How You Create The World of Stories
This time around, I have 3 brilliant sessions from the Jaipur Literary Festival to awe you with. Be prepared for fiction & creativity sessions to pop right, left & center.
But before we begin, I have a little story to share with you.
Kindness in strangers really does exist.
Frisky teenagers like myself like to be unleashed by parents. Most days on the Jaipur Lit Fest, I truckled all over the palace grounds to soak up that brainy goodness before I realised, it was it’s 3pm & no food or water had passed down my throat since morning. Why was my head feeling so cloudy?
I was pressed up againt a tree with a crowd swelling around me. My phone battery was dead. I hawk eyed the crowd for 15 minutes & chose two ladies talking in a corner. And then I plucked up courage.
In the next ten minutes, they’d gotten me a burger, a freezing drink & french fries. The lady who helped me was a person from Penguin’s & now she sat with me under a shaded tree.
My superhero Naomi Campbell, gave me her card & warned me to stay safe. She was quick witted, very mom-like vibes.
She retold our conversation on Twitter briefly. Not all heroes wear capes.
I bet it’s going to crack you right up. Seriously, check it out.
Now for our three sessions.
1. Channelling Creativity
10–11 am, Baithak.
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. And all people here talk about books. In the streets, they babble about writers. They scribble in little diaries.’
I was scribbling in a blue diary when he said that. Don’t smirk dear reader, those were the very notes which made the work you’re reading right now.
Our host, with a sense of humor & a curly hairstyle which completely went off his name, was talking. Mr. Chandrahas Choudhary called the time some of the best months of his life. A writing boot camp.
The Iowa Writer’s Workshop was a program famous worldwide.
Its founder C.L. Merill was present, all the way from Iowa. He said he was enjoying the Indian heat after Iowa’s freezing cold.
‘Our basic idea behind this was connection. I assure you — half the Iowa population are writers,’ said Mr. Merill. ‘Writing is a lonely profession. So I wanted to create a place where creatives could discuss & write. Then it grew bigger.’
The host nodded and looked nostalgic. ‘The writers I met at Iowa are my best friends today. They give me the most valuable advice.’
‘But even for a few months, writers aren’t an easy lot to live with are they?’ Mr. Merill chuckled.
‘We once had a writer who’d wake at the crack of dawn to write. Then at 6:30, he’d take his little football rolling down the hallways & kick at every single door, shouting. ‘Wake up! Start writing.’
Yeah, I know. But can’t say anything can you — because the guy went on to win a Booker!’
He said that you don’t need writing a program to write. But it could definitely give you the ideas and the atmosphere. Their program collectively hounded writers from all around the globe.
‘Meeting all these brilliant foreign writers in the workshop, I got access to different perspectives of the world. People shared their personal stories with me, formed pictures of their national histories, of their lives in my mind.’
‘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 somewhat moral peril, they explained, with the oncoming of the Trump presidency. They all expected funding problems. The government might not agree to support them any longer.
After the Jaipur Lit Fest — someone just might.
Coming to creativity, all the writers stressed you can’t learn it. A funny gentleman in glasses, with a self deprecating sense of humor, Mr. Karim Alrawi gave out tons of practical advice.
‘All the universities with creative writing programs can bullshit you. It’s helpful to have authors coming in and talking to you about writing & you do grow in your classes. What I don’t like is how formulaic, commercial it’s become. But so many courses try to teach a formula which just doesn’t exsist. You can’t construct a bestseller.’
Our host, Mr Chandrahas interjected. He’d gotten a literature degree.
‘You’re right, but I also think my degree was of great value to me. I mean, when we were in college writing papers, analyzing texts — we didn’t think much of it. But that’s what taught me what works & what doesn’t. They gave me a spirit, an appreciation for someoen else’s work.’ He smiled a moment later.
‘It’s funny, but you start appreciating your degree when you turn 30.’
The panel came upon on ideas. Where did you get them?
‘Writers need life experiences. Like something intense, getting run over a bus,’ 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. 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 & asked if creativity just came or did you need to sit at the table, pounding the pestle. Chase it with a club, Jack London style. A slow clap started behind me, so the question must’ve been popular.
The answer was chasing it, of course.
‘It comes down to writing every day and not losing touch with it,’ said Mr. Karim thoughtfully. ‘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. All of this can be hard, especially since publishers operate on a constant ‘Can We Sell This?’ continuum.’
