In the absence of designated writing programmes in Indian universities, anything approaching an MFA in creative writing or even the possibility of submitting original creative work as a PhD thesis (JNU allows original translations as part of a translations studies PhD, but not an original novel or a volume of poetry), the only way to learn the craft in India is to rely on the occasional workshop run by writers in the country. And while, without fail, every writer teaches herself, primarily through reading, writing, failure, and a dogged refusal to be cowed by said failure, there is no doubt that the wisdom of a serious writer can really help in the process.

So, we posed two specific questions to several distinguished, widely published writers from India who also teach writing:

  • There are so many exercises that are considered useful. Responding to a prompt, writing morning pages, sticking to a rigorous writing schedule no matter what – say, one original short story every week – and so on. Is there any one exercise that you have found best suited for all kinds of writers? 
  • 2. What book/s would you recommend a writer who’s trying to put herself through a self-imposed writing routine? Obviously, the presence of a peer group is of vital importance at most MFA programmes, but suppose there’s no peer group available, could a circle of books provide a sense of those very different voices?

Here are the responses:

Amit Chaudhuri

The Guardian asked a group of writers, including me, this question, and I began by saying, “The one tip I give to students of writing is to disregard tips.”

Generally, I don’t give exercises as such. One reason, of course, is that when we teach them at the University of East Anglia at Norwich, it is at the MA level. Even the creative writing workshop we run in Calcutta, and hope to run in the future in other parts of India, is also meant for MA-level students or even those who are professional writers. Not only are they serious about their writing, some of them are published writers. So, one is in a situation where one talks about becoming more aware of things in one’s writing, especially with regard to craft. That is, the things one is not sufficiently aware of that might be compromising one’s writing while committing something to the page.

I also point them towards issues that arise organically and are integral to what they have written – issues which are based on certain unexamined assumptions towards writing, which we all have when we write. So, going beyond craft, my objective is to make them aware of these assumptions that we take for granted and on whose basis we write, choose our subjects, giving emphases to certain things.

There is one tip, of course, that I point out in The Guardian piece too. Give nothing centrality. Nothing is central to the writer. You might think the writer is writing about something specific: it might be an object, it might be a tennis match, it might be a situation, it might be a political event, or it might be none of these. But a piece of writing produced by the most interesting writers would be about much else besides the object, the tennis match, the situation or the political event. Much else that is fortuitous, that is irrelevant and the result of chance. You know? So unless the writer allows themselves to expand away from centrality into this, into the realm of this kind of unexpectedness, into what is not germane, then one is not producing a piece of writing. And that’s the one tip I can share. Give nothing centrality.

Like many writers of my generation, I am not a product of a creative writing programme. In a way I always viewed the creative writing programme with a certain kind of scepticism. The fact that they work for some writers, that they improve their skills is both not surprising and a constant source of wonder and gratification to me. But they do end up actually, over time, transforming the way writers think about their work. And the reason why writers come to workshops is not to get some magic formula but to find this distance from one’s own work, from oneself. That is key.

It’s not necessary for 10 people to do it – as it happens in some workshops. You can have one person help you do it. It doesn’t even have to be at a workshop; it could be an editor at a journal or a publisher, who helps one read one’s own work in that way. Because ultimately one needs to be one’s own editor. The workshop can only give you a way forward; but you cannot be in a workshop all your life!

And as for the circle of books, I think one should just read a great deal of literature and poetry and essays. I emphasise poetry because in poetry language is at its most specific and precise. In the absence of the large scaffolding of a novel, a poet must use language very creatively, in order to capture and contain the reader’s interest. There is no story to fall back on. And yet, once you begin to read poetry, it’s the most riveting form there is. To begin to understand what language is doing, and to begin to respond to language, one must read poetry. Not instrumentally, but for the pleasure of it. It demands much more of the reader, but it also gives back to the reader a great deal more.

(Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, literary critic, and musician.)

Anita Nair

There isn’t a single exercise I recommend but what I create for the writers in my workshop is a process that is as much physical as mental. However, I do advocate writing five days a week – 400 words a day would be good enough but they do need to be thought through and written.

Books can offer great insights. So I have curated for my writers a reading list that consists of personal favourites which emphasise one or several elements of the writing technique and are also great reads.

(Anita Nair curates and conducts Anita’s Attic, a unique writing and mentorship programme in Bangalore.)

Anjali Joseph

Well, I began writing as a child and what still feels comfortable is to lull myself into writing – to write often, and often in my pyjamas or sitting on my bed or the sofa, telling myself a story, as it were.

Yes, absolutely, books do provide that ballast. Not so much “how to” books but fiction itself. Here’s a random selection: Halldór Laxness’ Under the Glacier, Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, Jean Rhys’s Voyage into the Dark, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. Find a second-hand bookshop, a library, or an acquaintance with a lot of books, and read them. Steal ideas, try out structures that someone else has used. Read other things too – history, poetry, philosophy, science; listen to music; eavesdrop on conversations.

(Anjali Joseph teaches writing at the Norwich Writers’ Centre, UK, though the online courses can be attended from anywhere in the world.)

Saikat Majumdar

I feel you really need just two things to be a good writer: a facility with language and an interesting relationship with life. I don’t mean a conventional kind of command over language that helps you excel in academic and business settings, but a facility that is quirky, fresh, unpredictable. Something that creates the right tension between the familiar and the alien. For that is what literature is – a constant, unresolvable opposition between the comforting touch of the familiar and the unsettling hand of the alien.

