In 2017, I decided to read every day. A simple task, unqualified by subject or quantity. I thought I could be successful. To an extent, I was. Though I missed often, my days began to arrange themselves around reading. I took books everywhere. Metro-rides, restaurants, grocery stores. Eventually, office spaces. You see, 2017 was also the year my mental health decided to abandon me. It took me forty-two days to read my first full-length book in many years (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.) When I finished reading it, I inscribed the month—August, I think–—on the first page.
It is difficult to say if this habit has changed my life for the better; or if it ever will. Reading every day did not make me a more intelligent person. It did not make me more empathetic. It did not give me any new strengths. Though it did occupy my time. It gave my hands something to hold. It ensured my day held some meaning; in that way, it allowed me to seek the next day. Every day. The scientific literature on habit-formation claims that there is a higher likelihood of a behavior becoming a habit when it is frequently and consistently performed in the same context. Nine years ago, Amitava Kumar started logging the days he wrote. Every day he wrote the quantity he set for himself, he would make a small checkmark at the back of his notebook. He wrote between classes, on trains, in waiting rooms. A habit he utilized and transformed as a writing tool. Soon, the method was a success—he had written an entire novel by writing every day.
Amitava Kumar writes about this and other things in his new book, The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal. In his own words, this book is “both a diary and a work made up of diary entries.” It is interspersed with Kumar’s paintings. A keen collector, many or all of Kumar’s writings are borne out of this habit of ‘noting down’ things. Kumar, of course, is not alone in this. Many writers stress the importance of jotting quirky, specific details from life. Joan Didion was an esurient notebook keeper. She noted everything from real-life dialogue to mundane occurrences. Virginia Woolf kept a diary– it is not clear if she advised young writers on this subject, but her diaries themselves are an inspiration. The American writer Susan Minot has often kept pocket-sized pads in which she records observations in paint. Blue Book is a bit like this. It is definitely not a diary, but it resembles a scratchpad. Full of observations in real-time. Kumar’s thoughts flutter through topics, but they circle around a couple of contexts. The current moment of the presumably convalescing pandemic and his life as a writer.
At first, I wasn’t taken. I could not purchase a voice that appeared so elite, so self-absorbed. The few critical notes about his ‘privileges’ fail to impress. However, about sixty pages in, it begins to kindle. On page sixty-seven, he writes, “you cannot be a writer if you are unable to name all the trees in your city.” This was the first provocative sentence in the book. In these sections, Kumar talks about the significance of details for a writer. They function like cement that you can later pluck from to construct your story. This is useful even if oft-repeated advice. What was particularly useful was the way Kumar put it across. He narrates the story of how his habit formed itself. It took commitment. It took the practice of carrying a notebook, of writing every day, of manually counting the words he had written, and then dating the day at the back of his notebook. The granular details of his habit made it special. In a way, Kumar’s Blue Book practices what it preaches. It captures the boring details and allows its readers—among them, aspiring writers—to see what it takes: not much, but a little every day.
Perhaps looking forward to life, too, is an affair to be performed every day. In 2017 and the years that followed, I slept every day thinking of the book I would read the next day. In the beginning, it was a page, sometimes half of a page. Sometimes, it was a snippet of an article. But reading impelled my day. A few days ago, as I packed my bag to meet a friend, I put Kumar’s book in my bag. I had just reached page eighty-one; Kumar had just said, “writing begins with waiting.” It is melodramatic, but this is precisely when I felt provoked to see the patterns I shared with the writer. Not as someone who aspired to be a writer someday, but as someone who tried to live life through a habit. Someone who wanted to transform into a character by doing the verb. I wanted to become someone who looked forward to the next day, by doing it every day. Eventually, I will try to be a writer by writing every day. For now, however, I will nudge myself from one day to the next, and the next, and the next…