Monday 15 November 2021

Indie Spotlight: Building a community by writing - How my memoir about divorce connected people from around the world during the pandemic

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing. 


One of the advantages of indie publishing is the freedom to bring our work to readers without adhering to the traditional model of book production. The freedom to share our work in progress with readers can help a writer determine whether her work resonates with the audience, and helps the writer improve her skills along the way by readers’ feedback. Today, I have the pleasure of introducing to you author Ranjani Rao. During the year of pandemic, when we were all stuck at home, Ranjani wrote a memoir on her divorce experience. While writing, she began sharing her progress via a subscription letter. Occasionally, her subscribers would receive sneak peaks of excerpts of her book. Through sharing, she not only built her readership, but created an entire community for people with marital problems who were looking for someone to articulate their feelings. 

As an indie author myself, I can say for certain that knowing our work touches the lives of our readers, and that our writing gave them emotional release, is one of our biggest rewards for our hard work and efforts.  And now, over to Ranjani to tell you her amazing journey. . .  

Summary: How I wrote my memoir about divorce during the pandemic by building in public and found a generous community of readers and writers.

In September 2002, a personal essay that I wrote about the contradictory feelings of motherhood was published in the San Jose Mercury News in California. While I was surprised to see my words and a family picture in the local newspaper,  I was even more shocked by the response. 

I received calls, emails and messages from people I knew and also from strangers who told me that my words expressed their feelings too. As a scientist whose publications until then had been of the dry, scientific variety, my first publicly shared introspective story laying bare my innermost emotions had struck a chord. 

In the years since then I dabbled briefly in fiction but primarily wrote personal essays and op-eds that appeared in various print and digital magazines and anthologies in the US, India and in Singapore where I now live. Despite the general enthusiastic response that I receive for most of my writing, the one highly personal topic that I had been actively avoiding writing about was my divorce.

For over a decade after the painful period of my life that changed the trajectory of my life, I danced around the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. Some of my resistance was an understandable reluctance to relive those awful days but a bulk of my objections to writing this particular story was due to cultural factors. In India, divorce is becoming increasingly common but there is still a stigma associated with the failure of a marriage and therefore a lack of open conversations on this important subject. 

Perhaps it was the pandemic or the persistent push of a fellow writer or it was just the right time, but in December 2020, I finally embarked on my first book-length writing endeavour, a memoir about divorce.

From solitary writing to building in public

As a firm believer in daily discipline, I wrote for an hour each weekday morning before beginning my work-from-home day. For a while I made brisk progress. Yet, I knew that there would be times when my motivation would falter. As humans, we are wired to avoid pain and reliving a painful period of my life seemed like a particularly unpleasant form of self-inflicted torture. To avoid procrastination, I decided to ‘build in public.’ 

Successful creators like Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work, recommend sharing your process while you are creating it and not just your final product when it’s ready. His work debunks the ‘lone creator’ myth.

Research has shown that the act of publicly sharing your progress and challenges and taking people behind the scenes as you create may lead to greater motivation. Being a part of a supportive community is also conducive to developing metacognition that can further enhance creativity in addition to providing a mechanism for feedback. 

Begin with the ones closest to you

I decided to use my newsletter subscribers as the community with whom I wanted to ‘build’ my book. From a monthly generic newsletter, I began sending out biweekly progress updates on my writing. From tallying the word count, listing the status (first/second/third draft), to describing the challenges of each phase, I spoke about what inspired me and what stumped me. As the book began to take shape, I provided sneak peeks into the chapters.

When it came time for me to seek beta readers, I put out a request to this supportive group of readers who had been quietly watching me without judgment. I was blown away by the generosity of a dozen people who willingly offered to read and provide feedback on what was essentially an unedited close-to-final draft. They turned around the review as promised and encouraged me to move forward. Knowing that I owed an update to my newsletter readers helped me stay accountable.

Although it took some effort to get the rest of the work to get the manuscript publication-ready (editing, cover design, interior layout etc), I was able to find leads and recommendations when I needed them. Finally my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After - A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, was ready to be launched.

New ways of gathering

In November 20219, I had successfully organised the launch of Train Friends, a collection of essays I had co-authored, at the majestic Arts House in Singapore. Almost 70 people turned up on a pleasant Sunday evening for a discussion about books, writing and reading. Given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I knew that a similar gathering was simply not possible. I decided to try something different.

Why not (virtually) meet one-on-one with the community that had sprung up around me during the creation of my book? With fellow authors, readers, aspiring writers and seasoned podcasters, I was able to record brief audio conversations with several amazing people about their experiences in forming small communities of like-minded people who came together around a shared interest or cause.

From starting a classic book club to launching an online literary magazine, from sending out a newsletter that rapidly grew into a large international family to conceptualising a podcast tackling the difficult topic of diversity, I came across many inspiring people across the world whose path had intersected with mine. In our unique way, each of us was creating a safe space and a compassionate way to interact in our physically isolated yet digitally close-knit world.

When I look back to that first article in California almost two decades ago, I still remain in awe of the power of words to initiate conversations, to connect people, and to create a space for interaction. As I humbly acknowledge glowing reviews and personal messages from readers who tell me that my book makes them feel empowered to break their silence and tell their story, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, I feel that our shared humanity and need to belong has stayed the same.

By opening up dialog on difficult topics, books give us a sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter if we participate in a modified gathering ritual that doesn’t have the intimacy of face to face get togethers  but takes place online. What matters is that the communal act of storytelling continues to bring us together. 

Ranjani is currently running a giveaway of her book to readers in India and Singapore. If you want a chance to win, you can find the details on her Instagram.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of three books and is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her latest book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery is now available. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram