Archive for the 'Fiction/Non-fiction' Category

Forays into Fiction III: Building Character is Hard Labour

“A Character who we care for acts to fulfil his desire with important consequences.”
—– Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction.

With this definition of a ‘Story’ in mind, I started a series of Fiction Writing workshops with Kalam’s regular group of youth on Sunday, April 22. Attendance was low (only 6 youth), but the group was focused and serious about writing in a new mode.

We started with a basic analysis of the line quoted above. It was once again understood that we needed to think up a character and give her/him a life if we have to write a good story. The group took a while to think of characters they could write about. They were feeling the pressure of the possible narrative, which is bound to happen to self-conscious writers: “Oh this character must have a terrific story to tell, or to act in… so it can’t just be any random person. He or she must stand out!” Whereas, what we really need think of is just any random person, without the self-evident promise of a thrilling narrative. That is the only way we can avoid falling into the trap of clichéd self-driven narratives. Once everyone had someone to write about in their minds, it was time for a detailed physical description. I stressed that these things may not form a part of the final story, but it is important to create a complete picture of the character in one’s mind. And it is important to write it down as well so that, if needed, the writer can paint a most perfectly detailed picture of the character for the reader. The fact that this was a new medium for the poets became evident when they read out their descriptions. Most were glaringly sparse in details. And some were too metaphoric, dwelling on how they eyes of a young girl smelled of matchsticks and monsoon clouds! But the group was receptive to criticism, and vowed to include the most excruciating details when they write. It was then time to describe action. As an exercise, they had to describe (in as much detail as possible) something really commonplace that their character does. The participants were now coming into form, getting to understand the medium of prose and how it works. This time the descriptions were richer, and some included interesting glimpses into the personality of the character. After all, it is important to slowly reach the inner core of the character, identify and understand the desires in her or him that will take the story further. This inner reality of the character will be explored in next day’s workshop, scheduled for May 13.

It was a challenging workshop for the participants. Some complained it was too much work, and required too much thinking. Some claimed that they were used to writing poems which did not demand such ‘boring’, ‘tedious’ details. One can really pick and choose to describe the most desirable things in a poem, and the poem still reads fine, because a poem is not necessarily about painting a clear and complete picture. The other complaint the participants had was that they were not writing about themselves. Their poems (especially those out of the Kalam workshops) are all about aspects of their own lives: they are more clear-cut works of self-expression. Where is the ‘self’ in the story if it is about another character? I said that the story is not about just any character, it is about a character ‘we care for’: ‘WE care for’. There is identification in that. There is sympathy. Besides, what the character chooses to do in the story will also depend on our choices. The character’s desires would, in some covert way, mirror our own desires. A story is, hence, a very potent vehicle of self-expression: it’s just that the self-expression is perhaps less obvious and more complex and layered. And that is precisely why writing a story is very hard labour. And the labour shall continue.

Posted by Bishan Samaddar

Forays into Fiction II: Stories for Peace

Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kalam’s long-time partner, has been working in some mainstream schools, engaging adolescent students in after-school hours discussing notions of ‘Peace’ and exploring possibilities of expressing ‘Peace’ through the arts. Seagull wanted Kalam to do a few workshops with a group of 14-year-olds from one such school in South Calcutta, focusing on story-writing that would lead ultimately to the production of some ‘Stories for Peace’. Kalam does not really work with non-marginalized youth, and it also does not work on themes like ‘Peace’. But I felt that this could be another opportunity for Kalam to test the efficacy of its fiction/non-fiction work-plan.

On April 20, in the air-conditioned Audio-Visual Room of a South Calcutta School run by a Gujarati Trust, I met a group of 7 boys and 16 girls, all terribly well-behaved students of the 8th Standard, for a one-hour workshop on story-writing. I was apprehensive about all the participants being only 13 or 14 years old. We have worked with youth of this age earlier and it has been very challenging, leading Kalam to focus more on youth who are nearing adulthood. However, I was surprised by the maturity of these young teens. The round of introductions was quick and smart. We jumped straight into activities, considering the fact that we had very little time. Once again, I wanted to treat ‘Character’ as the starting point of a story. So, after a quick round of activity where two volunteers from among the group described each other in great detail (designed to develop observation, attention to detail, and expression of detail in words), it was time to hunt for a character to write the story about. So I asked the participants to think of one random person they may have met or observed in the last three months who they thought or (more importantly) felt was interesting. It could not be a person they know well: it had to be someone they are intrigued by, someone they would want to know more about. And since they do not know the person, they would also have to imagine a lot. The participants took about 30 seconds to think of a person they could write on. I asked them to write a ten-line description of the person, mostly a physical one. In ten minutes we had 23 characters described. We only had time to hear a few. The characters chosen were diverse: a mysterious neighbour, a trendy young man with a speech disability, a middle-aged man in a ‘safari suit’, a super-cool guy in red shoes who is also a champion at Table Tennis and has a really progressive model of mobile phone etc. One girl had chosen to describe me the facilitator, and she insisted on reading it out. Gingerly, I agreed. And it turned out to be a rather erotic description, very innocently done for sure, but capable of raising giggles and eyebrows nonetheless! The participants surprised me with the amount of detail they had put into their descriptions. Many had included speech and behaviour patterns as well.

