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Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Get Journalists to Listen: A Guide for the Public Relations Industry

Let me start by addressing my fellow journalists:

My colleagues always ask me why I’m so polite to people on the phone. Whether it’s someone cold calling from a bank trying to sell me a credit card or, more often than not at a business magazine, a PR person pitching their company, I try not to be an asshole. This surprises the people who sit near me. I say sir or ma’am. I speak in a soft voice. I try to be helpful even when I’m busy. Maybe it’s because I’m still new to all this. Being polite costs NOTHING. It’s really the least you can do. The person calling you is just doing their job. As someone in the media, it’s your job to listen. One should always be skeptical, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to talk down to a young lady who is just doing her job. You are the tenth person she is calling today – please don’t think you’re special. If you are rude, you will blend into stereotype of the dismissive journalist who has better things to do (ie. Watching stuff on Youtube). If you’re nice, she will remember you. She will not bother you if you explain why you’re not interested in the piece. Who knows, you may just make a friend that could help you out down the line. Being polite will earn you a genuine thank you. What could be better than that?

Now to the men and women of Public Relations.

Please first understand that most journalists, especially business journalists, have a rather large chip on their shoulder. They meet and write about fabulously successful people and think they’re better than you because they know something about oil subsidies and ‘innovation’. The truth is, you probably work less and get paid more than the journalist who is shouting down the other end of the call or making disparaging remarks about you behind your back. Journalists are not paid very well, so acting like they are smart and influential is what makes them feel powerful. Humour them. If the vast majority of journalists were actually as smart as the millionaires and rock stars they write about, they probably wouldn’t be journalists.

Still, journalists and PR people need each other and if we work together, we can give readers a fair deal. Not every article need be a Tehelka sting operation. At the same time, there’s nothing more boring to a reader than a puff piece. There’s a middle ground, where if an idea is presented properly by a PR agency, a journalist can pick out an interesting narrative and tell a story that sparks a debate or sheds light on some good work being done. The reader gets some new insight, the agency gets paid, the company gets publicity, the journalist gets some free drinks at an event and everyone’s happy.

Here’s how you get the journalist to listen to your pitch.

Read the magazine! Read the last three issues of the publication you’re calling. Try to figure out what their angle is. Do they carry press releases? No? Then why send them press releases and ask them to publish them? That’s your job! Have they ever published a story about a tie-up? No one cares that a company has partnered with another to host a conference on industrial design innovation. What we care about are results. Tangible outcomes are more interesting than the potential for something to happen. Readers don’t have time to go through what your client is planning on doing. Unless you’re Google and you’re tying up with the US government, it’s not really a story.

Most of the answers to your questions are inside the magazine. For God’s sake, don’t call and ask who the editor of the magazine is! It’s on page 2, along with his photo and email ID. Am I seriously going to tell you my designation over the phone? Would you mind telling me yours while we’re at it? All our designations are on page 3. Do you want to speak to someone in the Delhi office? Why not look for the contact number on page 4? Do you want to know who covers specific beats? Why not have a quick look at the names on the by-lines? There’s a lot of information in a magazine if you take an hour to go through it carefully.

Don’t make claims in your pitch that you can’t back up. “xyz.com is one of the biggest ecommerce platforms in India!” Really? Bigger than the Indian Railways? Wow. How come we’ve never heard of you before? What does that even mean? A good journalist will have some tough follow up questions, an irritated one will really let you have it. Don’t come back with “the company doesn’t share revenue/market share data”. Whether its business journalism or some other form of journalism, no good writer is going to get inspired without some hard evidence.

My suggestion - for whatever it’s worth - is for PR agencies to focus on specific sectors and really be in touch with what’s happening in their clients’ space. No journalist is going to write a story that’s already been done in a rival publication less than a year ago. What you can do instead is explain to the journalist that there is another angle that hasn’t been covered. This requires you to be somewhat of an expert yourself – and I see nothing wrong with this. I am not necessarily going to write about a restaurant chain that has opened a new joint in Mumbai. It’s already been reviewed by every food critic in town. I may however be interested in a larger trend, of which the restaurant is a part. Is it the 3rd recent non vegetarian place to open in a previously conservative vegetarian neighbourhood? Is it the first gourmet take on a traditional cuisine? Has the chef given up a big gig elsewhere to fulfill his dream here? Why? Has the chain failed elsewhere – why do the owners think it will succeed this time round? I can’t guarantee I’d do a story, but I’d certainly want to meet the folks. Ask yourself: how would this story be relevant to readers of an international magazine? Or is it actually more in line with what a daily city newspaper would do? If so, why are we wasting each other’s time?

