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The inside story

Zac o?Yeah | Updated on January 23, 2018

Watch the word Do workshops streamline writers? Amitav Ghosh, who has taught creative writing at Jadavpur University and at Harvard, thinks that there is a danger that certain styles will be encouraged   -  Sanjoy Ghosh

Starting point Anita Nair runs Anita’s Attic, a writing workshop in Bengaluru   -  GP Sampath Kumar

The getaway group The courses in India are hugely popular among techies who hope to switch careers. Seen here is a session at Anita’s Attic   -  Hareesh P Warrier

Showing the way Author Amit Chaudhuri conducts a biannual weeklong workshop in Kolkata   -  R Ragu

Fast forward Publishers, with marketing departments breathing down their necks, want instant hits. And this often tilts the balance in favour of those new writers who have attended workshops   -  R Shivaji Rao

Arthimedes/shutterstock.com

A good creative-writing workshop can be like a greenhouse in which a budding writer is nurtured in the art by mentors. But is it really possible to learn to write novels?

The taxi sneaks off the Outer Ring Road and up a grossly potholed street called Hennur Cross, and we’re pretty soon off the detailed Bengaluru map that I carry in my jhola. I’ve been given a few vague landmarks — a supermarket, a sweet shop, a nursing home — and we should be there by now. Trouble, is we’re not anywhere: this doesn’t even look like the Bengaluru I know anymore — more a mixed-up Mad Max landscape, a rural India dotted with gated communities under construction. The cabbie asks me if I know where we’re going and I reply that I have no clue. He has no clue either. We drive in circles in a half-built layout until, serendipitously, we find the place: a creative writing class.

A couple of times a year I am invited to speak to writing students. It’s usually a stimulating experience — but what kind of writing might be going on here, in the middle of nowhere, I ask myself as I wipe sweat off my face before entering Anita’s Attic, a workshop run by the internationally acclaimed novelist Anita Nair.

“It began because on a daily basis I get requests from writers asking if I can help them with their manuscript,” she tells me. “My partner suggested I start a mentoring programme. However, we realised that it was going to take up a great deal of time and energy from my part and it needed to be matched by equal commitment and talent from the writer’s side. So we decided to restrict the number of participants to 12 and charge a fee.”

To my surprise, the classroom turns out to be full: a dozen young and not-so-young men and women who share a common dream — to write a novel. Although Nair is in charge of the workshop, which runs every Saturday over some three months, she also brings in guest speakers to offer the aspiring writers diverse perspectives.

I’m impressed by the students’ doggedness in getting all the way out here week after week, and do my best to reciprocate by imparting whatever wisdom I’ve gathered over my 20-year-long writing career. I discuss how to construct a plot and build characters; and one student asks me if there’s any trick to writing good dialogue.

Several possible answers pop up. I suggest going to Bengaluru’s best-known hangout, Koshy’s, to eavesdrop, watching Kannada movies with subtitles to understand local sensibilities and mores, and reading Hemingway (obviously). And then, once you’ve written your dialogue cut 75 per cent to get to the point. Finally one should add small phrases that give character to speech: ‘What are you saying?’ ‘Aiyyo.’ ‘Don’t lie to my face.’

The questioner seems satisfied with my impromptu lecture. Of course, in situations like these one ought to keep in mind what the Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck once said: “If there is magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed on from one person to another.” However, Steinbeck’s larger point is that a bad story is only an ineffective story.

So that is what I try to do whenever I teach creative writing: make those who want to learn the craft understand the difference between ineffective and effective storytelling, which seems to be the key to a good read. Or if not the key, then perhaps at least a starting point for a writer.

Furthermore, I think that for any writer who has ‘made it’ and published books, it is imperative to pass on whatever it is that one has figured out to the next generation of writers. That’s how literary traditions are created — and that’s why I like creative writing workshops. But there are also reasons why I don’t like them.

