera’s *The Joke*

By: Guna Saketh Parimi

Today, guest blogger Guna Saketh Parimi reviews Milan Kundera’s The Joke. Guna reviews books at Instagram, which is how we met. He reviews a book every few days, and many of the books he reads are challenging and unusual.

Amita Basu

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Guest Post: Book Review: Milan Kundera’s The Joke

By: Guna Saketh Parimi

This book by Kundera, is his first work, and a deeply political and philosophical one at that. I have read “Immortality” of his, and completely loved his style of writing. I must accept that this book turned out to be a pleasant surprise, for I clearly did not have the faintest idea of Kundera’s political writings.

The book revolves around the life of the protagonist whose political affiliations, tone of satire, choice of friends, his personal attitude towards situations, his social conditioning, and his will power – all, make their presence felt in his life in ways unanticipated. The book also raises some very important philosophical questions about sense of righteousness, a person’s loyalty, the concept of loyalty firstly, love, jealousy, and revenge.

The book made me ponder, what is the most intimate emotion that a human can ever experience? It made me question the sense of belongingness we feel towards people we love. Do we belong more to the people we love, or we hate? Who occupies our mind more? Whose life events affect us greatly? Who is that person who can give us a sense of fruition in our life – a lover or a foe? Do we take that one extremely risky gamble in our life for the people we love, or the one’s we abhor? Do we respect our morality when we take that gamble? Or, do we mold our morality to accommodate our actions in seeking vengeance?

The interesting part about the book is that the questions it poses do not stop here. It subtly questions the concept of monogamous marital relationships. What is fidelity? Is it just physical, or emotional too? But, can emotional intimacy be restricted by a monogamous relationship? Can it be restricted by any relationship at all? The book beautifully, emphasizing again, beautifully explains the inner transformation of feelings towards a person we love – how it changes from love to lust to parental concern to friendship to camaraderie. This, in turn again, makes us question again, can a person feel both parental concern and lust at the same time, while probably breaching the social contract of monogamous marital relationship.

I needn’t say further, that the book posed more questions than it answered. It made me think. It made me feel. It made me simmer. It made me ashamed. It challenged me. It soothed me. It embraced me. And, it punched me in the gut. The book is nothing but a telling of person’s life, swayed by their dominant emotions, their pride, their guilt, and fate, if it exists.

The simplistic, yet unfiltered narration of the book is what it makes it special, attractive, and undeniably absorbing. If there is one aspect the book portrays clearly, it is nothing but the illusionary dimension of one’s feelings. I must agree that it is safe to conclude that ‘The Joke’ is a joke on us, humankind, who are wholesomely predictable, yet inconsistent.

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Guna is a management consultant by the day, and a rudderless muser by the night. He is passionate about motorcycles, politics, history, and understanding intersectional perspectives of the world events. He believes that books and travel are the most effective ways to challenge one’s philosophies and explore unchartered territories. He aspires to make the world a kinder place, one person at a time.

Email Guna: theoxfodcomma91@gmail.com

Follow Guna’s book reviews on Instagram

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Interview With Ana Vidosavljevic

Last week in this column, I featured an interview of me by Ana Vidosavljevic. This week, we change places.

Some time ago, I read Ana’s articles at The Curious Reader, a magazine we both write for. I went on to discover her other writing, then her website. I was struck by her honest, fresh writing; by the novelty and freshness of her prose; and by her imaginative and accessible stories for children. I got to read some of the short stories and memoir pieces published in Ana’s two recently published books: Mermaids, a collection of short stories; and Flower Thieves, a memoir.

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Amita: You’ve written about how reading books helped you cope with your father’s death. Was reading a habit you picked up from father? Did he read to you, shape your reading habits, and/or discuss books with you? Do you come from a family of readers?

Ana: I was lucky to grow up in the family of book lovers. I picked up the habit of reading from my maternal grandma, because I spent a lot of time with her when I was a child. But my father also read me some interesting stories when I was very little. Considering I was a small child, he might have made up those stories instead of reading them. I don’t remember well. If he had had then I had probably inherited the imagination and storytelling from him.

Amita: You’ve offered some useful tips for writing short fiction. How did you come by them? Have you taken any short fiction classes/read books on the craft of writing? Or have you learned mostly by doing?

Ana: I have not taken any fiction classes or attended workshops, but I read a lot and I read different things: fiction, literature on the craft of writing, magazines, journals, essays, lists, newsletters, blogs, interviews etc. One can find interesting things in various reading materials. I have collected those tips out of all the reading materials and created my own list of tips. And of course, my own experience of writing, submitting, being rejected, accepted etc. helped me a lot to write those instructions.

Amita: You’ve discussed how your writing was helped by one particular rejection letter, which offered both encouragement and a concrete critique. Do your friends and family also read and critique your reading? Have any of them (or any fellow writers) offered similarly helpful and detailed feedback?

Ana: Yes! And I am so grateful to receive the comments (both good and bad). Actually, there are no bad comments from my friends and family. Hehehe. They are biased. But occasionally, they recommend editing of certain parts, or paying more attention to language, sentence structure, plot etc.

Amita: Do you belong to any writing groups? What has your experience been like? Do you prefer in-person groups or online?

Ana: I don’t belong to any particular writing group, unfortunately. I would love to though. I hasn’t really searched for them and I haven’t had time lately. I would like to from such a group. It is great to have people with same interest around who share their knowledge, tips, news with you. Fellow writers’ discussions are always interesting and beneficial for everyone.

Amita: You’re from Serbia, and you’ve moved to Indonesia. When did you move, and what prompted the move? Did you encounter cultural difficulties? Are you learning the language? When abroad, do you seek the international expatriate community, or prefer to mingle with the locals? What’s been the biggest reward and the biggest challenge of living in so different a culture?