If the journalist hasn’t responded to your email, there’s probably a reason why. I don’t like getting calls from people when I’m in the middle of writing. I always like to be ready for a call, so I can be prepared and be focused on the issue I’m dealing with. If I haven’t responded to your email about a Danish lumberjack who is launching a new line of innerwear in India, do you think I’m interested in doing a story? Surely I would have called you? I understand that you need to follow up – but you can do that with a personalised email.

“Hi Shravan, didn’t hear from you about the Anders the Danish underwear hunk – I take it you won’t be interested in meeting him and testing out his snug-fit boxers? Do let me know. Thanks.”

I would definitely answer this with “Hi _____. Unfortunately I’m not available be able to meet him. Regards.” And then you'd have your closure. 

The best PR people I’ve met really know their space, not just their clients. They will send you an event invite because they’ve read your previous work. They know what you’re interested in. All our writing is on the web anyway. Just as I do my homework before I go to meet someone, so a PR person should do their homework before they call a journalist. Don’t send out a list of your clients. No one is going to go through it. A journalist already has a pretty good idea of what he’s comfortable writing about and of who he’d like to meet. I love sports – Google my name and it becomes pretty obvious. I’m always happy to meet people doing interesting work around sports. A new story has to be something I know about, in a space I have covered before, but it can’t be an idea I’ve already written about. There are a million people running sports academies. I’m not going to write about yours unless you tell me it’s different/better/interesting and I can see it for myself.

One thing which annoys me is when you get an email pitch about someone which already includes tentative talking points. Mr _____ would be happy talking about a, b and c. Fine. But why then would you email me asking me to send questions of my own? You have invited me. I just want to meet the guy and figure out what he’s doing. One of the funniest meetings I’ve had was with a mid level manager at an international bank with a small India office. I suffered the aforementioned talking points/questions irritation and sent my questions in anyway. The PR people came late. I say people because for some reason there were two of them. When they finally arrived to escort me inside the office, there was another Corp Comm person there. So five people crammed into the manager’s tiny office and only two of us talked for 45 minutes. It was quite surreal – even worse than when a PR person silently listens in on a conference call and you only realise she was there all along at the end when she says bye.

The best PR person I’ve worked with was in the music industry. She had read my stories. She sent me a polite SMS asking when we could chat. She pitched her story in such a way that I really felt bad having to say no to her. I really couldn’t attend the event because I had a prior engagement. But I sent her message to a colleague and he went. You have no idea how many event invites we get – we could spend our entire week at hotels and conference centres, eating bad banquet food and trading pre-printed name-tags. My office is at Matunga. I am probably not going to come for a 4pm event at Andheri East that has nothing to do with what I cover. It’s just a waste of time to even send me the email. It will get deleted in less than 5 seconds and that’s the harsh reality.

“Hey Shravan, I read your piece on ______. I’m handling PR for someone who is doing similar work with a different twist, but has been hugely successful nonetheless. Their details are attached, if you’re interested. They haven’t really been written about recently. Let me know if you’d like to meet over a coffee next week.”

Now that’s something I’d listen to.






Friday, March 14, 2014

Why I'm Tired of Kangana Ranaut's Character in Queen

'Sheltered Indian virgin goes to a foreign land and is unable to cross roads, order food or generally act like a sane adult'

This is a scenario I've seen played out in a few movies now (Kangana Ranaut in Queen and Sridevi in English Vinglish off the top of my head). The image of the ditsy damsel bouncing helplessly off oncoming commuters on a busy Parisian pavement is getting a bit old now. I know many, many Indians abroad and I really couldn't relate to her character. Maybe I'm in the minority but there are a bunch of us who are reasonably good global citizens who don't get scared by 'kiss on the lips' and 'sax'.

