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The Story Ribboned Forward, Inventing Itself • Karan Mahajan

Brett Rawson



In eight sentences, Karan Mahajan had me silent. I had never read his words before, but there I was, re-reading a single paragraph over and over. It was a part of the series in Poets & Writers, where writers "recommend" a specific something. Later, I wondered how I even got there, but in the moment, I was captured by his voice, which was direct, almost demanding, but with elements of politeness and manners. A hard yet endearing shove into a specific direction: "Write first drafts by hand." He goes on:   


This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper. But mostly, when you achieve a flow, you're much less likely to break it on the page than on a screen—you'll be less tempted to double backwards into revision, checking e-mail, opening a tab. I found this to be true when I wrote the first complete draft of my second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. For years I'd been struggling to make progress, only to lapse back into revision. The minute I committed to paper, the story ribboned forward, inventing itself. I had never felt anything like it.”


This is something I have been contemplating deeply on my own. I was always a writer, but I recently began approaching projects by hand, often struggling to connect more with a blank screen than I was able to with a blank page. This past summer was the first time I ever wrote drafts by hand, let alone ever wrote in a journal. I uncovered something inside that journal that I haven't been able to express, but I see the feeling in Karan's words above. And so I set out to talk with Karan about the above, his process, the road bumps we often hit as writers, and how the handwritten words has shaped his craft.

* You can see his full bio at the bottom of this page, but Mahajan's second novel, The Association of Smalls Bombs (Vikings 2016)is forthcoming in March. 

DEMETRI RAFTOPOULOS: You mention in Poets & Writers that you wrote one of your novels by hand. Do you always write first drafts by hand, or only certain kinds of things? 

KARAN MAHAJAN: Increasingly, I write my first drafts of every kind of project by hand—fiction, non-fiction, reviews. Drafts are not a writing problem; they are an emotional problem. Usually, you haven’t broken through the material in the way you should have. When you type out first drafts, you get needlessly attached to the language you’ve used, and this keeps you from moving on.

Writing by hand also slows me down. I tend to write first drafts in a panic of excitement, and I’m calmed by the analogue action of handwriting.

DR: You said one reason you write first drafts by hand is specifically because it cancels self-criticism. Can you talk a little bit more about the idea of self-criticism, and how handwriting cancels that? 

KM: Well, I’m experiencing this right now, as I type out the answer; my urge is to go back and correct a few words in the previous sentence. But, rather than fall into a loop of revision, I’d rather invest that energy forward.

DR: Do you think self-criticism, along with doubt and distraction, are forms of writer’s block? 

KM: Yes—the main form of writer’s block. I was blocked in this way for about four years, but, because I was producing a ton of material and constantly revising—I have about 1,400 files in my “Association of Small Bombs” folder, most of them varying minutely from each other—I felt I was doing something. I wasn’t. Mailer says that writer’s block is a failure of the ego; I concur. And perfectionism can become a denial of your own humanity, of the languors, say, in a life or story.

DR: Has handwriting always been a large part of your life, or life as a writer? 

KM: It hasn’t. I emigrated to the US in the Age of the Laptop. Coming to handwriting felt like a discovery—a holdover from journaling and note-taking.

DR: I'm curious about your process. At what point do you leave your drafts and begin typing? And how has your process of writing by hand -- drafts -- evolved over the years? 

KM: It varies. If I feel confident that the story I’m writing is close to the final, I type it out as I go along—handwriting in the morning, typing in the afternoon. This keeps the work fresh in my memory when I attack it the next day. If I’m not yet confident the story’s going to unfurl to a conclusion, I’ll keep handwriting. If I reach some kind of end, I might type the whole thing out. But if the story dies midstream or I lose interest it’ll remain immured on paper.

DR: You mentioned that the minute you committed pen to paper in your second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, "the story ribboned forward and invented itself." What specifically came to you -- characters, plot, purpose?  

KM: The plot of The Association of Small Bombs is entirely organic. I knew the downward direction the lives of the characters would take, and that Mansoor, one of the main characters, would come back from the US, but I didn’t know how any of the characters would connect, how their stories would play out in concert. It was the central challenge of writing a novel about terrorism. What do terrorists and victims really have to do with each other? The writing, which was instinctive, made these connections for me. When Ayub, my favorite character, appeared in the book, I was surprised. He allowed me to say, directly, many of the things I felt about terrorism without resorting to needless dramatization. 

DR: You also said something else in Poets & Writers that stuck with me, “when you achieve a flow, you’re much less likely to break it on page than on a screen, you’ll be less tempted to double backwards into revision.” What was your revision process like then for The Association of Small Bombs. Did you find it to be easier? Less work?

KM: The key difficulty for me was to keep myself from destroying what I’d (hand)written. I tried once to rewrite the entire thing by hand, but simply didn’t have the drive or the interest; I’d said what I wanted to say. Then I tried rewriting almost every sentence on my computer. This was wasteful and idiotic, because each edit was only an elegant variation on what came before; it wasn’t improving the story or the scenes. The best editing advice I got—for the kind of writing I do—was to read it out loud. This sloughs off embarrassing and overwritten bits but doesn’t lead to a complete reworking of what you’ve offered the reader from your sub-conscious: which, in a way, is what the reader is after anyway.

DR: How did the experience of writing your second novel by hand compare to the experience of writing your first novel, Family Planning? Did you hand-write any of that novel?

KM: The storytelling in this novel is much better. Not much has been shifted around. Words and sentences remain where they first appeared in the flow of the story; the story is one giant thought. I’m proud of this. My main complaint about novels is that they lack unity; you get to the end and feel the writer forgot why he or she started. And almost no novel ends well; the project of getting to the end has defeated the novelist. Handwriting, zooming forward, allowed me to overcome this. And no, I didn’t handwrite any of Family Planning.

DR: The narrative, or at least parts, of both your novels is set in India, specifically New Delhi, where you grew up. How did your surroundings, or upbringing, impact the way in which you write? Obviously, it informed content, but what about form?

KM: It taught me to find my center, to achieve concentration, in the midst of a crowd.

DR: Do you have any handwriting rituals?

KM: I’ll sometimes warm myself up with journaling.

DR: When you look toward the future of handwriting, what do you see? 

KM: A bleak future. And I’m fine with that. I’d rather keep this discovery to myself and let other writers be bewildered and broken by their fine machines.

Karan Mahajan was born in New Delhi. His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, tells the story of two families in a world plagued by terrorism. Karan not only explores how terrorism shakes its victims, but how those responsible are affected as well. His debut novel, Family Planning, was published in nine different countries and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker Online, Granta.com, and more. He resides in Austin, Texas, where he is currently diving into his third novel.