Ana: I moved to Indonesia 10 years ago. The reason was the scholarship from Indonesian Ministry of Education to study Indonesian History, Culture and Language. The programme lasted a year and after that I was supposed to go back home. At least, it was my plan. But that plan failed. I fell in love with Indonesia, its culture, natural beauty, lifestyle. I got a job offer and I decided to stay.

The first week in Bali, Indonesia was hard. Of course, unavoidable cultural shock and my European mindset (initially uninclined to adjust. Hehehe) were in conflict. Terrible traffic, Indonesian “rubber time”, pollution, “no rules are the best rules” while driving, coping to communicate since I didn’t speak Indonesian in the beginning. But soon enough I started exploring Indonesia, learning its rich culture and language and meeting lovely Indonesian people and I fell in love with all of them. They taught me: There was no need for rush in life. Everything will be eventually done without stress and strict deadlines. Always smile! Be polite Be kind. Respect other cultures. Be humble. Be patient. Less is more. Simplicity is the key. I have changed many houses/apartments in Indonesia. I learned not to get attached to material things. I am renting one at the moment. Maybe one day, I will have my own house/apartment, but even if I don’t it is not that important as long as I have dear people with me.

I love languages. I learned Indonesian fast not because I am a fast learner but because I think it is not that complicated language to learn.

I have both local and expat friends.

The biggest reward of leaving in different culture is that you constantly grow and learn. You become open-minded, unbiased, more generous, more understanding and culturally richer.

Amita: Has becoming a mother changed your approach to writing? Are you finding inspiration in new places? Have you had to readjust your writing schedule?

Ana: Becoming a mother is a whole new experience. Your life changes completely. Not only has my writing schedule changed but daily life as well. You have to adjust everything to your child at least until he/she grows up a bit.

Yes, I am finding inspiration in my child and children I meet. I started writing fiction and poems for children as well as essays on motherhood.

Amita: I understand you also do copywriting/freelance writing, interpreting, and teaching. I think it’s important for writers to recognise that most of us won’t make a living solely from creative writing, and to build other income streams. What does a typical week in your life look like, in terms of balancing these activities with creative writing?

Ana: Unfortunately, I have worked a lot lately and I don’t have much time for my creative writing. It will not always be like that. I still manage to scribble something once in a while. It fulfils me. But I also love what I do during my working hours, so no complaints.

Amita: Have you lived anywhere except for Serbia and Indonesia? You seem to travel a lot. If you could pick a third country to live in at some point, which country would it be and why?

Ana: I have travelled a lot. However, I have lived only in Serbia and Indonesia. I would love to visit many other places. I think I would love to visit Samoa and Hawaii. Small islands attract me. I don’t like big cities and urban areas. I am a countryside person.

Amita: When did you start writing? Do you also write in Serbian? How do the books you read influence your writing?

Ana: I started writing when I was a little girl. My grandma used to buy beautiful notebooks that I would feel with stories and poems. I wrote in Serbian when I lived in Serbia. Nowadays I mostly write in English. It is challenging because English is not my native language but there is a great pleasure in doing that. It motivates me. I have to re-read and edit my texts many times to make sure they are written well but it is not a burden. I like doing that. By doing that I improve my English.

The books I read definitely inspire me. I love Haruki Murakami’s mysterious style and everything Marquez wrote. I have discovered Celeste Eng recently and her two books and even though, she is a new writer, I have had inspirational bursts while and after reading her books. I also love Hemingway and his simplicity as well as some Serbian authors such as Ivo Andric, Mesa Selimovic, Desanka Maksimovic and Dejan Stojiljkovic. Their unique styles inspire me in different ways.

Amita: In your nonfiction piece “Rakija” at The Peacock Journal, you wrote about your memories of the Serbian spirit rakija. You didn’t seem to be a fan of such a strong alcoholic beverage. What drinks and foods do you like? What’s your favourite dish and drink (can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic) from Serbia and from Indonesia?

Ana: I don’t really drink alcohol. Once in a while a glass of white wine is enough for me. I love water and coffee. I am a big coffee lover. My favorite Serbian dishes and desserts are the ones my mom makes. Yummy mushroom/cheese pie, burek, Serbian sopska salad, sweet fruit pie, chocolate fruit cakes, apple pie etc. I also love Indonesian food. My favorite dishes are Gado-gado, Mie goreng and Nasi goreng. I love Indonesian tempeh as well. I enjoy cooking and I have been cooking a lot lately.

Amita: You’ve just published two books. Congratulations! How long did it take you? Was the process different for a memoir vs. a collection of short stories? How did you go about selecting a publisher? Has being a published writer changed your daily life/attitude to writing/expectations and opportunities?

Ana: The process of writing and publishing books was long. It lasted longer than a year. I have a lot of short stories that I write on daily basis. My publishing company Adelaide Books owns a magazine and first they published one of my short stories in their magazine. I asked the editor if he was willing to read my collection of short stories and he accepted. And that is how everything started. My memoir is also a collection of short stories inspired but the events from my childhood. Therefore, the process of writing them was not much different. Except that while I was writing the memoir I was very emotional. Childhood memories brought smiles, laughter and occasional tears (while remembering those who had passed away).

Nothing really changed in my daily life after I had my books published. I am grateful that I am a published author but it does not mean that I am better of any other author who has not been published. I was only lucky to find an editor who wanted to read my books and liked them.

Amita: If your son were to tell you that he wanted to be a writer when he grew up — what would you tell him?

Ana: I would support him in whatever he decides to do/become. I would not impose on him the writers I love. I would let him find his own style/preferences/genres and give him a piece of advice only if he asks me. The only thing I would insist on teaching him is to be a good, kind, generous and humble person.

Amita: How does international relations feature into your work?

Ana: When I studied International relations, I believed I would use that knowledge more but I don’t.

I don’t know what the future will bring, maybe one day my career will have a drastic twist and I will work as a consultant, but at the moment I am not heading in that direction. But who knows!

