posted by pooja das sarkar and bishan samaddar
The audio-visual room of the Jadavpur University English department had a buzz of creative energy around it on the 11th of this month. The reason? Well it was a day that creative writers across two countries were meeting and sharing their innermost self-doubts and queries about the art, craft, poetics and politics of taking up the pen (or the keyboard as in most cases these days) for creative purposes. At this rare collection of creative minds were present the well-known American novelist and professor of creative writing – Melissa Pritchard – along with five of her MFA students from Arizona State University, and a room-full of eager JU students of English all aspiring to greater creative output. Moderating for the event was Rimi B. Chatterjee – a young lecturer of the English Department and a published author of creative fiction in her own right. Kalam: Margins Write was the point of connection between the two.
Although the interaction began with usual nervousness of such first meetings, the sheer warmth of both parties involved broke the ice. The students of ASU introduced themselves with humour and candor. There was the rather reticent Darcy who was honest about her own doubts as an aspiring writer in the initial stages of coming to understand one’s creativity at one’s own pace as well as her discomfort with the mushrooming of writing workshops which in her opinion are not always the best thing to participate in. Such workshops could be harmful in two ways – one was that since such workshops involve extensive reading of works just produced so they are open to scathing criticism which could destroy the fragile confidence of the writer who is starting out with her raw, unedited work.
The second danger, which all the ASU writers and Melissa pointed out in unison, was that of “getting addicted” to these ubiquitous workshops resulting in the loss of one’s own individual voice in the mélange of voices. Although the workshops helped the author with useful critique by a selected peer group, Melissa also brought to attention that “at some time you have to face the page alone”. For this it is essential to find one’s own voice – for which it is imperative to spend a lot of time on your own, maybe traveling or just thinking while looking through the windows of a café. Melissa was emphatic in her stress on finding one’s voice. The anxiety of influence of the writers we admire and feel inadequate to has a solution to it. While answering a student’s question on feeling that she could not write because after reading Wuthering Heights she felt that she could never write in that way – so what was the use of writing, Melissa made a useful suggestion that the best way to read authors that you admire is that “learn from them, try to unpack the writer’s work so as to find out what it is exactly you like about the author – read like a taxonomist! You can’t let yourself silence yourself.”
Michael, another perceptive student of ASU also reiterated the point by saying that maybe one cannot write exactly like the writer one admires so much but one can find out the reason for that admiration and put it to good use. It’s actually the spirit with which the author represents her times in Wuthering Heights that one admires, so maybe one day the aspiring author could engage with her times in a similar spirited way instead of getting intimidated by the author.
Subhodeep Paul, a final-year MPhil student of Jadavpur University and an aspiring poet and novelist, raised some interesting questions. He spoke about the dual roles of the academic and writer that writers in India usually have to face (this reaffirmed by Rimi B.Chatterjee’s hilarious comment that “writers have to survive in India hiding deep under the cover of an academic!”). He expressed his dilemma about the time and financial constraint at pursuing a three-year MFA program and queried the possibility of an exchange programme between the students and faculty of JU and ASU. His query met with an enthusiastic response by Melissa Pritchard who expressed the distinct possibility of such partnerships in the future. She said that her university was very eager for such global partnerships – “global interaction is enrichment on both sides.” Michael was helpful in his advice that there were more than 400 such MFA programs all over the USA that could offer a lot of choice in terms of the cost and the number of course years. Max pointed out the possibility of self-financing through the attainment of teaching assistantships.
Next came the dreaded subject of finding a publisher. There was a simultaneous sense of despair among all the authors with Michael coming up with “we still haven’t figured that out yet!” resulting in the room being in splits with laughter. Michael pointed to Melissa as being the only one who was qualified enough to answer that question, having published six or seven novels to her credit. Melissa was forthcoming about her stories of starting up as a writer. Melissa was a housewife to begin with, who nurtured her love of fiction through writing stories and sending it to various magazines.
At around 30 she realized that she still hadn’t started to work on her lifelong dream of being a writer but after the revelation she worked hard to teach herself the art of writing a novel or story. After many rejections – at the rate of one every afternoon, Melissa started to become depressed and decided that she was not writing for the sake of publication – she was writing for herself only. Once she was at peace with this realization, the acceptance letters started to pour in and one day (while busy at the mundane task of doing laundry at the basement) she received a phone call saying that she had won an award for her story. Melissa believes that a writer has to have two things – first to focus on the work itself and reach the perfection that it can and secondly be stubborn enough to carry on despite loads of rejection letters piling up. Ultimately writing should come from an ego-less state where it doesn’t matter who is reading the work. It is important to balance the humility with the desire to publish. Another way of dealing with the issue of publishing is to find a champion for your work – not everyone will like what you write – so it is important to have a champion with similar sensibilities. In a similar vein, a writer could also observe the publishers of her/his favourite authors. That way, publishers with similar sensibilities could publish similar work.