If you possess these two things, you can be a writer – in all likelihood, you already are one. The finishing touch is the discipline to actually complete a work. Whatever kind of discipline works for you – it’s highly customisable. The rest, honestly, is just detail. Point of view, narrative distance, meter, rhyme, voice; none of them make the heart of the matter; they are simply called forth as the spirit of the work demands.

When do you know your writing is any good? When it goes from the therapeutic to the affective.

Therapeutic: that journal entry where you vent your anger, romance, frustration, love, disgust.

Affective: the piece of writing that successfully evokes all these emotions in the reader.

Good writers are cold-hearted mercenaries – they can evoke feelings in the reader that they are not necessarily feeling themselves, just going through the motions craftily. All writing starts in the writer’s self – either directly, or in some subterranean way. But then it must move beyond – link the writer’s self to the selves of others, be it millions or a few kindred readers.

These are some of the things that have worked well for me as a writer:

1. Writing every day. Definitely. And since I generally write long works – novels or book-length nonfiction/criticism, it is easy to set up a daily writing schedule till I finish the first draft; after that it simply becomes a revision/editing schedule. A word-count goal, yes – it used to be 1000 words a day, currently it is 500 a day due to various other kind of writing commitments. I’m a morning person, so I need to do this early when I’m at my freshest before I get down to other work. Occasionally, late evening – if I can get wine to oil the night wheels!

2. Beyond the fundamentals of life and language, I think one of the most important things, and perhaps one of the most difficult, is to get the tone right. Poets remember this always, as tone is clearly central to their work, but writers of prose forget it often, and this is just as important with prose, if perhaps less obvious. With fiction, this becomes what creative-writing pedagogy likes to call “voice.” First person narration has obvious voice, sometimes overpowering ones, like Nabokov’s Lolita or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but there is always voice, even in third-person narration. Many third-person narrations are rooted close to the sensibility of one character, and accordingly reflects her/his worldview even though the grammar is third person, as was the case with my novel The Firebird – third person narration but close to the boy-protagonist Ori. Voice is important even in fiction that has a third-person omniscient narration, and probably that voice is the hardest to get, because an omniscient, and omnipresent narrator is rather like God. What voice is right for the god in your fiction?

(Saikat Majumdar is a Professor of Creative Writing and English Literature at Ashoka University. Ashoka, incidentally, offers a Minor in Creative Writing, and from 2017, also initiates a new interdisciplinary degree: a BA in English and Creative Writing. The Creative Writing Minor remains open to students from all backgrounds, whether they are majoring in Economics, Computer Science, or English. We’re also trying to raise funds for a two-year fellowship program for more advanced writers.)

Aruni Kashyap

One of the fundamental aspects of writing is the author’s ability to inhabit other bodies. This is useful while writing from various points of view, making it one of the most crucial craft lessons in creative writing. To teach this lesson, I have often divided a class into groups and I ask them to share the saddest or happiest events of their lives with their group members. The group listens, takes notes, asks questions like they’d interview a “character”, and each one writes a story on the basis of their favourite anecdote.

The only rule in this exercise is that that they can’t use their own life story. They have to step into the shoes of another person: in other words, another character. This is my favourite exercise. It also works as an icebreaker in many cases. However, I think the best writing exercise is to just wake up in the morning or find the part of the day when you are at your best, and just write. There is no better exercise than that.

Sadly, there are no such books that cater to the Indian students. At Ashoka University, I tried my best to liberally sprinkle my syllabi with texts written in languages from the sub-continent to teach point-of-view, characterisation, etcetra. I learnt how to create metaphors by reading Indira Goswami, characterisation from Ashapurna Debi, and voice from Amitav Ghosh, and I feel the tremendous impact of reading their books even now. I want my students to learn through such texts. I don’t think there will ever be any textbook that will be able to teach students how to write. The best textbooks are the books written by the writers you love.

(Aruni Kashyap teaches creative writing at Ashoka University, and next January he will be joining the University of Georgia, USA, as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing.)

Andaleeb Wajid

Working with up-and-coming writers during our workshops has been a revelation for me in many ways. It’s really amazing, the kind of stories that people come up with when they simply have to write. When Sajita Nair and I started out with Nutcracker Workshops, we had designed a number of activities that would involve writing. We have continued with 80% of them and only cut down a couple that didn’t seem to be relevant.​ An interesting exercise which has spawned quite a bit of creativity from our writers is one that involves creating stories around objects.

Both of us bring in an object each. It could be anything that catches our fancy, stuff that’s lying around at home. The workshop participants then have to write a story using/connecting both objects. At first, no one knows how to go about it but then something clicks and people start writing. We tell them to write flash fiction but most tend to get carried away and write at least a page.

Sometimes people tend to get literal, using the objects as they are but some participants have turned in really imaginative pieces, bringing inanimate objects to life. While this may not be the best exercise to get actual writing done, it can be used during the times when you feel you have no ideas left and you can’t write anything. We use it to show how ideas are all around us and how we can take just about anything and make it into a story. I’ve done it a few times too, just for fun, to keep the writing muscles functioning.

Stephen King’s On Writing is really good. Also, JoAnne Harris on Twitter is very helpful. She regularly uses the hashtag #TenTweetsOn​ and posts ten tweets on a particular topic/genre/character/element which is immensely useful to writers, whether they are new or established. I would also suggest following Neil Gaiman on Twitter and looking at his website too for useful advice. Judy Blume’s website also offers quite a bit of insightful advice – but that hasn’t been updated recently. I’m not sure how active she is on Twitter. I personally feel that while peer groups might help in feedback, following writers like these, who tweet and share about writing quite frequently, will definitely inspire writers!

(Andaleeb Wajid conducts popular one-day writing workshops along with writer Sajita Nair.)