Amita: How did you get into surfing? Are there places to surf in Serbia? What’s your most memorable surfing experience? How do you find the surf culture in Asia vs. Europe?

Ana: In Serbia, we don’t have places to surf since there is no sea or ocean. But I grew up playing and swimming in the river in my hometown. I have always loved water. My dad used to say that I first learned to swim and after that to walk. I learned to surf in Bali. And it is one of the reasons why I decided to stay here. Surf culture is amazing because almost all surfers are environmentalists, sustainability advocates, permaculture practitioners and in general ocean and nature lovers. The surfers come directly in contact with the ocean and they realize what pollution problems we have. Therefore, most of surfers dedicate their lives fighting against pollution and negative impacts on environment. Surf culture in Asia, Hawaii and Australia is influential and has made some significant steps toward nature protection. My most memorable surf experience was in small islands called Mentawais west from Sumatra. Those islands are postcard places. Indescribably beautiful. And waves probably among the best in the world. With that setting you feel like you are dreaming while riding the waves. I plan to go back there one day.

Amita: What are your biggest strength and your biggest weakness as a writer?

Ana: My biggest strength is I believe my persistence. I don’t give up easily. Even if all odds are against me, I will keep trying. Bad comments, the fact that English is not my native language, rejection letters didn’t make me give up of writing. Writing is my way of expression, my fuel and my motivation.

My biggest weakness is that I often bring myself to the state of burnout. If I have to finish some work, I usually don’t stop and keep surviving on almost no sleep for days until I see that I am coming to close the end of the project. I need to learn how to manage my time better.

***

Ana Vidosavljevic is a Serbian-born writer, teacher, surfer, water-lover, and mother. Her stories, poems, essays have been published in many magazines. Her collection of short stories “Mermaids” and memoir “Flower Thieves” were published by Adelaide Books. Ana lives in Bali, Indonesia with her son Archie.

Ana’s books on Amazon:
Flower Thieves: A Memoir
Mermaids: A Collection of Short StoriesVisit Ana’s website

Ana’s books in eBook format:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Smashwords
Kobo

Follow Ana on Instagram

Email Ana: vidosavljevicana@gmail.com

***

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Interview of Me by Ana Vidosavljevic

Writer, teacher, translater, and new mother Ana Vidosavljevic interviewed me about writing.

My interview of Ana, with a proper introduction, is coming soon in this new weekly Interview column. Meanwhile, check out Ana’s books — also available on Amazon.

***

Read my stories, articles, and book reviews at http://amitabasu.com/

Email me: eltumbillon@gmail.com

Follow me on Social Media:
https://twitter.com/amita_basu
https://www.facebook.com/amita.basu.1671/
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MEMENTO MORI: Poem and Essay

Image: Paul Cezanne’s *Pyramid of Skulls*

by J. L. Moultrie

Today I’m pleased to introduce my dear friend and colleague, poet and writer J. L. Moultrie. I’ve known J. L. just a few months, and we’ve never met in person. But through his writing, and through a long and rich series of emails, I’ve come to know a sensitive, articulate, and gifted soul. J.L. has alchemised a conflicted personal history into art: the ultimate act of spirituality. J.L.’s prose is precise, while managing to leave room for the great unknowns of life — unknowns that he faces with courage and grace. J.L.’s poetry achieves startling sensory effects with austere language. In conversation, J.L. is both grounded and empathetic; both pragmatic and engaged by philosophical debate. 

J.L. inspires me to balance my drive with empathy. Our approaches to writing are just similar enough, and just distinct enough, that we have become useful critics of one another’s work. Together, we are fighting one of the toughest challenges that face any writer: showing rather than telling. Our best work achieves this. We feel confident that, some day, all our work will.

J. L. lives in Michigan with his partner, a Norweigian forest cat, and a mutt dog. Both animals are rescued. J. L. is a practising Buddhist. His poetry and prose have been published in numerous magazines including Sonder Midwest, Datura, Rigorous, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, Oroboro, and Terror House. J.L. is working on his memoirs, and on his guitar skills.
Today, J.L. shares with us a previously published poem, *Memento Mori,* as well as an essay putting the poem in context.

Amita Basu

***

Memento Mori
By: J.L. Moultrie

My youth was spent in
a room; I could nearly
touch the opposing walls with
both hands. At sixteen, there
was an incident inside of me.
It must have been a spectacle-
worthy of slowing down your
car to watch.

The days are
dark blue, but each sublevel of
grief reveals another hue.
A flock of pigeons nest in
the attic. I have the habit
of not knowing what my body
will do next. It was a daydream.
My own voice sounds strange
when I say things. Suicidal
ideation is hard to
abandon.

With the patience
of August butterflies, I walk
in and out of fields. The
catalyst to heal is covered
in blood and dust – its
patina feels like braille.
My cell is somewhat Darwinian,
each conclusion is a facet of the
beginning.

I go on sinning;
cauterizing each nerve
ending. My altercation
with the sky is just
a parade of images.
The germ of ambivalence
rests in my genes. These
scenes cease departure, breaking
my skin; revealing a kid
in the throes of neglect.

Memento Mori: Artist’s statement

A poem should not mean
But be
.”
– Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”

“Memento Mori” was wrought by suffering. Time, however, provides us with the gift of distance. I wrestled with my discomfort as you do with an unwanted garment on your body, struggling with it desperately. Until, finally, you hold it before your eyes, regarding its every detail, arms outstretched.

The poem is my attempt at excavation – laying out the artifacts of my adolescent experience plainly, without obfuscation. I found inhabiting my body frightening. I tried to give voice to my fear and the terrain of my psyche in those dark moments. Like many youths, I did not have the agency, resources, or support to process or escape what was eating me alive.

In the piece, I wanted to confront the circumstances I did not have words to describe then – the incessant ugliness, poverty, turbulence, instability, and trauma. At the same time, my goal was to distill and transmute it into something artistic and, hopefully, inspiring to others.

