How You Create The World of Stories
Fiction & creativity sessions bursting right, left & center. This time around, I have 3 brilliant sessions to awe you with, on the 22nd of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Writer or not — you’re definitely going to read something worth your time.
Before we begin, I have to humor you with a little story.
And it’ll make you believe all about the kindness of strangers.
Now the trouble with the #JLF is that there’s too much too fast.
Frisky teenagers like myself like to truckle all over the grounds, and soak up all that brainy goodness until it’s suddenly 3 am — and we notice we’ve not eaten a single thing since morning. And we may or may not be about to faint.
Something like that happened. I was pressed up againt a tree with a crowd swelling around me. My phone battery was dead. Don’t worry yourself.
People at this festival are usually safe, highly literate & endlessly interesting. Still — I had no clue whom to turn to. So I hawk eyed the crowd for 15 minutes & finally stopped over at two ladies talking in a corner. And in the next ten minutes, I’d gotten a burger, a freezing drink & french fries, and the they were sitting with me under a shaded tree.
Not all heroes wear capes.
My superhero Naomi Campbell, with a quick wit & very mom-like vibes. She retold our conversation on Twitter briefly.
And I bet it’s going to make you crack right up.
10–11 am, Baithak. Christopher Merrill, Karim Alrawi, Kyoko Yoshida, Natasa Duruvicova, Vivek Shanbhag in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury.
I thought this would be another of those dreamy, fragmented talks which grabbed at things. But it turned out — all these people knew each other. And they had a story to tell.
‘So try to think of a place far away. There’s is a huge mansion, chambers to which each person has a key. These people walk around and talk about books. In the street, they go on babbling about writers. They have classes. They with little diaries next to brightly colored walls, and scribble.’
If you’re thinking of the Jaipur Lit Fest — scratch that.
Our host, with a hairstyle and a sense of humor which completely went off his name which talking. Chandrahas Choudhary was talking about talking about some of the best months of his life. A writing boot camp.
Founder C.L. Merill from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop & his head of translations, Natasha Duruvikova, were there. They’d come all the way from Iowa, & were rather enjoying the heat after the freezing cold.
‘Our idea behind starting the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop was connection. You could practically all of Iowa into the JLF grounds. And I assure you — half of them would be writers.’ Mr. Merill was loud, energetic and wore glasses. ‘Writing is a lonely profession. No one really prepares you for it.’
The host nodded and looked nostalgic. ‘Exactly. The writers I met at Iowa are my best friends today. They are the people who give me the most valuable advice.’
‘But even for a few months, writers are not an easy lot to live with,’ Mr Merill chuckled. ‘Like there was this writer who would wake up at the crack of dawn. To write of course. Then at 6:30, he’d take his little football rolling down the hallways. He’d kick at every door and shout, ‘Wake up! Start writing!’ He was like that, but can’t see anything can you, because the guy went on to win the Booker!’
Iowa Writer’s Workshop was a program which attracted writers from all over the world. Ms. Natasha said, ‘Usually you get the sample writing foreign language. It can be translated by the writers sitting in the same room as you. Writer is even have arguments that way, poor translators haggling in the middle.’
That sounded fun to watch.
They both stressed that you don’t need writing a program to write. But it could definitely give you the ideas and atmosphere you need.
‘When I met all these brilliant authors, I got access to all these different perspectives to the world,’ said Mr. Merill. ‘People of whose backgrounds & national histories I understood through the personal stories they shared with me.’
Foreigners aren’t simple minded or anything, it’s just that they think in a different language than ours. They can be just as nuanced & intelligent.
But their beloved workshop was in moral peril now, with Trump presidency. Mr. Merill explained they could face funding problems. The government might not agree to support them any longer.
All these distinguished people in here stressed that you certainly can’t learn creativity.
A funny gentleman with a widow’s peak & a self deprecating sense of humor, Mr. Karim Alrawi was present. He had lots of practical advice to share.
‘All the universities with creative writing programs can bullshit you. Sure, it’s helpful to have authors coming in and talking to you about the process. You grow if you get classes. But there’s certainly no hard pinched formula to a bestseller. There’s no set structure.’