Of trials and errors

Since I was about three-and-a-half-foot-tall, I had this dream of becoming a writer. What I did then was to churn out imitations of the books I liked — whether the fables of Beatrix Potter or the espionage thrillers of Ian Fleming. If I liked to read it, I tried to write it. It didn’t occur to me immediately that it might improve my chances of getting published if I stopped copying and found my own voice… and named my protagonist something other than James ‘007’ Bond.

Fundamentally, I was sceptical of creative writing courses. In the 1990s I’d spent some time in New York City and couldn’t help but notice stickers for writing classes glued to streetlights, flyers in cafes, and advertisements in The Village Voice. They cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars and it all seemed like a moneymaking racket run by writers one had never heard of — turning teachers, one suspected, because they were unable to earn from their own writing. If, despite going to a workshop, a student failed to produce anything workable, he or she could next consult the writing teacher as a ‘script doctor’ for $65 per hour or rent him or her as an editor to rewrite the failed manuscript for $85 per hour. Beware: prices may have gone up since the ’90s.

But then again, when Raymond Chandler decided to give writing a shot, he enrolled in a course called ‘Short Story Writing 52AB’. Chandler debuted in a pulp magazine in 1933 and became, within a decade, one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood, while his detective novels about Philip Marlowe are still in print. He may have succeeded without those evening classes, but in a competitive market like the literary business, he cannot be faulted for having done that bit of preparation — think of it like a carpenter taking woodworking lessons before building a cupboard in which to hide skeletons. Other notable creative-writing students who have made it big include Michael Chabon, Jostein Gaarder, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.

Back home in Sweden, at the age of 28, I heard about a six-month course run by the effusive Stewe Claeson, one of the country’s finest novelists. It wasn’t too expensive and lectures, discussions and mentoring at a residential school alternated with time spent at home writing (which is what writers are essentially meant to do). My guru, Claeson, eventually got me to realise that I had been a very unselfconscious writer up to then. I wasn’t able to see what my text looked like in the eyes of a reader. Becoming self-aware made me, by default, a better writer. Shortly afterwards my first novel was accepted by a publishing house. It was a very serious, earnest piece of work. It totally flopped in the market.

In my early thirties I joined another writing course — this time a two-year programme for semi-professional writers at the University of Gothenburg. It turned out to be a devastating experience. The faculty consisted of eminent writers and intellectuals, and the course was so text-oriented that half an hour could be spent discussing the position of a comma. I ended up with the disconcerting feeling that there are no absolute truths in the world of fiction. Besides, some of my classmates were ‘creative writing junkies’ — people who had no intention of writing a book, but liked the idea of hanging out in ‘creative’ places and having endless discussions about a semicolon.

After that I was afraid of writing another novel and focused on my non-fiction instead, until I ended up at a third writing workshop — here in India. I was by then in my late thirties and had moved to Bengaluru. I heard of a weekend workshop taught at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata by novelists Amitav Ghosh and Rimi Chatterjee, and decided to give it one last shot. At Jadavpur I got an entirely different view of fiction writing — a much more liberating one. I began to understand that a writer should not neglect and perhaps, even in the main, focus on the aspect of communication. You may spend days chasing misplaced commas, but to get across your point is what really counts. That was my ‘eureka moment’, and a year later I published my first bestseller, Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.

Here to stay?

So there’s the good and the bad. At a writing workshop, ideally, the discussions you have with others help you grasp the larger picture as well as give you a perspective on your work.

“It is good if a writing programme like what I do in Anita’s Attic works with the writer on a live project; either fine-tuning a first draft or working on the first draft of a real solid idea,” explains Nair. “That way there is someone to goad the writer into writing so it becomes a daily discipline.”

The author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy, which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Man Asia awards, Amitav Ghosh, says, “If nothing else, these courses provide encouragement to write and they give budding writers useful feedback.” Another writer who has introduced writing courses in India, Amit Chaudhuri, agrees with this: “My experience as a teacher is that young writers benefit greatly from the scrutiny their work is subjected to, and the discussions they take part in, even in ways they may not immediately understand. But for this kind of workshop to be effective, you need writers who are already quite mature, and are looking to hone their skills.”