[Disclaimer: I don't watch many Hindi movies. Please please feel free to correct me and tell me why I'm a grumpy hater.]

I liked both movies because they show the Heroine's Journey and end with the protagonist being liberated from the shackles she starts off bound by. I believe more of these are needed - I'm far, far more tired of seeing the male leads walking shirtless around Spanish beaches. Indeed, on the other end of the spectrum to the 'OMG I have to share a hostel room with MEN!' movies, are films like Dostana and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara where implausibly rich, good looking Indians saunter around multi-million dollar apartments living scarcely believable lives. I know it's the movies - I know it's Bollywood - but I'd love to see a film showing normal Indians who live interesting, note-worthy lives abroad.

I thought that Loins of Punjab poked fun at the Indian community in America fantastically well. There's no reason why this can't be done dramatically as opposed to comically. Maybe I should shut up and try to write a script myself. I will. It's just that I know so many well traveled, global Indians who are living wonderful, scintillating lives outside India. Their struggles, their loves, their successes exhilarate me.

I find it amazing, for example, how bright, talented female graduates from the LSE's and Columbia's of this world will, after being forbidden from living on their own in India, are forced to start looking for husbands on their return. I find their challenges fascinating. I know 3 such women in this situation right now and their plight is deeply moving. Here are global Indians (they've lived, studied and worked with the world's smarter in the world's most international cities) and yet here they are, being 'flown to Calcutta to look at boys'. These are women with MBAs, coveted by the world's sexiest companies, essentially being pawned off to the highest bidder by families living in the past.

There are so many threads like this. We can do better than showing first time fliers from Gurgaon, falling over their luggage as they exist Amsterdam Schipol. Or can we? Is it just that my own insecurities are manifesting themselves? As someone who's lived abroad, I felt mostly contempt and embarrassment for Kangana's character. I didn't really laugh at her Delhi humour. I was also mildly horrified by Vijaylakshmi, the Indo-French whore she befriends. Europe is not a brothel!

I went to this with my girlfriend and neither of us laughed at the same jokes. (Can you believe I have a girlfriend now? She's great and I can't believe she likes me.) I think this experience showed how different we are. I think it showed how conscious I am about presenting a well polished, global face of my country to the world. I should just lighten up and enjoy the movie like the guy whistling and clapping wildly in the seat next to me.

Should you watch Queen? Absolutely. It got me thinking. It got me to write something, which is more than 99% of films I see. Go with your girlfriend, buy popcorn, whistle, enjoy it and don't be a buzz-kill like me.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why I Love Football

They needed just one more goal. This couldn't be happening. This was impossible. We - WE - were up 4-0 at half time and yet here we were about to succumb to one of the most embarrassing, humiliating come-backs of all time. Newcastle needed just one more goal to make it 4-4 with only a few minutes to play. Our boys were tired, they were dejected and they didn't know who to turn amidst the deafening roar of the Newcastle home support.
And then it came. The inevitable goal. 4-4 and I stormed out of the room and looked out our balcony into a night that offered no consolation. My parents were chuckling. They really don't 'get' it. So today I will explain it to them and to you and to whoever is reading. Those low points, those heart-breaking, morale sapping moments of sheer sadness where there is no solace to be found anywhere - I will live with those. The moments of absolute panic when the five measly pixels that make up your internet stream freeze for a split second as Theo Walcott is raining down on their goal - I will live with those. The hours after another defeat at the hands of Man Utd, when it seems everyone wants to talk about football and everywhere you look, you are reminded of the failure - I will live with those. Because for all those moments, there are ones right on the other end of the spectrum. My parents do not understand why I love football and why I love Arsenal. I will explain.
One night a few years ago I fell in love.
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It was cold. It was rainy. It was dark. It was England.

And yet the energy that surged through the frigid air was charged with excitement and anticipation. Small streams of people in reds and whites and blues and blacks merged into a mighty river of middle aged men. It was my first time in Liverpool and my first away game. Edd and I walked quietly with other nervous Arsenal and Everton fans. It was a league game relatively early on in the season, exactly the kind of occasion that Arsenal are known for slipping up on.

