2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K: Part 2 (Being There)

2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K: Part 2 (Being There)

"You will, I am sure, agree with me that … if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable."

Sherlock Holmes in The Valley Of Fear (1888)

For those who came in sideways: this is a continuation of Part 1 (Getting There).

I’ll admit it. The prognosis is not good. If it took me 3,000 words to cover a distance of three days, then obviously, dear reader, you have clambered onto a slow horse. The only consolation I can offer is that you could have been on Tristram Shandy, who took two-and-half volumes to traverse one day of his life.

But this should be brief. I was all set to narrate the events of the three weeks at IIT-K, when the Brain reminded me that I’d issued some promissory notes at the workshop. One of them was that the workshop would be a safe place. A place where any kind of story could be written. Tears, exultation and civilized screaming were permitted, but there would be no fatwas, retaliations, arsenic or pistols at dawn. Most importantly, what happened in Kanpur would stay in Kanpur.

Which puts me in a bind. Whereof I wish to speak, thereof I cannot. Hereof, I’ll have to be sneaky.

A typical day ran from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM, with ninety minutes for lunch (1:00-2:30), and two fifteen minutes breaks. About three hours per day were spent on the critiques, which left about four hours at the instructor’s discretion.

Ah, the critique sessions. For me (and regrettably, for the students too), the critiques were the best part of the day. We tried to do three critiques per day. I preferred to do the critiques in the morning, whereas Vandana and Suchitra reserved them for the afternoons.

The participants were serious about the critiques. For me, it’s what made the workshop a success. Their writing changed. It got more ambitious. Experimental. One writer produced a story that was told in the form of schoolbook exercises. Another reached deep into himself and the myth of Holika, reached for the look in a witch’s eyes as she burns, poor helpless bitch, and produced a postmodern rendering: terrifying, unforgettable and unforgiving. There was a story in which guilt turns memory into music, there was a story about unstable threesomes, one about gigolo robots, there were Stories No One Got, stories with a new interpretation of Sita, clueless lesbians, kings with red horns, shoot-outs with centaurs, stories where old Indian myths were used as stirring spoons rather than spice… with three stories per writer, fifteen writers and three weeks, not to mention the daily reading assignments, we were soon awash in stories.

In the third week (Vandana’s week), two of the students proposed that the authors’ names be withheld from the stories. Naturally, the author had to offer a faux-critique of his/her work. I found the results fascinating. The participants were mostly unable to identify who had written which story. The routine gasps of “You wrote that?” undid a lot of smug categories. People simply wouldn’t stay put in their assigned slots: X-is-good-but. Y-writes-stories-that. Z-has-an-unfortunate-fondness-for.

How does critiquing work when it works? Not sure. The Brain has a quantum-mystical theory, accurate to several decimal points. But it’s a digression, and despite what my friend Tristram Shandy says about digressions (“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine—they are the life, the soul of reading!”), I must resist the impulse and plod on.

Monday was a get-to-know-day: the first thing we did was to play a chain-story game with the starter line:

Ramdas got on the bus, but he left his heart behind.

Each participant had to contribute a line (verbally), and two steps into the circle, we discovered a writer with a taste for surrealism. He offered a game-changing sentence:

He touched the back of his head and discovered a button.

After that, the students had Ramdas push said button, exploded his said head, broke his said heart still waiting back at the said bus-stop…. As the sentences clocked around the circle, a definite story began to emerge. I hadn’t asked them to build on each other’s sentences, but they did. I hadn’t asked for a narrative, but it turned into one anyway. I had vaguely expected Ramdas would stay human, but they’d assumed that what wasn’t explicitly forbidden was implicitly permitted. I had been vague about the context, but they weren’t hassled by the uncertainty. They were storytellers. The trick was to get them to be storywriters.

I had another reason to be pleased: the Lesson Plan was going according to plan.

Now, I’ve spoken about the Lesson Plan with varying degrees of reverence and loathing. I’d never used one in my life. But I knew there was no chance in hell I could wing my way through 20 hours (4 hours/day times 5 days) of instruction. The Brain had to be involved, and I must admit I like the way it went about the task.

First, because the participants differed widely in writing experience, we had decided to incorporate stuff from composition classes as well. I had been volunteered for week one, and so this "stuff" became my responsibility. Tenses. The subtleties of sentence styling. Kinds of narratives. The basics of POV. All these ingredients went into the Lesson Plan.

I’m glad now that I had to deal with the basics. I didn’t cover the topics to my satisfaction, but I’d include them again in a heartbeat. Sometimes these elements are included in a workshop under the rubric of "learning the craft." It’s a phrase that has begun to trouble me.