Imbuing each of my poems with emotional weight, intensity, and immediacy is always a priority. In my experience, this can only be accomplished if I tell the truth. The bedroom referenced in the first stanza was the first bedroom I’d ever had – at sixteen. I remember being so excited to have private space that it didn’t even remotely register that it was the size of a walk-in closet.

Themes of blindness and sight are hinted at in the first and third stanzas – I was oblivious to the hardships I’d endured. Until I was in my twenties, when I began sharing my story with various individuals. Their collective reactions startled me into realization. Before that, what I’d experienced hadn’t seemed abnormal. Because that was all I’d ever known.

One of my favorite philosophers, Cornel West, often says in his public lectures, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” He borrowed this quote from Theodor A. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, where Adorno writes: “To lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” I was a very quiet kid – there was a lot of turmoil and heartbreak happening inside of me. “Memento Mori” resulted from the understanding and expression of my own turmoil afforded by time.

I remain indebted to Sarah and Diana of OROBORO accepting the piece and suggesting I break it into stanzas.

Thank you for reading.

J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

Contact J.L. Moultrie: Ask @JLMoultrie
Check out J. L.’s other writings at Neutral Spaces

***

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View From My Window: Photo-Essay

By: Achint Sharma

For today’s guest post on Artists & Scientists, I’m pleased to introduce my dear friend and colleague Ms. Achint Sharma. Achint is a cognitive scientist, a reader, and a trekker. Achint faces life with bravery and grace. When an opportunity comes along, she smiles and says, “Why not?”

I’ve known Achint as a fellow researcher, a companion on backpacking trips, and a friend who turned up whenever you were in trouble. When I thanked her for doing me yet another favour, Achint answered me simply with a Punjabi proverb: ‘A friend is she who hears you and comes to your aid, even when you’re standing 500 miles away crying in the middle of the road.’

With her reflexive generosity, Achint combines honesty. My own journey as a writer is still young, but already owes much to Achint’s kindly-meant but unflinching critique. Achint doesn’t let her friends get away with laziness or injustice. She’ll help you move house and do the lion’s share of the work, and she’ll sniff out and support you in any crisis — but she won’t take your side in a dispute just because you’re friends, and she won’t let you soothe your ego with kind lies.

In this there’s no righteousness: it is of herself that Achint is most critical. As much as her optimism and her generosity, it is Achint’s rare ability to hold herself and her friends to a high standard that makes her an invaluable friend and colleague.

Achint’s research work started with autistic children in India, and now involves migrant children in the US. After an MSc in cognitive science in India, Achint recently moved to a research position in Chicago. The pandemic happened soon after, followed by the Black Lives Matters protests and police violence. Through all this frightening, depressing turbulence — Achint has managed to keep alive two things that depend on one another: her sense of humour and her sense of proportion.

Today Achint writes about her adventures looking out of her window.

Amita Basu

View From My Window

By: Achint Sharma

Achint pretending to read for this essay.

With pandemic crossing our paths, our daily routines are upended. We all have become prisoners of our houses in this pandemic and my window is compensating for my social life. While I stay inside every scene remains constant except what’s happening on the street. I still go to work though the places are emptier. With alternative work weeks I saw less of my friends. Post work life too got disrupted with most public places closed or avoided for safety concerns. Also, as the day progresses to the dusk Chicago’s streets become violent, so safe bet is staying inside.

2020 Black Lives Matter protestors marching up the same roads that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trod on in the 1960s. Image source.

Even before this I had fascination with windows. Also, I think otherwise this piece would have been boring romantic ode to windows but now more people will be able to relate to it. I have dreamt of peacefully sitting in my window enjoying rain and hot chocolate. Somehow this wasn’t possible before due to unsuitable positioning of windows or roommates guarding the prime real estate.

We walk our dogs and our children. Why not ourselves? Image source.

The days when I’m not at work, I prefer to start with tea and activities outside of my window. Often, I see a hairy half naked man who probably shares my love for windows, but some discretion is always appreciated. Houses designed in variation of Georgian and Classical style with windows covered with folded papers used as blinds. I see parents taking their kids and dogs for walk. This often strikes me why we think walking dogs and kids is important, but I see less people taking strolls. I can vouch for walking dogs; it is fun. My previous host family had this cute dog and whenever she saw other dogs, she would go crazy and run towards them. I often wonder why I don’t share similar love for fellow humans. I just like to watch their activities from a distance. Never had the urge to participate. I don’t know if just observing is sign of being creepy or a good scientist.

Chicago Housefront. Image by Achint Sharma.

Staring outside has often given me clarity after moments like getting frustrated from writing multiple unsatisfactory pieces of SOP or giving my roommates basic lessons on hygiene. After this I need a reset to act normal. Blankly staring out of my window helps. Or running scenario’s like It would be cool to watch rear window movie’s pandemic sequel.

If you have started creating image of my window in your mind, please also put a string of fairy lights around the frame. Mine has one. Given my love and gratitude for it I had the compulsion to decorate it. Not sure how many would agree but fairy lights have this magical effect of uplifting moods. The other magical things attributable to the window are chirping birds, running squirrels and windy city’s cool breeze. Reading a book sitting by the window is a pleasure multiplied reading it otherwise.

Along with other discoveries I made about myself, one of it is that part of my brain stopped maturing since childhood. I still enjoy listening bedtime stories and I get excited seeing a heavy vehicle in the street. So, the days when the street was being repaired, were quite savory. There was so much happening in the street after a long time. I loved every aspect of it. One machine shooting concrete in the other truck and little bobcats going around cleaning afterwards. Honestly the second day wasn’t much fun, still big trucks were an attraction.

After the quite times & empty roads during the quite of the pandemic, there were days when I also witnessed masses protesting on the streets. My street had remains of placards, clothes and water bottles. My window was also becoming the source of noises of shattering glasses, cars honking, helicopters all over the city and people screaming. I could sense the tension during the quite hours of curfews.