It was a good 10 minutes from the pub to the stadium and by the time we got there, hunger clawed at my inside. The dirty burger is a greasy patty served with burnt onions on soggy bread with some 4 month old ketchup and probably at STD but my God it was divine. I can still taste it now. I shovelled it down my mouth in seconds and we followed the other Arsenal fans, who had by now pulled their shirts over their jackets to show their colours, to the away block. We queued outside the turnstile discussing who should start up front. The songs had begun. I think a freezing night in a decrepit tin-can stadium is just about the only place a man is allowed to sing his heart out without any inhibitions. And how we sang. The narrow white corridors and flights of stairs that led to our section provided great acoustics as we marched up. I had been to five games - I knew all the songs by now.

Words cannot do justice how it feels to walk out into a floodlit stadium. There is just no sight like it. It's a feeling that draws us sports fans to our temples every weekend. You emerge into this cauldron and it never gets old. You have been couped up inside the claustrophobic bowels of the stadium for the best part for 10 minutes, absolutely itching to get out into the middle and when the glorious green of the grass hits you, well, you are never ready for it. Each time I see a football pitch inside an arena, it feels like taking your first breath after a long dive in water. It's that all encompassing euphoria that is topped by only one thing - a goal.

Unfortunately for us, the goal came for Everton. A corner was swung in and Tim Cahill planted a header into the back of the net. Cue an explosion from all three sides. The home fans exploded. Flailing limbs burst forth from the previously seated Blue's fans. Such contrast in emotions - you had to have been there to truly know it. Silence and stillness from the 2,000 of us and raw release from the other 30,000. We stood, arms folded, watching the curious mixture of happiness and aggression bellow forth from the Evertonians, like a quiet peninsula. The red eye of a blue storm.

The rain fell harder still. The wind, almost as if it sensed our disappointment, quickened its pace. Time was ticking away. We were playing badly and there was no escaping it. Passes got stuck in the water-logged grass, which was by now more sticky and slick. Tackles flew in - as is always the case in England, the good ones were greeted with cheers and the poor ones with groans. Time was ticking away. We deserved to lose this game. But we did not.

Alex Song fed Abou Diaby who up until then, had played worse than a cardboard cut-out of himself. He cracked a long pass that fizzed through the drizzle at the same height for about 30 yards till it met Robin van Persie's chest. We took a collective breath. One entity inhaled in anticipation. One unit, one being tensed its leg muscles as it lent forward and watched with bated breath.

"G'on Robin" came the cry from around me. The Evertonians now covered their eyes. His touch was perfect - he controlled the powerful pass with the finesse of a dancer. In one fluid motion all the pace and venom was taken off the ball and it bounced harmlessly in front of him. It bounced ready to be smashed into the back of the net. My grip on the shoulder of the man next to me tightened as Robin pulled back and fired away a shot with just over a minute to play.



For a moment reality was suspended and all that mattered in the universe was the ball and Tim Howard in their goal. The angle was tight but the ball just kept going. You can tell as a fan at the stadium, which shots are heading for the soft white net. Bang. 1-1.

It was euphoria like I'd never experienced. Better than sex. Better than anything conceivable. It was our turn to explode. We had no idea what was happening. Arms, legs, beers and bags sailed into the sky and the mosh-pit around us. You hold onto the guy next to you for dear life as you jump and scream and let out all the tension of the last 90 minutes. There is nothing in this world that comes close to the delirium of the last minute goal. It is the reason we love football. It is the reason we wake up in the morning and it is the reason we dreamed the night before. Absolute, glorious pandemonium. Unrelenting anarchy that takes over ever fibre in your body.

That overpowering joy of that moment is what I remember. It is seared into my memory and into my outlook on life and football. For every last minute goal against, there is a last minute goal for. And for me, the joy outweighs the disappointment. There is a reason I say “we” when talking about my beloved Arsenal. There is a reason I skip appointments to sit in front of a screen. There is a reason that Saturday is sacred. Through the cold, rainy English night, songs of happiness and glory and brotherhood ring out forever.

