Mastering the art of writing

Workshops and online masterclasses for writers and poets sound promising but are they really ensuring quality?

Mastering the art of writing

N Mitra

How difficult is it to become an author or a poet? In today’s world, where technology and professionalism have become tools for success, nothing is impossible. What one needs is a knack for writing and lots of enthusiasm.

If one searches ‘writing classes’ on YouTube, he or she can come across several videos where experts, academicians and professionals advise young and aspiring authors on the right way to write and make amateurs aware of the correct choice of words. There are several websites which provide tips on creative writing.

Author Janice Pariat, who has conducted seven workshops so far, tells participants how to read like a writer and it “tends to work for mixed age and experience groups”.

“It’s a basic workshop that I do with my students at Ashoka (in Delhi) where we focus on how to read like a practitioner of a craft rather than a general reader,” she explains.

There is also masterclass.com, an online platform for young creative minds to hone their skills in respective fields of interest with some handholding by the best professionals. The portal was launched in 2015 by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen and has the crème de la crème of every profession on its list of masters. Among those teaching amateurs how to write are Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell and Billy Collins.

In an interview, Rogier had said, “Aaron and I met a fewyears ago and immediately after we wanted to work together on something. I hadbeen speaking with people in education, both in and outside the traditionalschool system, and found that people felt they were getting ripped off.”

BN Gupta, a professional, says this is because the rigours of traditional education system often petrify youngsters who want a quick-start guide to professional writings and these master classes and workshops provide exactly that.

While the international bigwigs rule online platforms for future novelists and bards, in India, many renowned authors like Pariat and Anjum Hasan guide youngsters at various workshops. Hasan is involved with the running of Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Programme, which is held over eight weekends once a year.

“Right now, we are inviting applications for our third edition which will start at the end of June. We give scholarships to students and have in past offered discounts to those who write well but cannot afford our fees,” says Hasan.

Semi-Deluxe Writing Programme invites various writers to conduct classes on a range of specialisations – from narrative journalism to children’s writing.

Hasan explains that the programme responds “very much to the character of Bangalore and is essentially for middle-class Bangaloreans”. Most applicants are professionals who feel they have something to say, an unexpressed side of their personalities, or just feel unfulfilled within their nine-to-five jobs.

“I like the idea of a creative writing class that allows space for people to express their individuality even if it’s not going to make all of them writers,” she adds.

True, not everyone attending such workshops or master classes can become a writer or poet. But Hasan says such exercises can help in various ways by providing a sense of connection and society. “They might get you interested in reading, they could even help you realise you’re not cut out to be a writer,” she adds.

Bhaskar Roy, a Kolkata-based translator, feels creativity is an innate quality and one does not need a degree or master class to acquire it. “No amount of guidance can make an individual an acclaimed author or poet. How can you teach someone to tell a story or express emotions in verses? Who taught Tagore (Nobel laureate Rabindranath
Tagore) or Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay to write? Did Shaw (George Bernard Shaw) or Bertrand Russell take creative writing classes? I do not think so. Actually, these workshops and master classes are new-age fad and nothing more,” says Roy, who admits that he belongs to the “more authentic”
old school.

Roy’s view is an echo of what renowned author Hanif Kureishi had expressed during an interview with The Guardian at the Bath Festival. “Writing a story is a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” Kureishi, who teaches creative writing at Kingston University, had said.

Gupta says despite such classes and workshops, mediocrity is on the rise and there is a serious dearth of good authors, especially in India.

But Hasan has a different take on it. “Mediocrity is already rampant. A creative writing course, if run with the idea of starting conversations about writing and reading rather than handing out a set of technical dos and don’ts, can be a useful thing. Having said that, I should emphasise that I haven’t studied writing myself. And I can see the dangers of selling writing as a profession rather than trying to inculcate it as a calling,” she says.

Freelance content and travel writer Anshul Akhoury’sexperience with writing workshops has been mostly on “a positive note”.

“Interaction with mentors help… I do think that these workshops are helpful for those who want to make their base in writing and content industry. A majority of the workshops helps aspiring writers to form sentences, articulate their thoughts in words and find a way to improve with time. Writing workshops are also helpful in networking as you meet like-minded people who are trying to make it big in this field,” says Akhoury.

An online review of mater classes points out several fallacies but also mentions the “cheap fees” and that these classes are a bang for the buck.

Brinda Bose, who teaches English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says in the West (USA in particular), there have been creative writing courses and workshops for decades and “I believe these have produced some successful writers and poets over the years”.

However, “how many successful writers emerge from any of these depends on the rigour of these classes/workshops, as well as the innate abilities of those who join them,” she points out.

To a query on whether such mass workshops and classes are leading to mediocrity, Bose says, “I don’t think courses and workshops in creative writing in themselves lead to mediocrity - at worst, they probably will not help aspiring writers to write any better than they do themselves while wasting their money with dreams of guaranteed success! If anything, the easy access to publishing now can lead to mediocrity, the markets are flooded with Indian English writing for example - how many of them will last? But that is not a cause of grievous alarm, as what will be read and last will eventually find its own level.”

Talking about the relevance of such workshops and online classes in today’s competitive world, Pariat says these offer spaces for people to come together to talk about reading, writing, storytelling, which is important.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘today’s world’ but I do think it’s beneficial to create story telling communities like these at any given time,” the author asserts.

But at the end, such classes or workshops are only part of the arduous process of becoming a writer and not a sufficient condition.

“For me, many things go into feeding writing -- conversations, reading, listening, storytelling, travelling, being curious, having an interesting relationship with life and the world,” says Pariat.

Or one can find an easier way and follow George Bernard Shaw’s advice, “Find enough clever things to say and you are a prime minister; write them down and you are a Shakespeare.”

(The author is a freelance journalist)

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