Tag Archives: advice

The Venus Flytrap: Don’t Compromise

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Nearly a decade ago, I took some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. It was in the form of this unforgettable, but retrospectively mystifying, line – “You have to decide – do you want to be a full woman or a writer?” The person who said it was encouraging me to quit my job and be footloose and foolish, both nice and sometimes rewarding things for a young person to be. It was superficial advice without logistical backing, conveyed by someone not only with tremendous privilege, but who knew exactly what the effect on a vulnerable, hopeful person would be. It was cruel advice designed to ensnare: I would either choose “writer”, and suffer without grounding, or choose “full woman”, and simply leave the playing field. Either way, very little art would be made.

She knew I’d choose “writer”. I was fortunate to eventually be able to walk back some of my choices, and recoup some losses. But to this day, I’ve no idea what was meant by “full woman”, but an old note I found trying to work it out begins on an eerie and absolutely revealing line. “I don’t believe in sisterhood.” Certainly, the advice-giver wasn’t a fan of other women. So when she told me that it was alright to be financially dependent for the sake of art, what she was really saying was that it should not be possible for women to have full lives.

While I was still young enough to be living out that advice with relatively little consequence (there’s a finite period of time during which you can still do this; the trouble is that once you’re in the hold of that floating life, you won’t recognise when its expiry date has passed until your life blows up), I received completely contradictory guidance from someone who had equally wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t make art. She was not as eloquent as the earlier advisor, which is why only one line remains in memory – “You were younger then. You’re a woman now.” Funnily enough, this advice too had to do with being a woman. The advice was to “choose” to compromise making art for the sake of the security of a full-time job, and to also give up any hope of leaving a situation that did not feel like home. I was a little older, true, and so I recognised: the advice-giver, stuck in a painful place of not being creative, just wanted company.

These two encounters were far from the only ways in which people I’d cared about or respected tried to thwart my growth as an artist. They are good examples, though. The first encounter was with someone powerful, the second with someone who was also struggling artistically. Both harboured bitterness. They are also archetypal, and many promising artists meet them in the forms of mentors and friends along the way. They may be gatekeepers, artists or peers. Such an influence is partly why so many promising artists also disappear. When they offer you a trap that implies that making art is a sacrifice, self-indulgent or an obligation, remember: it’s not, and you don’t have to choose.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 14th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dismissal Under Guise Of Advice

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Nothing is promised to anyone. No trajectory is so definite that one can claim it unequivocally for oneself, let alone assign it to another as a matter of assumption. Some things are not just a matter of time. Some things are not going to happen just because no one ever told you that you can imagine other storylines, other ways to measure a happy ending or a better beginning. No one warned you about what is known as “the danger of a single story”.

And most certainly – if we can be certain about anything at all – nothing is going to happen just because saying it will is the easiest way to extricate yourself from someone else’s problems. It’s not that you lack empathy – most of the time, the problem stems from truly wanting to say anything to give them immediate assurance. But you do not have the right to parrot a prevarication and call it a promise.
It’s a disrespectful thing, you know, to dismiss someone or their choices – and a cruel thing to dismiss their pain – through a throwaway warranty.
So if – for instance – someone tells you that they have made a plan to adopt a child because they haven’t been able to conceive, don’t say, “Don’t give up”. If someone tells you they are going to seek professional mental healthcare, don’t say, “You’re so negative. Try positive thinking.” If someone says they’d rather stay single than marry for anything but love, don’t say, “You’re so picky.” If someone says they need to leave an abusive relationship, don’t say, “It’ll be okay once you have a baby.”  If someone tells you their heart still hurts a year after a romantic disappointment, don’t say, “Get over it, there are many fish in the sea”. If someone tells you they are offended culturally by an idea you brought to a board room, don’t say, “Don’t be so sensitive.” If someone says they think they may be queer, don’t say, “Pshaw. Yeah right.”
In short, if someone tells you they are left-handed, don’t say, “Highly unlikely. Don’t be silly. Only demon children are lefties. You just haven’t tried using your right hand, that’s all.”
Because really – how dare anyone make these proclamations, assuming that everyone has equal access and equal luck, identical hopes and identical coping strategies?
Bad advice is dangerous, but equally dangerous is any kind of dismissal. All that will happen is that the person will feel, well, dismissed. They’ll turn to more indulgent sources – not all of whom will mean as well as you do.
The best way to comfort is not to try and provide solutions, but just to listen. Most of the time, the answer is within us – and speaking out loud helps us arrive at it.
So instead of informing someone how their journey should be (and therefore will be), why not let them tell you how they wound up where they are, and what they think lies ahead? Don’t make the offbeat path harder than it is. Just give them a little company – a crying shoulder, if need be. Words can make certain things better – but who should do the speaking, even so?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 21st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.