Weeks have gone by since then we are back to chirping birds, winds and recently a storm. I sit by in my window, sip tea and read book.

A book, a mug of (invisible) hot chocolate, a few minutes looking out of the window and into yourself — and the light of hope turns back on in your life.

END

Queen Achint, crowned by a Christmas tree in Chicago.

Achint is a cognitive scientist currently working as an intern at an institute for immigrant children in Chicago.

Follow Achint on Instagram

Email Achint: achint.s@cbcs.ac.in

***

In Retrospection: Life Away From Home

By: Aswini Madhira

[Image: Sunset at Naini Bridge. Photograph by Aswini Madhira]

For today’s guest post on Artists & Scientists, I’m pleased to introduce my friend and colleague Aswini Madhira. Aswini is articulate, even-tempered, and spirited. She’s as enthusiastic about an impromptu outing to the newest restaurant in town, as about a discussion re: the best way to approach teaching. I’ve known Aswini as an endlessly patient participant in long and boring experiments, as the rare student who’s both sharp-witted and soft-spoken, and as a friend who senses without words when you’re feeling low. 

Aswini’s sartorial style is as colourful as her visual art. She has a jawline to give Olivia Wilde a run for her money. But the asset I most envy Aswini is her spirits. Through the rigours, excitements, and inevitable disappointments of life away from home, I’ve never seen Aswini without a smile.

Today, Aswini writes about her two years pursuing an MSc in Allahabad. It was her first time away from south India, away from home, exploring an exciting new field.

Amita Basu

In Retrospection

By: Aswini Madhira

It was the first time I was moving out of home.

Having lived with my parents for 20 years of my life, of which a big chunk of 11 years were spent in Chennai, it was the first time that I was moving out of home. The transition from “kathrikaai, vendakaai, kaayi, kaayi” (vegetable vendor putting forth his gem collection in Tamil) to “aaloo lelo, pyaz lelo, sabji lelo” (the very same in Hindi, in an alternate universe called Allahabad) was not easy. The transition from “coffee venuma kanna?” (would you like to have coffee, dear?) to “chai dhoon beta?” (Would you like to have tea, dear?), was not easy either. Is this going to be yet another North vs South rant rail?

Nope.

Far From it.

This is me ‘looking back’ at  the two years of my post graduation. This is me reminiscing 2 years, what now feels either like a film reel that could pass through my eyes in a jiffy, or a chest of memories that I could sit with for days together. When I look back there was simplicity in how I lived. Although far an analogy, I lived the life of a ‘brahmachari’ (a ‘brahmacharini’ if one wants to be gender sensitive) – sole purpose being learning. I grew up listening to tales told by my parents and grandparents of how they were deprived of options and how they had to make do with what they had. In those two years, I had experienced exactly that. How often do you hear your professor tell you “It’s a small city and there is just one decent theatre and you are most likely to cross paths with me there too anyway.

To start with, I was elated that I was finally getting independence. I could make my own decisions, I could live by my own rules, I didn’t have to ask permission from people to do things that I liked. In return, all I had to do was keep my parents informed from time to time. It was not a  big ask according to me. The deal was on! Now when I look back, the costs were high! I wish someone had told me that I wouldn’t have anyone to fall back on. I couldn’t afford to be careless. I had to fend for myself. I had to be responsible and knowingly or unknowingly I was carrying my family’s reputation with me all along. Ironic to say, I was ‘independent’.

Interestingly enough, the city, the culture, the people there have taught me quite a few life lessons. 133 years old now, University of Allahabad is a time immemorial abode of eminent leaders, philosophers, scientists, musicians, poets and many more and I must admit, just looking at the campus made us all wannabe photographers, a few were genuinely good at what they did though. When I first landed in Allahabad, I knew it as a town disguised as a city. It has an airport that hardly has flights to any city down the Vindhyas. ‘One day at a time’ was our mantra to survive the two years. But this *city* has always found a way to surprise me. If you meet an auto driver who cheats you into paying an extra 50 bucks on a fine morning, you also meet a watchman who will greet you in your mother tongue and take you by surprise on a day when you feel homesick. The city that can feed you potatoes in every meal, was also the city that could cook amazingly different varieties of potatoes all through the year. For every complaint that there was nothing new to explore, you meet a person who makes you go “Oh wow, that’s an interesting perspective!”.

Prayag is a must in every pilgrim’s checklist, but how does it compare to the devotion of a daily motor cyclist who encounters one idol for every stone throw’s distance all along the route from his home to his workplace. To be able to take at least one dip at the Triveni Sangam – The Divine Mélange of Ganga Yamuna and the Mythical Saraswati, is a dream of many pilgrims, but I was among the few to get a chance to spend a whole evening on a boat, gazing at the sun take a dip from its 3.00pm peak to its 6.00pm trough into the banks from amidst the strokes of the oars. It was beautiful singing ‘Hailesa’ (a folklore in telugu, my mother tongue) there but what made it a memory was the folklores (sung by my friends) that echoed back to me in 6 other languages of our country. Adding to this, I had the privilge of visiting the Kumbh mela in the year 2019. I think it was the only time in my 22 years that I felt so tiny, my life felt so small, and everything else was absolutely magnanimous.

The city of my alma matter offers a life of peace to those who see it and a peaceful after life to those who believe in it.

And with that, I rest my case.

END

Aswini enjoying a spirited student performance at her Freshers’ Party at CBCS, Allahabad University. To quote Dorothy Gale: ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Aswini is an artist by passion, and a passionate researcher by profession. She is currently employed as a junior research fellow at Centre for Creative Cognition, S.R.University, Warangal. She is an avid reader, and enjoys reading books on philosophy, sci-fiction, satirical humour and majorly cognitive science which she claims, comes as an occupational hazard. She is trained in Indian Carnatic Music for 6 years. Occasionally, she tries her hand at poetry too. If you are on a solo vacation to one of the least happening cities and if there is a lady with a Murakami book in her hand and a cup of coffee in front of her, sitting in the silence of an empty cafe with some slow jazz music playing in the background, you have most likely found the woman in question. She enjoys discussions on topics with which you can never reach a conclusion. She safely promises that most often than not, they end with both the parties going back home in one piece.