As an ‘industry’, creative writing courses have been around for a while — the two most famous being the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US, which accepts participants from all over the world, including India; and the creative writing programme started in 1970 at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The latter has recently set up a ‘branch’ in Kolkata, where Chaudhuri teaches a biannual weeklong workshop along with leading writers from the UK and India such as Ian Jack, Romesh Gunesekera, and Jeet Thayil.

Although Chaudhuri admits that he himself never took any writing classes and ‘was frankly prejudiced against them’, he has now become a major champion of creative writing in India. “I decided not to go for a commercial model, where we’d admit anyone who chose to apply,” he explains. “I thought we should select the best applicants, and allow people to apply from anywhere in the world, while locating the workshop in Kolkata. So it would be an ‘international’ workshop, and the fact that it took place in Kolkata was meant to send out the message that ‘international’ didn’t have to mean New York or London.”

Over the last few years, interestingly, writing workshops have mushroomed in India in the form of one- or two-week camps; weekend classes running over one semester (popular among techies who hope to switch careers or develop writing as a hobby); and half-day courses offered at venues like the Kala Ghoda Arts and Literature Festival in Mumbai. My next gig teaching writing will be at a thriller workshop hosted by the Bengaluru Literature Festival in December.

Edges blunted

One could argue that since both Europe and the US have long traditions of writing workshops, they must have shown some results or they wouldn’t still be around — and they certainly wouldn’t be spilling over to India. But is it really possible to learn to write novels?

The most common criticism is that workshops streamline writers into producing over-sanitised, boring prose by taking out the rough edges. Ghosh confirms this, “There is the danger that certain styles will be encouraged and others discouraged: this is a criticism that is frequently directed at creative writing courses.”

Nair agrees, “Yes, it can lead to formulaic writing, which is why I don’t have a syllabus. Depending on the calibre of the writers in each season, I chalk out a plan on an individual and collective basis to help them evolve their writing in an organic fashion.”

For sure, if the writer is good enough, he or she will withstand the cookie-cutter. Only writers with low self-awareness run the risk of losing their originality. A far greater problem could be that workshops get addictive. Chaudhuri says, “The main danger is an over-dependency on the workshop situation, on feedback, and handholding. Some brilliant young writers — far more mature than I was at their age — seem oddly to never want to leave the idea of the workshop behind, and to write in isolation. But writing is to a great extent about isolation, and about being able to be your own reader and critic. The workshop is only a preparation for reading your own work more closely.”

With a little help

I’ve myself come across enough wannabe writers who faff about a masterpiece they’re planning but, at the end of the day, before the unrelenting computer (or blank sheet of paper), they have no words left. Rather than facing the truth and ending the pretence, ‘workshop junkies’ enlist for yet another workshop. Why not, one may ask. To some extent people are bound to join these workshops and classes for social reasons — for a bit of fun, a hobby.

On the other hand it is true that if you have a novel in your head, a writing course can help you put it down on paper. The best students end up signing book contracts.

And so the growth of writing workshops is inevitable. In the modern publishing economy, publishers can’t play the same nurturing role they may have done in the olden days, when an editor packed the writer and a week’s supply of tinned food into the car and drove to some isolated hilltop cottage to hammer out a book. An elderly publisher once told me that an author might publish 30 duds before striking gold with the 31st novel. Not any longer. Publishers, with their marketing departments breathing down their necks, want instant hits.

The less time an editor spends on a manuscript, the more the interactions at a writing workshop can tilt the balance in your favour. A good workshop can be like a greenhouse in which a budding writer is subjected to powerful fertilisers in the form of stimulating ideas about the craft from mentors. An amount of pesticide is applied too, to weed out misconceptions and clichéd ideas. Workshops tweak the mind and teach you to think like a pro; edit stuff before submitting; hunt down darlings to kill; detect weaknesses and improve the strong points.

Any book, though it is the effort of the one person who puts his or her heart into it, can always get better with a little help from friends

Zac o’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer and literary critic. His new novel Hari, a Hero for Hire, was published this month

Published on October 23, 2015

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