There may be such a thing as the "craft of writing," but I don’t think there is any such thing as the "craft of story writing" or the "craft of fiction." Basket weaving is a craft; so is fly-fishing, wood-turning, glass-blowing, roadkill taxidermy, and most of applied quantum mechanics. But saying story writing is a craft is like saying falling-in-love is a craft. Yes, there are certain things one can do to increase the chances of falling in love. Yes, there are master falling-in-lovers. Yes, there are certain predictable aspects to falling-in-love. Yes, there are university departments devoted to game theory. And yes, a thousand times yes, there are as many ways of falling-in-love as there are moist lovers. It is not, however, a craft.

Craft implies there’s a measurable skill-progression– moron, newbie, grasshopper, journeyman, meister– as well as a link between experience and quality. That’s just not true with story writing. The arbitrariness of prescriptive grammar is no longer in question. So why do we go around pretending prescriptive stylistics is any less arbitrary?

But even if we agree on criteria, Nth-time writers can produce unreadable works and first-time writers can produce a Gone With The Wind, The God Of Small Things or The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. At the workshop, I read stories that I would have been proud to write. I also read stories with flaws I knew I’d never make. In some cases, I wished I knew how to make those "flaws." Presumably, this is not the sort of thing instructors experience when they teach yak-milking or archery.

Most of what we writers think of as craft is actually lore. To my mind, "craft" is a word best reserved for those skills concerned with making or doing physical things. Sometimes the word is also used to justify to ourselves why our stories are not as good as the best ones out there ("I am still honing my craft"). Laziness would serve just as well.

At Clarion West, there was a lot of talk about "learning the craft," but frankly, I didn’t learn jack shit about any craft. How could I? There isn’t any craft to learn. What I did grok was a style, an attitude, a way of being a writer, not craft per se. The great physicist Dick Feynman said that "to do physics, you gotta have style." When you listen to Feynman teach physics, you're not really learning physics; you're learning a way of doing physics. That’s really it. You learn to be aware of the world in a certain way.

It’s tough on students if the teacher is not a Feynman. I remember one of my more spectacular failures in the workshop. I’d gone on and on about tenses– which went well– but then destroyed the pleasant buzz by dragging in Kafka’s story "The Burrow." It’s a lovely story, and I wanted them to agree. They sat in embarrassed silence while I grunted, wept, gestured and swore that this was the greatest "time-traveling-with-tenses" story ever. Ever. What a disaster.

Now that I’ve clambered onto the far end of a slim branch, I must admit to a certain trepidation. If I don’t think story writing is a craft, then what the hell is it that I’m supposedly trying to teach?

Awareness, I think. The Sanskrit word dharana is probably a better fit, but awareness will do. My first going-in principle was to facilitate an awareness of text. Writers like to read and are often very good at it. Too good, in fact. Text turns transparent. The Brain automatically fills in missng info, automatically adjusts to grammatical mistake, and automatically makes cense even whne teh txet is prttey grabeld. The Brain ignores clichés, skips stuff it thinks you won’t like, is totally environmental about reusing and recycling images, and it’s all great, great, just great. Writers have to figure out ways to tell the Brain to stop being so friggin’ helpful.

The other going-in principle I had was that I wouldn’t mention the word “awareness.” That’s something I’d learnt from Kung-Fu movies. The goateed master never gives clues about what the hell is being taught. I wanted them to become aware, not become aware of the need to be aware.

Idiotic or not, these two “principles” helped me come up with a Lesson Plan. The exercises, readings and lectures had to expose them to all sorts of crazy stuff; preferably in a fun way, but necessarily. A lot of decisions became much easier.

For example, I decided to focus on grammar because it is a powerful tool for sensitizing the mind to text. True, there’s plenty of substantial research showing that teaching grammar does absolutely nothing to improve student writing. That’s not surprising because (a) writing is not a bloody craft, (b) the students were taught the wrong kind of grammar (prescriptive, transformational), and (c) for a writer, the point of learning grammar is not to improve their writing, but to induce an awareness of text. That awareness is its own satisfaction; would anyone ever complain about having a fine palate?

I like the approach of composition practitioners like Harry Noden (Image Grammar), Jeff Anderson (Mechanically Inclined) and Virginia Tufte (Artful Sentences: Syntax As Style). They see grammar as a set of mechanisms, not policies. By demonstrating how commas can be used like a zoom lens to focus the reader’s attention, or showing the different ways a given sentence can be rearranged, or thinking of sentence composition as the art of neural painting, or by simply delighting in categories such as the humble participle (verbs that describe), their wonderful books changed my mind on the uses and functions of grammar.