Follow Aswini on Instagram: Fauve_2020

Email Aswini: aswini.m@cbcs.ac.in

THE DA’ VINCI CODE: Art or Science?

Featured Image: “Legion.” Watercolor on paper by Christelle Maria Lewis.

By: Christelle Maria Lewis

I’m pleased to introduce my friend and colleague Ms. Christelle Maria Lewis. Christelle is a cognitive scientist, a visual artist, a guitarist, and a cook. To all she does, Christelle brings courage, love, and energy that she could bottle and sell as Cocaine+. Christelle is a full-time researcher who still makes time for friends and family. In addition, she finds time to produce striking paintings of stunning range. She’s continually experimenting with style and medium. Her motifs are clever, but the cleverness never violates aesthetic integrity.

“Like all of us, Christelle faces personal challenges. She handles these challenges with grace and openness, managing to be both tough and vulnerable. Growing up with multiple talents sounds like a dream. But at some point, we need to grow up and commit to one career. In today’s guest post, Christelle addresses the forces that push and pull us: norms about what constitutes an acceptable career, our own abilities, the love affair with an intoxicating new field — and the need to explore life from all angles.

Amita Basu

The Da Vinci Code

By Christelle Maria Lewis

A beautiful mind is always plagued with thoughts about what it ought to eventually invest its all; what path should it follow to keep its heart happy, its spirits high and its drive steady; in other words- seek and maintain a satisfying make believe purpose to get by every day. For now, I speak of human beings and not other beings for one, the mere purpose of constricting my contemplation to just the human race that often baffles me, and two, I am only human, and can never truly do justice to vouch for some other being other that those relatively  similar to me. I would therefore humbly acclaim that every individual has a beautiful mind; some never discovered, some never given an opportunity to choose to be beautiful,  some exaggerated for its contents,  some polished to shine throughout the sands of time, some forgotten , and some misunderstood under the context of gender, race, and status.

Who am I among these labels? I am but one too many like these at different times. If I had to narrow it down, I’d like to be called an artist and a scientist. And that’s where all the problem starts. When the world has standardized labels, it’s hard owning up to more than just one of them; because the world expects you to be picture perfect, all for a nice inspiration to make all those aspirants in the rat race believe that they’re not a mere cog in the machine and that there is hope for all one day.

Is that what we are? Meat for slaughter? After being born and raised with love, ambition, and determination, we have to sacrifice everything unrelated to our “label”  so as too fit with a normalized means of existence.

Like everyone, I started my journey from the same place. My parents made sure I never missed out on anything. They didn’t have much, but they managed to make ends meet. They made sure I played in the mud, in the rain, and up on the trees, they made sure I inculcated the habit of having a head full of dreams and heart to go get them. I’m sure they did all this to make me capable of being a good human being;  that could see things differently, to make the best of the times we are alive. I’m sure all our parents did it for that. But was it really worth it? All those piano lessons, dance classes and dusty trophies from sports meets were all considered secondary to what we are “actually” supposed to do with our life.

When it was time to pick our dream job, being a music teacher, a cook, or an artist, isn’t always a desirable answer. On the other hand, being an astronaut, or a doctor, or an engineer-Boy, did that fetch you a lot of attention. In the corner of every conversation with an “adult who had life figured out” was the silliest most stupid question lurking to be asked. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”. I was asked this atleast once a year. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up ever since I was 10. ” I want to be a Scientist, like mamma! ” I always jumped up and down while answering.

It all starts with a role models; with way too many doctors, lawyer, and engineering around little kids, everyone looks the same; and kids love novelty. All I had was my mom.  My mom is a marine scientist and at the age of 12 I was showing off in front of all my friends with her deep sea adventure stories. I remember proudly saying that I wanted to be like Indiana Jones  and go on an adventure to find the garden of Eden, or climb the Everest to find an ancient civilization who sacrificed little girls to a false God, or even find the cure for Aids. I even had a laboratory where I mixed water, shampoo, and dishwasher liquid, and wait for it to go Kaboom. It was no fairy tale to a 12 year old girl. It’s all I ever wanted.  I thought being a scientist was all about quenching your curiosity and going on adventures one after the other.  But most of all, I wanted to feet important. Like all those “adults” around me. So I was determined!  All I had to do now was to pick a science to master.

In time I did. Watching my school peers  prepare for medical and engineering entrance meant I was running out of time. I knew all about the rat race. No one tells you anything explicitly about what’s ahead. It’s a feeling akin to watching  soldiers march on past you when the battle drum plays. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid back then. And just like that I dropped everything; Quite literally. With no purpose, I was lost. I stumbled in the dark on something so bright. I found a science that I came to love: Psychology; and soon after that, Cognitive Science.

I’ve never been more curious. I wanted to know more. I was never the studious kind, studying was such a drag. But the high I got from reading cases and theories was was so addictive. I wasn’t satisfied enough with all the theories they taught; there were just too many correlations. I wanted more answers of its causation. In my final year I was introduced to research and that was an arena that I could showcase all my management skills. Talking to people, no problem! Telling them something they haven’t heard: not an issue! Convincing them to do something they really don’t want to. Goddamn yes, I can be saddistic and still be ethical. It was a performance. And I was the only audience. It felt like a trance: from asking research questions to finding answers, to meeting people and being in command of the experiment. Every task from drafting a proposal to submitting the final draft, felt liberating. If this was science, I wanted more. It was then that I understood that there isn’t a fine line between science and art. When it’s something you love, Everything feels aesthetic. Sometimes science is more art than science. And that’s the path I wanted to pursue. 