Our host, Mr Chandrahas interjected. He seemed to have gotten a literature degree too. ‘I agree with you. But one of the best ways to learn as a writer is — if you can appreciate somebody else’s work first. When we were in college, writing papers & analyzing texts — we didn’t think much of it. But literature degrees give me a spirit, an appreciation of someone else work.’
He smiled dreamily. ‘It’s funny but do you actually start appreciating you at your degree when you turn 30.’
One comes upon on ideas. Where would you get them from?
‘Writers need life experiences. Like getting run over a bus or something,’ said Mr. Karim as the crowd laughed. ‘Before you can make a Pulitzer out of it.’
Ideas came from everywhere & nowhere at all. This was the standard response creative everyone had to creativity. It’s the one brain riddle you couldn’t bear to pick apart.
I wanted an answer though. So I raised my hand in the Q/A time &, in so many words, asked if creativity was a sudden burst — or whether it came if you just sat at the desk, pounding the pestle. A slow clap began behind me, so I think this was a question on a lot of the audience member’s minds.
The answer was pounding the pestle.
‘It comes down to writing every day and not losing touch with it. It goes something like this,’ said Mr. Karim thoughtfully. He was leaning forward, brooding. What I admired about the gentleman was that he was honestly trying to come up with something useful to tell me.
‘When you go into writing usually, it’s shit. When you get out of editing, it’s boring. You need to get down to the bones of your idea. Writing is or other unknown an unprecedented occupation. It can be hard, especially since publish it was operate on a constant ‘Can We Sell This?’ continuum.’
‘I want to add to this,’ said Vivek Shanbag. ‘In fiction, you feel around in the dark. Most of the time you have no idea what the heck is going to happen. So you have to learn to spot false starts. Be careful, trust your gut.’
Mr. Karim nodded. ‘In essence it comes down to craft. If your idea is good enough. You have to learn economy of words too. I love Hemingway for example.’
That night, I went home to Google & consequently found a rather good Hemingway. Riddle me this tearful shortie:
‘For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.’
Now that’s channeling creativity.
Fiction and The Spaces in Between
11:15–12:15 am, Mughal Tent. Ashok Ferrey, Kyoko Yoshida, Sunil Sethi.
Mr. Sunil Sethi seemed like the kind of person who’d interviewed plenty of authors before. He began right at the pain point most authors skidded past. Their process.
Ms. Kyoko Yoshida was a educator, translator, and writer from Japan. She was a sweet lady with a neat, black haircut. ‘If I’m lucky and I’ve been doing it long enough, it’ll just flow. It’s like…. A universe in my head, like going into a mental movie. A dream state.’
‘Brain going on hypnosis?’ suggested Mr. Sethi.
‘Well — ideas feel like slippery sea creatures to me,’ said Ashok Ferrey. He was a writer by night, fitness trainer by day (thus fitter looking than any writer has the right to have) Ivy league, mathematician, an eloquent orator.
‘Slippery see creatures?,’ chuckled Mr. Sethi. ‘Then ideas must be fishes to you, Kyoto, as a short story writer.’
‘It’s this big idea which is constantly evolving, wrestling in my mind — I just go along with it,’ Mr. Ferrey continued. He revealed that he couldn’t bear to sit down for hours at a desk each morning. His brain would go blank. So he works out, does the day’s activities first. Then he sits down for an hour in the evening, brimming with ideas from his day.
‘Please don’t try at home. But I often write out my first draft and send it to my editor. Revision is constant, of course. But it becomes really hard to say something in a different way once you’ve already written down, isn’t it?’
When he narrated an extract from his book in the session, a memorable line stood out —
‘Asking a Sri Lankan to be silent, is like asking a pregnant woman to hold back until the doctor comes.’
Which told me social commentary & humor wasn’t all that unpopular in fiction.
They asked Kyoko Yoshida how her form was different.
‘Short stories are — like you say — little fishes. Stories without a backbone. Stories which can be experimental.’