I would not trade it for world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In Another Life

There is balance in my life, as in all things, even when I can't see it. It's not all bad - it never is. No matter how angry or full of hatred I come home in the evening, my grandparents - the shining light in my life - are always there to greet me with big smiles, like they're seeing me after years. I cannot stay worked up. If I hang on to the anxieties of the day, it rubs off on them and that is something I will not allow.


My Nani is the most amazing person. With bad knees and long trail of life-threatening diseases behind her, she makes me 4 meals a day. I'm not kidding. She makes me breakfast: cheese dosa / bacon and egg sandwich / maggi noodles and of course cereal every morning. Then as I shower and get ready for work, she packs me a lunch and an apple for tea. As steady as the north star, the highlight of my day is usually the incredible dinner that's waiting for me. She pains over what I like and don't like. "I don't you don't like this vegetable, so I've made some of this for you instead". I am not worthy.


In another life she would have been a CEO of a company, I just know it. She knows every little thing that is happening in the house. She wakes up the earliest and sleeps last. "Fun" for her is arranging and rearranging our cupboards. Like a CEO puts the health of the company over their own, my Nani puts the well-being of our home - her domain - first and foremost. She will always, always forsake the last piece of fish for someone else. She'll take more vegetables and only go for the meat when everyone else is done. I try and help lay and clear the table but some nights I forget and she does it herself, silently. Like the tide. Living alone at university has taught me how much effort it takes to make food and clear it up afterwards and like the tides comes in and goes out, she will prepare and clear dinner whether we there to help or not. For us, it's an afterthought, for her it's routine. 


I saw my Nani's passport the other day. She was born in 1941. I wonder how different her life would be if she had been born in 1981. Working for Forbes, I think I've understood a little about what being an entrepreneur is and I have no doubt in my mind that my Nani has the entrepreneurial bug. She never wastes any time. An empty afternoon is filled with stitching something, cooking something, creating something. It's dawned on me that my Nani is a creator of wealth. If something is broken she will fix it. If clothes are ill-fitting she will alter them on her trusted 1960's German sewing machine that's still going strong, trying to keep up with her. In Bangalore she would organise children's birthday parties. She can not sit still. If she was born today she would have founded a company and run it with the same focus she runs our house. Maybe in another life.


I am so happy that my grandparents live with me. We have seen each other often throughout our lives but we've never lived together. My granddad has this amazing ability to wake up each day and expect the best from the world. "He is a good man with a good heart" he says, about a young bank clerk who has helped him change some minute semantics on his pension. He's a naval man and so he expects efficiency and order from the world. Ha! Nevertheless, no matter how much worry fills him through the day, he wakes up an optimist. That's something I admire about Commodore Patnaik. 


He came into my room the other day, tears in his eyes. It was the day after his birthday and I'd just gotten home from a week in Vietnam. He handed me a envelope of money. I said "Nana, I should be giving you a gift!"

More tears. He said, "You are my gift". What do you say to that? His trembling words knocked me off my feet like an uppercut.


While he, perhaps, still sees me as a boy, I think my Nani views me differently now. I am a "working man" as both she and my other grandmum - my father's mother - point out every time they see me. I think they see my dad. Even though I earn a pittance, I am a different commodity. I am a long-term debt fund that they need to keep nurturing because when I come to fruition I will take care of them all. Or something like that. 


Some things are just more important to my grandparents' generation - things we take for granted. A job or profession is sacred. One's health is of absolute, utmost importance: there is genuine concern if I have a cold. Doctors, therefore, are God. Communication is magic: it is essential to get someone's phone number and writing it down and double check it. They love to write things down in their book. When do we write stuff? On our phones? I love my grandparents' hand writing. I still look back at the hand-written letter they used to send us when we were in Singapore in the 90s. They are more eloquent in cursive. 


My grandparents are my anchor. They keep me from drifting away just as they keep me from drowning. They remind me that I don't have it bad. They remind me how blessed I am. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remembering Mhavu

I remember my sister asking innocently, "Dad, has Mhavu ever gotten angry?"


I don't really know how to deal with death, especially the passing of a loved one. Do you talk to other people about it? How can you? Do you internalise it? Is that healthy? Is that even polite? I haven't found the answers to these questions. So I do what I always do when I'm unsure of something: I write about it. Recently my grandaunt, fondly called Mhavu, passed away.