Most of them said that they would like to write a story on the characters they had chosen. Two of the girls said they would choose some other character. I explained how a story progresses only when a conflict is introduced. It required some examples of ‘conflict’ before the group could grasp what I was talking about. I stressed on little conflicts, simple ones, like you would have with your brother about watching TV etc. They had to now imagine (and write) what kind of a simple conflict their characters could go into. This would be their homework till we meet again next month.

For once, the workshop was completely in English. I think, for me, this made things easier and faster. It was evident how different these kids were from most of the youth Kalam works with. Although most of the kids we work with are bright and smart, but being regular school-goers, these kids were completely at home with the idea of expressing themselves through writing. And there was virtually no shyness in communication. I did not have to persuade anybody to share what they have written. I look forward to the next workshop, scheduled for May 11. The challenge in that workshop would be to weed out clichés in the situations that the participants would have imagined for their characters. But the group being exceptionally bright and very receptive to new ideas, it would be a pleasure anyway. I really think that this workshop demonstrated that the approach we are trying to take to the writing of fiction could be an effective one. It is time we introduce this method of story-writing to a regular Kalam group, and evaluate its efficacy.

Posted by Bishan Samaddar

Forays into Fiction I: Finding the Human Story

Kalam had started working through the medium of Poetry. It was felt that poetry was actually a more accessible form of creative writing, and more readily accomplished. And the success of Writing Out, which is mostly a poetry-based curriculum, testifies to it. However, for a while we have been feeling the urge to venture into other modes of writing, including Creative Non-fiction and Short Fiction. With this in mind, we had sought help from ASU’s Darcy Courteau, an MFA graduate and a flourishing young writer, in order to come up with a Creative Non-fiction curriculum. Darcy helped us create a skeleton of a curriculum, which we are slowly fleshing out. Borrowing themes and exercises from this curriculum (which is spread over 12 weeks), Kalam has started facilitating short workshops on writing fiction. These are mostly about testing waters: trying to understand how we can best handle this very different medium of self-expression.

Recently, Kalam was approached by Swayam, a women’s rights organizations working with survivors of domestic violence and their children, to conduct a one-day workshop on writing short stories. Swayam’s concern was that whenever the women are asked to write something about themselves or their experience of the world, they end up writing essays! How could they be inspired to see ‘stories’ in human situations, and write about those situations in the form of meaningful fiction? Kalam thought it could try. We termed the workshop ‘Finding the Human Story’.

So, I, with a quickly-drafted session plan for a day-long workshop, met a group of about 20 women at the Swayam centre on March 26. We had never worked with adults before. So, I really did not know what to expect. The participants hailed from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds, and their age seemed to vary from 25 to 55. Challenging, it appeared. But when we started the workshop everyone was so completely receptive that I was soon relaxed into the group.

What makes a story come alive is a convincing character; and the identification of the author/reader with that character becomes the usual human response to the story. We had a few photographs collected from newspapers and news magazines, which we had planned to use as props. The participants were divided into groups of four/five, and each group was given a photograph. We asked the participants to identify a person from the photograph that they want to make a character out of, and then try to describe the person’s physical, mental, socio-economic make-up in as much detail. Once that was done, we had to identify a conflict that each character could get into (which is the lifeblood of a story) and finally to how it can be resolved. At the second stage, after the characters had been identified and made more real through descriptions, some of the participants wished to work individually on their stories, which is, after all, the way it should be. Those less confident were happy working in groups. Throughout the exercises, it was stressed that while building up the character, the participants should think of an aspect of their own personality that they may want to express through their character, especially an aspect of their identity that is not easily expressed or visible. After the 6-hours workshop (including a 1-hour break), many of the participants were excited about sharing their stories. Some were perfectly completed, while some needed editing. We did not have much time to discuss craft and technique. Yet, some of the participants showed exceptional skills in way they began and ended their stories, and in the way they wrote dialogue or used bits of internal monologue.

It was a pretty successful workshop considering the output, but I felt that to work with younger people who are really new to the medium, we would need more concrete exercises to help them develop their stories and reach resolution. Swayam is interested in building a partnership with Kalam, and we may return later to work with the same group on more aspects of Fiction writing.

posted by Bishan Samaddar