- Swati Anurag.
Suma Varughese, Ex-Editor-in-chief of Life Positive magazine was recently in Surat for her “The Zen of Good writing” workshop, an event that she holds across the country, and whose purpose is to acquaint novice writers with the tools and techniques of professional writing.
My first interaction with her happened when I participated in the Zen of Good writing workshop at Mumbai in January 2017. The connection was instant. A simple spiritual soul with an expansive vision and mission, she had me - for life!
That one day changed the way I thought, the way I wrote, and the way I edit. Every time I sit to edit a piece, her voice rings in my ears, “Kill your darlings”, and trust me it helps me to make the writing crisper. With a journey of 40 years in the field of journalism, ranging from being editor of a lifestyle magazine like Society to being editor of a body-mind-spirit magazine like Life Positive, Suma has golden nuggets of wisdom to offer to readers across all strata.
Excerpts from the talks that flowed between us:
Q : You have been into journalism for 40 years now and you have authored books too. How important is it to possess good writing skills?
I think writing is an extremely important skill because a good writer is able to communicate his thoughts clearly and elegantly. Clarity in communication gives an edge in any profession. It helps to get your point across clearly without misunderstandings. Besides, being able to write or communicate well is a huge confidence builder.
When it comes to writing as an art form or as a profession, it is an amazing way to get your point of view across to the world. Writing is a fantastic medium to make a difference. And today, this is available to all of us, not just to those in the media because of the explosion of social media. All of us have an opportunity to express ourselves through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. And finally, it is your one shot at immortality. If you are good enough, what you write will survive you.
Q : You have worked with lifestyle magazines like Society, Gentleman, and GFQ, yet you retired as Editor, Life Positive. What was that one defining moment which brought a shift in your life towards spirituality?
It’s been a long journey. Until the age of 33, I was a confused and unhappy human being. Then I had an experience which made me understand that true happiness comes only through the happiness of others. I was in such a powerful state at that time that I could flip out of my ego by simply chanting, “It’s the other person’s happiness that matters and not mine.” In this state, I was as detached from my needs, likes or dislikes, as I was from that of others. If we had differing points about something, I did not want to prove them wrong or prove myself right. I was simply interested in being on the side of what was right, regardless of whose side that was.
I also found that the more I was focusing on the happiness of others, the happier I was becoming. That is when I realised true happiness can come only through the happiness of others. If I can derive my happiness from others, I have access to an exhaustible source of happiness.
This was an amazing discovery for me; it actually helped me to piece together the complete jigsaw of life. I was an atheist since the age of 14. But once I perceived that life was designed for us to get happiness through the happiness of the other, I recognised that there had to be a designer, and i.e. God. Through this experience the Vedic understanding of Oneness and interconnectedness came to me naturally. All this unfolded from within. I had no idea that there was a spiritual movement or that there were gurus. It was only after I joined Life Positive that I became aware that there were millions of people out there looking for God.
Q : Which books would you suggest to the readers?
On spirituality, some of my favourite books include: “The Celestine Prophecy” By James Redfield, “Upanishads” by EknathEaswaran, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. As far as literature is concerned, I would urge readers to please read quality literature. My own favourites include Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. All writers are also seekers and through their books, they unfold the truths of life and human nature. I know that I understood life mainly through the books I read.
Q : As you moved forward on the path how it did reflect on your writing?
When I was associated with magazines like Society, Gentlemen and GFQ, I used to write with a lot of flourish, using a lot of fancy words. But after I got on to the spiritual path pretentions dropped off and my writing became much more essential. It became much more deep, insightful, and passionate. I started writing from the heart which I did not earlier. So the way I wrote totally shifted. One thing that I promote through my workshop, “The Zen of Good Writing” is to get in touch with yourself, in order to write authentically.
Q : Youngsters these days use a lot of slangs and lingo. How do you feel about it?
(Laughs) It’s natural, absolutely natural. It is how language evolves. I love to listen to new usages and I use them too. It adds a lot of colour to the way we communicate. So it is fantastic. But sometimes it can come in the way of communication. For instance, some of the abbreviations kids use leave adults baffled. We adults are no better at it, because we use jargon. Be it jargon or lingo, they are useful only when we use it in moderation with the right audience, else it can actually come in the way of understanding.
Q : Can anyone develop writing skills or is it inborn?
Anyone can be a better writer than they presently are. Some of it is inborn. But a lot can be achieved if you put your heart to it. I have seen this in my own journey. I always had an aptitude for writing. I loved words, I loved reading. I wrote well. And yet I have seen how much I have progressed over the years as I read and wrote. I have shifted hugely from where I was to where I am now. I have known people who studied in the Hindi medium, not knowing English. And as they worked upon themselves they become very proficient in it. Joseph Conrad, a great writer, was actually from Poland. He came to England with little knowledge of English, and today he is a world famous novelist. So some of it is acquired, probably from other lifetimes, but a lot can be developed.
Q : Does reading books help in improving your writing skills?
I would say reading books is absolutely essential. What surprises me today is that more and more people want to write books, but not read them. This is sad. Without reading, one is notgoing to be able to see the way language can be used. I feel writing, like spirituality, is more caught than taught. My usage of words came from the kind of reading that I did. I was so fascinated by all the Victorian writers like Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot, who structured their sentences very precisely. Through them I learnt to structure my sentences precisely. So yes, reading helps profoundly.
Q : One message for our readers
Follow your heart. Follow your inner voice. Be alive to the promptings of your conscience. When you do this, you will find yourself walking along the path you were always meant to, instead of following the herd. Only through this will you find your way to all the greatest treasures of human life: love, wisdom, happiness, health, and enlightenment. Money, fame, power, material success, don’t really count in comparison.