He was leaning forward, brooding. I admired that the gentleman was honestly trying to come up with something useful to tell me.
‘I want to add to this,’ said Vivek Shanbag. ‘In fiction, you’re feeling 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.’
They would ruminate about the importance of economy of words. Hemingway was a master at it. They quoted a six word masterpiece to bring an end to this session.
It breaks your heart once you understand it.
‘For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.’
2. Fiction and The Spaces in Between
11:15–12:15 am, Mughal Tent.
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.
The sweet lady in black was Kyoko Yoshida, a Japanese writer & translator. ‘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.’
‘Brain going on hypnosis?’ suggested Mr. Sethi.
‘Well — ideas feel like slippery sea creatures to me,’ countered Ashok Ferrey. He’d been a mathematics Ivy league graduate (how does that even qualify in the same category!?) author by night, fitness trainer by day & thus fitter looking than any scribbler has the right to be.
The man was superhuman.
‘Slippery see creatures?,’ chuckled Mr. Sethi.
‘It’s this big idea which is constantly evolving, wrestling in my mind — I just go along with it,’ Ashok 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 finishes his activities & workouts 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, doesn’t it?’
Some time later in the session, he’d be asked to narrate a section from his book. And there was a line which made the audience laugh out loud, & also convinced me that there was plenty of humor in fiction.
‘They told the caretaker that he could make no noise. But asking a Sri Lankan to be silent, was like asking a pregnant woman to hold back until the doctor comes.’
They asked Kyoko Yoshida how her short story was different.
‘Short stories are — in your sea terminology— little fishes. Stories without a backbone. They can be experimental.’
‘Not that a short story is any easier,’ saidAshok Ferrey. ‘But in length it least, novels are harder. Bound to structure. They need a denouement.’
‘So your bookish whales are big brutes,’ said Mr. Sethi. ‘But you can look at a fish in a saucer.’
This host is good with phrases, I thought. Like a happily frivolous, Indian Graham Norton, with a whiff of silver 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.’
Both authors had heavy influences of foreign language in their work. Mr. Sethi questioned how they handled it.
‘It’s a second thought process to switch into a different language,’ said Kyoko. ‘An intellectual muscle soar.’
‘I don’t think I’ve heard that phrase before,’ said Mr. Sethi. ‘I love it.’
‘Cultures have local words that just can’t be replaced in English. You just have to leave them in. But use them sparingly, & use them in a way which makes their meaning instinctively clear,’ said Ashok Ferrey.
In the final few minutes of the talk, they talked about culture & backdrop building. I got up to ask.
How do I know I’m 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 should write the same.’
‘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.’
3. Bombay Review
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. 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. Intrigued, I sat down.
Bombay Review, I learnt, was a popular online magazine. An international bi-monthly publishing short fiction/poetry & annual print anthologies. It was owned and run by twenty somethings.
The head, Kaartikeya Bajpai was on stage.
‘We’ve recently begun hosting our own festivals. We’re hosting one in Mumbai next month actually. It’s was unprecedented — how all of this turned out. We approached a big board of directors who agreed to take us up on it.’
He said more about how the Bombay Review was brought about. It started with a few friends who loved stories in a single dorm room. Fast forward to one point, they were posting stories of such national significance — death threats were materialising in their inboxes.
‘My relatives kept telling me to drop it. But I knew someone needed to hear this story. We didn’t stop.’
I’m no adult yet, but I’ve seen dozens of speakers at this festival.
I could immediately tell how he was different. How age affected him. He was direct, speaking clearly. His face seemed to have assumed a lot of seriousness, a slight anxiety. His story was personal and he was trying to do it well. Genuine & honest, I thought. Rather helpful in a way only young people can be sometimes.
Question Answer time came up. I stood up again, and that’s a hat trick if you’re counting by the way.
‘It’s hard to get noticed online. How did you grow Bombay Review’s following?’
‘Well — first you have to forget you are trying to be popular,’ he said openly. ‘Your stories must matter. You have to help people first, keep at it for a long time, before anything works. But hang in there & it will take off.
Good luck to you — if you’re starting anything new.’
At the end of the session, I couldn’t get a picture with him but later in the day, he’d spot me somewhere.
P.S: No — there isn’t a Ooh! shiny thing I’m looking away at. Just the usual morbidness that springs at you when you’re 15. Out of the blue, just when you’re having a goof day.
I think I should cherish that for now.
Before it grows out.