I do not remember a time when she was angry, upset or anything other than utterly, gracefully content. When I remember Mhavu, I smile.





I'll always remember her as the calm in the Gulwadi household - a home I truly love. It's a home filled with noise and bustle and manic activity in which Mhavu was always the calm breeze. I can't help but think that in the midst of countless people careening back and forth through the living room, she kept things balanced - on an even keel. Ever since I remember, her movements were quiet, elegant and measured. Like a ballet dancer, she would glide silently to wherever tranquility was needed and sure enough, it would follow close behind.


I don't remember her being as talkative as her sister, my grandmother. But she was a great listener and I suspect that in a house of vivacious, out-going, young-at-heart adults, that was exactly what was needed. She called all us grandchildren, "Munna", in her soft voice. She was so starkly different to our generation, that watched midnight football matches and went out partying even later. There was constant maelstrom of young men and women video-conferencing each other night and day about where to go and who to pick up and she would absorb it all without blinking.


But maybe that's just how she was when I was around. I can't say I knew her as well as I'd have liked. My grandmother told me about how beautiful she was in her youth. She told me how long her hair used to be and how envious everyone was. Mhavu's was a beautiful soul. I hope my grandmother will tell me more stories about her.


I think that's what our elders really want us to do. They want us to listen. I've had the privilege of all four of my grandparents' company all my life. I want to listen to all my elders as much as I can so that when the time comes, I can smile at their memories too.


Rest in peace.




Monday, October 7, 2013

Serene Homes of Northern Europe

I’ve been watching a brilliant, dark TV show called The Killing, which is set in Copenhagen. The almost clinical cleanliness and order and paleness of everything couldn’t be further removed from where I currently live. There’s no dust there. The independent houses are wooden and the apartments aren’t swarming with the maids and drivers and all the other unorganised labour that we in India enjoy. People wear jackets (jackets!) and the supermarkets are shitty (compared to Tesco and Waitrose, anyway). The men are tall and all of them are unwittingly camp. There are only three kinds of things on roads: hatchbacks, sedans and Volvo trucks. Everyone smokes.

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Germany (and I know that technically Germany is not classified Northern Europe, but then I’d argue it is much closer to the ‘idea’ of northern Europe than, say, the United Kingdom, which is). Not so much the student life in dorms and clubs, but the time I spent with my friends’ families in their homes. There’s a measured blandness about the streets and a feeling of general calm in the air. 



If I’ve learned one thing from my travels it is this: if you want to “experience” a city, you have to walk its streets but if you want to understand its people you need to stay in their homes.  


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“We drive by train to the house of my parents” said Jakob, in that adorable European-English, “There we make a party”. Until I figured out which universal language mistakes Germans make, I couldn’t believe you could just drive trains around in this country.

He was kind but direct and assertive. He had a style of telling you how your day together was going to pan out, without you having any say in it – and you wouldn’t mind. “We go here, yes? Then we take some beers in there. Then we make some pictures.” And indeed, that is what we would do. But he wasn’t boring: he had tattoos and listened to Jonny Cash. His English wasn’t that great but he spoke uninhibited. He is one of those kind souls whose friendship you feel you don’t really deserve.



His family’s house was wooden and had carpeted floors. There was very very slow internet and no cable TV. The walls were packed with books and vinyl records. In the basement were a big boxing bag, a sofa and an ancient television enshrined in VHS tapes. From the quaint kitchen one could see down the wide roads to the level-crossing and the station that we’d gotten off at. His back garden was large and just across the mud track from his back gate was one of those classic, deep, dark, coniferous German forests. It made it seem like we were in the country side. It was dusk when we walked through the door. His family enjoyed a close relationship with the neighbours and their two boys and that evening, there must have been 20 people having dinner in the garden. A barbeque was going, beers were being popped open using every single thing in the house. It was a full-fledged Saturday evening get together.