Naturally, I had to share the joy with the students. So the Lesson Plan scheduled tenses, styling sentences and POV on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

In general, the exercises were more fun. I had gotten a lot of good advice. Vatsala Kaul suggested using exercises of different lengths: warm-ups that took five to ten minutes followed by longer ones that could take up to twenty minutes. I tried to develop exercises that would sometime jog the spontaneous oblongata and other times drill-march them through tedious terrain. Why? Paying attention costs the Brain a lot of glucose, so it has developed hazaar shortcuts to avoid learning. It associates, categorizes, stereotypes, ignores, makes excuses. I’m increasingly convinced that much of what we call “thinking” is actually designed to cut the energy-expenditure involved in paying attention. An uncertain terrain keeps the Brain focused on paying attention.

Over and over again, the students came up with brilliant responses to the exercises. For example, in the classic “singular encounter” exercise, I asked them to describe the first encounter with a singular creature: half-man, half-something-else. I remember that in one response a scaly, green merman emerged from the sea, exuberant gonads dangling, made his way through the beach café, quite unconcerned by the stares and gasps, sat down in a chair, hailed a waiter and asked for a bowl of the café's best primordial soup. Twenty minutes.

Perhaps the students did get the point. The later critiques showed an awareness of tense and sentence styling, they began to experiment with narrative forms, and by week 3, the writing in their stories, as I’ve said earlier, began to hit some really high notes.

Friday was devoted to the Business Of Speculative Fiction. The original plan had been for Jaya Bhattacharji, currently Editorial Manager, Journals, South Asia for Routledge, Taylor & Francis, to come down from Delhi and talk with the students. Ill-health ruled that out, so that left me to talk about the business end of fiction. As with most ends, the general urge in literature is to keep it covered and backed up against the wall.The kind of brilliance slathered on point-of-view or the postlexical clitic is rarely applied towards helping writers get ahead in the business. For me though, it was one of the key motivations for doing the workshop.

Actually, I didn’t hold forth too much on entrepreneurship; I left that to Sarasvathy’s paper on effectuation. I did hold forth on where to send stories, key websites, how to approach editors, the importance of people and so on. I tried not to froth, but it was hard. The subject is so damn exciting.

Blah, blah, blah.

I see I haven’t covered the one-on-ones or even begun to talk about Week 2 or Week 3. I haven’t said anything about Matt the Dreadlocked Metallurgist. I haven’t said anything about Dr. Narlikar’s visit, or about Ashutosh Sharma’s kick-ass talk on Nanotechnology or the great time I had at his place, drinking his beer, yakking about perception and what not. I haven’t described the goodbye scene with the students (colleagues, now) on my last day in Kanpur; it was total emosional hatyachar, yaar. But I give up. I give up. I must stop here. I must stop for the same blessed reason Tristram Shandy had to stop:

And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write–It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write–and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.

But I’ll say this, your worships: it was a blast.

  • g

    you’re a f. zen master, man.

  • g: You have much to learn, grasshopper 🙂 Thank u, sir.

  • suneetha

    Maaaaaaaaaan, you make me so nostalgic that I looked up a ticket to Kanpur, “simbly” as a fellow-Mallu would say…

  • We got on the bus or train or plane but left our hearts behind. So did you, so did you.
    Pushing the button.
    ~a fellow Ramdas.

  • Don’t apologize for the length of either parts I or II (it interferes and is completely unnecessary–giddiness, a happy writer’s natural (albeit short-lived) state, should simply be accepted–there’s not enough (literate) giddiness in this world.

    I tell you, I’m signed up to read the next chapter of this journey and, hands on the mat, the best, most enervating description of a writing workshop I’ve read (and wish I had attended). I love the simple combo of “awareness” with methodology (without overemphasizing the latter)–so that the writer has tools to translate with. And fearlesslness. In a workshop, the throat (not the balls) of every attendee should be blue. Perhaps you and Vandana will someday engineer a multicultural melange in the States and I’ll be able to participate. What you and Vandana (in your posts) have created is a state of desire, not envy.

    Ramdas got on the bus, touched the button on the back of his head, and his gonads relaxed.

    • Kurt: Thanks, man. In retrospect, the apologies do appear unnecessary. It’s not like I’m going to be keep it short in the next blog entry either. 🙂 btw, the idea of a multicultural melange is terrific. I’m going to add it to my personal wish list.

  • Just discovered your blog (there's a link in one of your posts that links to a page on my blog). I likes what you writes.

    • anilMenon

      Thanks Atanu. I like your outspoken blog too.

  • Pingback: An Interview with Anil Menon « Suneetha speaks()