The students of Pritchard like Aimee and Michael also suggested publishing on the Internet. Michael has been regularly sending his stories to English magazines on the Internet and it is a done and an “in” thing these days to do that. The other valid question, which found many heads nodding to it at the same time, was the question of constructive revision of the creative work, which usually comes out in a steady flow of emotion or passion. A first-year student of JU was concerned about his inability to go back to his work once he had finished it in one flow. The ASU writers had quite a few helpful pointers regarding this particular problem.
Tina: It is different for poetry. When you go back you have to see it with a critical eye. With time when you go back to it a month later, then you should be able to edit while you’re writing.
Melissa: You should develop a support community instead of a teardown community – it is very important to do that. Also it is about being honest. You are your own laboratory for characters. There are different motives and mixed emotions that you have felt and they become the material for your characters as well. So your characters can be really complex. The writer is often thrown into challenges – “am I being honest?” is a question you are constantly asking yourself. Sometimes you also grow out of your previous writing.
Aimee: I am very attached to my writing so it usually takes a very long time for me to come back for revising and editing it
Darcy: I’m very self-critical – everyone has a different way to go about it. The more I write, the less time I need to set it aside. It is important to try and find out what was most truthful about it – the essence of the piece. An MFA is not the only way to start writing and revising your work – try to find two or three readers that you trust and ask them to read your work.
Max: Earlier when I used to write, it was more important for me to get on to the next piece, but as I’m revising my novel now, I see how important it is to go back to your earlier writing and go into the depth of it.
Talking of voices, Melissa suddenly came up with a surprising query – are stories still important? This led to a discussion on how stories are universal and can cut across cultures. It allows everyone to have a voice. The power to tell stories of our contemporary times is the enduring power of artists. And Rimi B. Chatterjee added that sometimes the age at which one begins to actually pen down what one has inside could also be an important thing. For example it was only after she turned 30 that she could finally pull a gear on all that she had been meaning to write since her early twenties. Everyone has their own pace at which they write – a lot of it is a process, which includes thinking and could take a long time to find final expression.
The interaction ended with the distribution of the published magazine of original stories by the first batch of Rimi’s Writing In Practice (WIP) course at Jadavpur University’s English Department. The magazine was interestingly titled WIPlash!
The power to tell stories is a unique and universal power at the same time. This is what Kalam: margins write has always believed in and through more of such cross-cultural literary interactions we hope to continue executing our beliefs into action.
It was inspiring to see so many JU students gathered in the AV room for the occasion. Honestly, both Pooja and I were a little nervous about how many would actually be interested. But the turn-out proved to be rich and heartening.
And the presence of the JU students was not a silent presence. There were people who really had pertinent questions about writing in general and, more importantly, on possibilities of how to collaborate with ASU so as to enrich creative writing programs in Indian universities. A genuine interest in exchange of students was expressed. These are obviously very early days of talks on those lines. So nothing concrete came out of it. Rimi shared what she felt were problems with the semester system followed by JU, and how it does not perfectly overlap with US universities. Rimi also shared that exchange of students has recently become possible between University of Sheffield and JU. And she is trying her best to push for reforms in JU so that more exchange programs can be facilitated. There was genuine optimism expressed in working towards something real and tangible.
People present shared a concern about the lack of English language literary periodicals or publications in which new young writers’ works are accepted. But the ASU folks pointed out that there were lots of American publications which would accept works of Indians, and especially so because is now a focus of attention for the whole literary world. For that, writers in will have to be do extensive research on the net, or take some cues from the ASU students themselves. The bottomline is, if you want to get published, searching for a publisher is as much work as writing itself.
ASU students, along with Melissa, pledged to enhance the JU library with books on writing and literature that are not easily available , and this is another very concrete help that we can get out of this interaction.
Kalam must thank Rimi for being an anchor to the whole interaction. She even bunked her class to be present for the meet, and had valuable things to add to the discussion. She made the Indian scenario of writing and publishing come alive, which added perspective to the whole conversation and idea of exchange. Although, as writers and thinkers there were not too many barriers between the ASU folk and JU guys, yet a lot of challenging realities remain inbetween. Our work in future will be to eliminate them as far as possible.