One of the reasons my love for Germany endures is because even though I stuck out like a sore thumb, I was never once made to feel unwelcome. From the first time I ordered a sandwich at Subway in a deserted shopping mall on a Sunday evening and the attendant taught me how to say “cucumber”, I felt like I was an exchange citizen rather than simply an exchange student. No one made me feel more welcome than Jakob, whose family lived in the suburbs – 30 minutes by S-Bahn from the city centre. Berlin in late summer is really something. It was like a culturally vibrant household in 1960s America but instead of father and son playing baseball, 15 year olds and 50 year olds drank schnapps and smoked roll-ups.




After the adults went inside to listen to jazz music, the youngsters hung out in the – now chilly – garden. Jakob’s brother’s and sister’s friends were there too and they all eyed me up curiously before speaking to me in their best English. I was not paraded around like many proud people do their foreign guests. I played football with some of the younger kids who were amazed that I knew what football was. We played that “guess who I am in 20 questions” game that apparently all Germans play. Note: they ALL play that game.


Normally when you’re a house-guest – especially a foreign one – everyone goes out of their way to tend to you and you can end up feeling a little smothered. But the experience I had in Jakob’s house was the same that I felt at Julian’s or Paolo’s. It’s hard to put it into words. People would talk to you, smile at you and then treat everyone else in exactly the same way. It was so refreshing. What I appreciated was that I wasn’t the chief guest, just another guest at a party. It was like “Great that you’re here. Here are the rules - help yourself to a beer.” That’s what Germany is to me: a party where everyone follows rules. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Treading on Toes

The trouble with being a writer is that your output is out there for the whole world to see. In other jobs, you’re part of a larger collective set of cogs and clockwork and somewhat detached from the end product. But as a writer (or a journalist or even worse, a blogger) your work is you and you are your work; you pour your soul into cyberspace or printed pages and hope for the best. More often than not, I find, the responses are overwhelmingly positive and it makes the risk all worth it. Many people will write messages of solidarity and congratulations and many more silently resonate. In some cases, strangers will respond negatively and you have to take it on the chin and learn for next time. But sometimes, people who are close to you will change their opinion of you and worse yet, get hurt personally.

I only write when something inspires me enough to affect my emotions so much that I can’t do anything until I’ve articulated them. Those initial few seconds after you hit publish are fantastic because a great weight is off your chest and for a moment, you are totally self assured. But if the piece is serious or emotional (or seriously emotional) then you start to worry and second guess yourself.

“What if _____ reads it? What will they think of me?”
“Will ______ still like me after they’ve read what I’ve written about them? Or will they appreciate the guts it took to share those feelings?”
“Should I have shared something that personal?”

I think you always live in fear that, while 5 people may love your post there will be one whose perception of you will be dramatically altered even if he/she may not tell you. For example, my family inspires me to write. I wonder how they feel when they’re the subjects of a piece of writing that’s out there for the whole world to see. Am I allowed to write about anyone? No one has written about me so I don’t know what that feeling is - the feeling of seeing your name or your character being picked apart and observed by someone else. But there have been times when I’ve written things about them and it has affected small parts of how we interact.

I remember writing an email to my parents (who are followers of this blog anyway) which I thought was really from the heart. To me it seemed like any of the long emails I’d sent them once in a while, detailing my position on things. But this time it ended up causing a lot of pain to them and on hearing about their reaction, immense pain within me. I think one of the hallmarks of our family is our ability to share things – but is it OK if I share those feelings with the entire internet?

It’s the similar situation with my impressions and skits in my stand-up routine; people who I’ve impersonated have stopped the little idiosyncrasies that I picked up on and I feel awful. But at the same time, everyone wants me to impersonate them – I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.

I’d like to believe that the people who really care about me will continue to treat me the same way regardless because they know that the need to express myself is something I can’t fight. It’s a trade off: do you release something into the public domain that could benefit many, at the risk of alienating a few? Maybe this inertia is what holds most people back from expressing themselves artistically.


That’s why I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to be a creative person who shares his or her work. Getting up on that soapbox isn’t easy and I think audiences/readers take it for granted. Unless you have put yourself out there, you have no idea how hard it is and how easy it is to criticise from the back of the room. When I see a comedian on stage or a blogger really writing from the heart, I immediately empathise because I know how long they must have struggled with themselves: wouldn’t it be more convenient to not express anything?