‘Not that I’m saying a short story is any easier,’ said Ashok Ferrey. ‘But in length it least, it is complex. It’s bound to structure. It needs a denouement.’
‘So your bookish whales are big brutes,’ said Mr. Sethi. ‘But a fish you can put down to look at in a saucer.’ This host is good with phrases, I thought. Like a frivolous, Indian Graham Norton. With a whiff of white hair.
‘I suppose so,’ continued Kyoko dreamily. ‘I teach at school, so it’s always being surrounded by inspiring, energetic kids. I go & write in the moments of peace I can find in the library. It’s like going into a trance.’
Both authors had heavy influences of foreign language in their work. Mr. Sethi questioned how they handled it.
‘It’s another thought process to switch into a different language,’ said Kyoko slowly. ‘An intellectual muscle soar.’
‘I don’t think I’ve heard that phrase before,’ said the host. ‘Intellectual muscle soar. I love it.’
‘It’s common enough. Cultures have local woods which just can’t be replaced in English. Then you just have to leave them in. But use them sparingly, I suggest. Use them in a way which makes the meaning instinctively clear,’ said Ashok.
They chatted on a few minutes more about bookish stuff. How book character stuck around in your head, while the same was true for feelings in short stories. How you should try to hear your character’s voices in your head & bring them down on paper.
In the final few minutes, they talked about culture & backdrop building.
I got up to ask in the Q/A. How do you know which cultures references to pick? How do you know if you would representing a place well?
How do I develop my idea of culture?
Kyoko replied, ‘Read. I’d recommend you read about the place, personal stories, biographies, understand the perspectives you want to write on. A lot of it is research, but more of it is confidence.’
‘Really, if you’re sitting under a blossom tree in Hong Kong right now, or whether you just imagining it in your mind’s eye — it shouldn’t be much different.’
‘You do have to nail down the aesthetics. Sights, sounds, smells,’ said Ashok.
‘But much of it is just believing you can. Respect the place. Try to look at it with a new eye.’
JBM Lounge, Kaartikeya Bajpai.
Perhaps I had come a session too early or a session too late, but I was definitely in the wrong place. JBM Lounge again. But I didn’t know what session was on. I walked into a slowly filling room and here was a rare sight. I saw a young man on stage. Practically a college student. Speakers were usually twice his age. Intrigued, I sat down.
Bombay Review is a popular online magazine. It is owned and run fully by twenty somethings, headed by Kaartikeya Bajpai. The young guy on stage. An international bi-monthly literary magazine publishing short fiction & poetry & annual print anthologies.
‘We recently begun hosting our own festivals. We hosting one in Mumbai next month, actually. It’s rather an unprecedented — how all of this turned out. We approached a big board of established directors and they agreed to take us up on it. Of course, nothing to the size of the JLF’s 10th anniversary but it will be a big crowd of book lovers. And we hope to see you there.’
He said more about how the Bombay Review was brought about.
How would one point, they were posting stories of such national significance they were receiving death threats.
‘My relatives kept telling me to drop it. But I knew there was someone across our borders needed to hear the story. We didn’t stop.’
I’m no adult yet, but having seen dozens of speakers at the festival, I could immediately tell how youth had affected him. He was direct, clear speaking. His face seemed to have assumed a lot of seriousness, slight anxiety. His pauses were awkward but his story was more personal.
‘How did you build Bombay Review’s following? Platform popularity is hard to grow online,’ I’d ask in Q/A.
‘Well — you have to first forget you are trying to be popular,’ he said openly. ‘The stories you write must matter. You have to help people first, & keep at it for a long time. Hang in there. And good luck to you if you’re starting anything new at the moment.’
Genuine & honest. Perhaps helpful in a way, I thought, only young people can be sometimes.
At the end of the session, I couldn’t get a picture with him. But later in the day, he’d spot me as I was hurrying for a session.
P.S: No — there’s not something Ooh! shiny thing in the distance which caught my eye.
Just the usual mortification which springs out at you when you’re 15, every once in an unexpected while.
Maybe I should cherish that while I still can. Before it grows out.