During my post graduation studies, I was thrown into the eye of the hurricane. I had to unlearn everything and start from scratch. I was neck deep in science but that feeling of high was hard to obtain. There came a point where I couldn’t ask questions anymore, I was only obsorbing information not knowing what to do with it all. Occasionally I got the high from reading about my science but it left sooner than it came. Is this reality? There was no gratification. And the feeling of aesthetics was no where to be found.

At times like this, I resorted to art. Drawing was an escape. My curiosity knew no bounds; I spent many hours painting, knitting, and learning all sorts of skills. Like every other person fighting a mental health crisis, I tried to remain strong and resorted to look for immediate stimuli to quench my curiosity. I was involved in many things. Anything to take my mind of my feeling betrayed by a dream. It was here that I felt my ego spilt. And I embraced that. This embrace of something that’s not normalized still pricks me. As much as we run away from the labels of society, we find ourselves coming back to square one. I am now not just one label, but two distinct ones that’s considered to be world’s apart.

My beautiful mind is an artist to give unto the world full of beautiful minds, and a scientist to take what the beautiful minds in the world have to offer. But most of all, my mind is beautiful because it loves what it does. it has one purpose and that is to seek that Aesthetic high; a satisfying flow of mental process where the mind is allowed to roam free, irrespective of what it’s supposed to do.

It’s time we normalize being da’ Vincis. We’re not made to invest out all into one thing if it’s eating us away. We are all legions of labels coexisting peaceful; one sustaining the othes. We are all beautiful minds that deserve to be free, to feel a high, to feel happy everyday, to be bathed in the feeling of our aesthetics, and to wake up every morning knowing that our purposeless existence mean something atleast to us.  

END

Christelle Lewis is a Junior Research Fellow currently working on Design fixation, advertisement psychology, and visual working memory. She is soon to start her PhD in cognitive science to unravel the mysteries of aesthetics.  Due to the covid 19 lock down, she’s back in Kochi with her family of 6, excluding her pet fishes, kittens, and birds.  She spends her time working on her projects, watching anime, painting, and gardening with her family.

Christelle, framed picture-perfect by greenery living and painted.

Check out Christelle’s art:

Instagram  

Deviant Art

Email Christelle: christelle.m@cbcs.ac.in

MAKE THE DEMON PRETTY: My experience with Depression

By: Shilpi Bharadwaj

I’m pleased to introduce Ms. Shilpi Bharadwaj, my dear friend and colleague. Shilpi is a fellow student of cognitive science, an avid reader, and a talented photographer and visual artist. Shilpi is equally serious about work and fun. She is interested in everything, sees the best in everyone, and lights up any room she walks into. Shilpi has taught me to be kinder to other people. I’ve helped her to accept herself as she accepts other people. 

For the last few years, Shilpi has been battling with several health issues, including major depression. Her valour in the face of adversity humbles and inspires me. Today, Shilpi writes about her experience of depression — as a cognitive scientist living with this extremely common, underdiagnosed, and potentially devastating disorder.

Amita Basu

Make the Demon Pretty

By Shilpi Bharadwaj

I don’t yet exactly know how to put into words the experience of being depressed. It’s akin to being possessed by a demon, the kind they show in horror movies. The only difference is that this demon is real for sure. It’s your own experiences, your own memories, your own mind making you suffer. I often wonder if it’s some sort of punishment for not taking care of it, for not resolving issues, for not complaining enough, for not lashing out when I should have, for not fighting back and for carrying the burden of other people’s mistakes.

Depression can be acute or gradual. It starts like a haunting and ends up as a constant, perpetual harrowing. The demon keeps digging its claws in your wounds and it knows exactly where it hurts the most. It makes you dislike everything. You forget what happy feels like. You forget what motivated feels like. You forget what taking care of yourself means. You forget the things that made you you. Your memory starts betraying you. Your body starts trembling for no apparent reason. And sometimes, you even forget to breathe. You have trouble making trivial decisions. Everything becomes a chore. You either never feel hungry or always feel hungry. You can’t pay attention to anything happening around you. You can’t work, even the work you used to be good at. The quality of your work deteriorates and gradually the quantity goes down until you can’t work at all.  All you know and feel is impending doom.

I have been battling this demon for about a year. I have been taking prescribed anti-depressants to keep me functioning during the day and sleeping pills to stop me from functioning during the night. The medication helps, but it brings with it a number of uninvited friends. Weight gain, nightmares, nausea, headaches, tremors, upset stomach… (https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/coping-with-side-effects-of-depression-treatment#1). But[AB1]  the good news is that not everyone experiences these side effects, and not everyone experiences side effects so severe. I have been prescribed SSRIs, NDRIs and Zolpidem. I have experienced headaches, severe insomnia mood swings, weight gain and memory related issues ever since I started taking medication. It took my psychiatrist a few months to figure out the right combination of medication that has minimal side effects. The only side effects I am still dealing with are night terrors and insomnia.  But I am not sure if these are the side effects of medication or a symptom of my persistent depression.

I often [AB2] stumble upon articles written about depression starting with ‘Fortunately, it’s highly treatable!’ I don’t want to paint a grim picture but recovery from depression isn’t always linear or quick. Not everyone recovers at the same pace. There are multiple factors that need to coalesce in order for a person to completely recover. The hopelessness that a person feels because of depression makes them stay hidden, makes them fear and believe in the worst, and prevents them from seeking help.

But what precipitates a major depressive episode? There is no direct answer to that question. Feeling sad for no apparent reason can be extremely frustrating. Some people may get depressed because of trauma, prolonged periods of stress, accidents, alcohol addiction, financial troubles, turbulent relationships, death of a loved one – basically anything that causes you pain for longer that it should. And some people can’t really figure out what went so wrong that they have succumbed to hopelessness and sadness. Feeling sad is a normal human experience. But feeling sad most of the time for more than a couple of weeks is something that you should pay immediate attention to, and seek help for. Don’t let constant sadness, loss of interest, loss of sex drive, and loss of your sense of purpose become your new normal.

Apart from the well-known emotional disturbances, depression also makes your cognition rot away slowly until you start feeling like your brain is mush. Academic and clinical focus on depression-related cognitive impairments (also known as pseudo-dementia) is very recent. This phenomenon affects cognitive processes including but not limited to attention, processing speed, executive function, working memory, learning, and cognitive affective bias (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22823136). (Altered cognitive affective bias shifts our focus from positive to negative stimuli.) These problems are the main symptoms of an acute episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).

It wasn’t at all obvious to me, until I read about it, that I was in fact obsessing over negative thoughts – so much so that even the most significantly positive event failed to capture my attention. This is one of the perils of being depressed. You know that something is wrong, but you don’t exactly know what.

This is where therapy comes in. A skilled psychotherapist will help you acknowledge your disturbed thought processes and problematic behaviors.  Therapy is also important because – even after the emotional symptoms like anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), dysphoria (disturbed mood), and sleep disturbances subside – the cognitive impairment can continue (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20932356).

For depression, the two most researched and dependable types of psychotherapy are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal therapy (IPT). A psychotherapist works with clients to curate a therapy that suits them the best. A therapist specializing in CBT will help you identify negative thoughts and behaviors, and work with you to change or correct those beliefs and interact with others in a more positive way. A therapist specializing in IPT will help you improve your relationship with people in your life, and to solve problems in a healthier fashion.

I am now going to go ahead and write about the things that have helped me deal with my depression.

Medication acts as a kind of a scaffold while you rebuild yourself, so it is important.

Self-acceptance is another key. I have realized and accepted the fact that I can never go back to what I used to be. I’ll never be the same ‘me’ again. We really can’t step in the same river twice. This clinging onto the past probably comes from the inability to see anything meaningful in the future. Even if my past wasn’t that good, I think I’d prefer it to my current reality, which is coloured by being depressed. I have been told again and again by various people to try building new happy memories. I used to be appalled by such outrageous suggestions. How could I? Make memories? And happy memories! At a time like this, when I am barely alive! It sure seemed impossible. But then I also desperately wanted to be okay, to feel normal again, to be able to enjoy work again, enjoy being with people again.

So, I started with the thing I thought was the easiest: Making a salad. I made a salad. I didn’t make any promises to myself to do it every day, or to start living a healthy life, or anything that was way too far into the future. I just made a salad and to my surprise, enjoyed it. Next day I didn’t. A day after that, I did again. In the same way, I started exercising. I chose the easiest way in which I could move my body. Again, I made no promises. And I stuck to it.

It’s been a month now of me chanting One day at a time,and I have stuck to eating one healthy meal a day, and exercising 6 days a week.

Exercise is one of the most beneficial things that you can do to keep your mind and body healthy (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression ).

Even as I am writing this, I am making no promises that I’ll keep at it for a month or even a week. Today, I did what I could. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up decide. I guess making long-term promises when you can’t even think three hours into the future puts a whole lot of pressure on an already stressed-out system. Planning makes me anxious. Planning about changing something scares me. So, I have started doing things randomly. Feel like calling someone, call right now. Feel like exercising, do it right now. Feel like singing, sing right now. Doing these things might not always make you happy – but more often than not, it will.

Another thing that has helped me is trying to have unconditional positive regard for myself. It was extremely difficult to do. It sometimes still is. People suffering from depression feel tremendous guilt that usually has no solid grounds. I try my best to praise [AB3] myself for even the slightest achievement. I have a partner, a sister, and a few friends who do it for me when I can’t.

I have been consulting with a psychotherapist as well. Speaking with her has helped me uncover many problematic areas [AB4] in my behavioral patterns that I had never thought about before. I found out that the things I thought had no effect over me affected me a lot. I used to think that I had left behind my love-hate relationship with my mother and it was all love now but I was wrong. I was and still am mad at her. I thought that I could live a life independent of my father. I didn’t even think about him much. But it turned out that a major part of my negative thoughts were related to him and his flaws. Every time I went to see my therapist, I came back with a new insight, a new monster that I thought I had buried too deep for it to ever crawl back up.  Having an unbiased expert look at you is important when you or the people around you can’t think straight. People around you, and you yourself, want to rush back into normalcy without going through the painful process of peeling the layers of trauma, abuse, and sometimes nullity.  [AB5] Once you start treatment, you want to get better as soon as possible. To this end, in the beginning, I relied on medication way too much, wishing it’d magically make everything okay. But it doesn’t work like that.  Depression is not a vitamin deficiency that can be fixed with vitamin pills. It doesn’t show up on any tests.

That said, you should get a health checkup done, as there are some nutrient deficiencies that can cause depression or make the symptoms worse. (www.everydayhealth.com/columns/therese-borchard-sanity-break/nutritional-deficiencies-that-may-cause-depression/  ). On a routine blood test, before starting medication, I discovered I had severe Vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiency.

Activity scheduling is another thing that has often worked out for me. I try to plan the next day before going to bed. I make sure that I do at least one thing every day that is for the sole purpose of having fun. The idea of having fun sounds alien when you are depressed, but I try my best to be hopeful that I will have fun. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just get exhausted.

Failures might get you thinking that you are never going to get better. But you’ll never know until you try again. And again. The most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. You are sick and you need to treat yourself with love, kindness, and compassion. You will get better. The journey might be slow. It might be hard. But you will get there.

I am going to leave you with an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver titled “The Journey”:

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

END

Shilpi before she got her demon.

Shilpi Bhardwaj is a Cognitive Science PhD candidate working on Mind wandering, meta cognition and Meditation. She enjoys jotting down her thoughts every once in a while. She is also working on a project to understand the relationship between mindfulness and self related perceptual processing.

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Contact Shilpi: shilpi.b@cbcs.ac.in