On the first day of every writing workshop I have ever conducted, in any corner of the globe, one or more students will add one of the following sentences to their introduction: “I’m not really a writer. I’m more of a science/maths/engineering/numbers person. I don’t really know what I’m doing here. My mother thinks I need this class. My regular job doesn’t require me to write. I like to read but I can’t write flowery words.”
I appreciate my students’ honesty. I understand they might be there only because they have been signed up by someone else, and that to some folks, a writing class automatically means a vomit of flowery words best left to angsty artists. As if history isn’t bursting with examples of military generals, surgeons, scientists, and businessmen who were also terrific writers. As if it isn’t writing that creates edgy TV shows or ads that convince everyone to download the next great app or stand in line for the newest smartphone. As if we aren’t constantly hungry for real stories of real people. How else does one explain the incredible popularity of Humans of New York (which has 18 million followers on Facebook alone) and its many spinoffs?
When I left India in 2006 to get a master’s degree in creative writing, an elderly uncle in love with his own voice gave me, what else, but some “great” unsolicited advice. Look at Rabindranath Tagore, he said. Did he win the Nobel Prize in Literature? Yes. Did he ever get a degree in writing? No! Why? Because, writing cannot be taught. You’re either born with the talent or not.
Ten years, that degree in creative writing, two books, close to forty publications in various magazines and journals, and hundreds of my own students later, here’s my two paisa on the subject.
You can absolutely teach someone how to write, and how to write well.
Does this mean any one and their second cousin can become the next Rabindranath Tagore, rock a hipster beard, and bring home the Nobel? Absolutely not. But that also needn’t be the only goal or yardstick of writing. Because the kind of writing I am pushing for is the writing you do for yourself, at the crack of dawn, or smack in the middle of the night when your only companion is the passing roar of a truck on the highway. It’s writing that’s personal, that heals, and that you use to record stories of your own and of your family.
In India, right from our childhood, we are taught to revere (and fear) the make or break power of marks and grades, gold stars, parent teacher conferences, exams and the resulting kitne-percent-aaye-beta questions from neighbors, sundry relatives, and the rest of the world. As if one’s academic performance is a matter of national importance, and anything that does not lead to monetary success is unworthy of pursuit.
Case in point: A few years ago, while visiting my parents, I taught a week-long creative writing workshop to a handful of Gurgaon teenagers. They were in unending math and science tuitions throughout the day, so my vision for the workshops was that they should have fun but also learn skills that all writers need in their toolkit.
Within the first week, however, one of the mothers asked me to explain why her child had received 18 out of 20 in an English test at school instead of 19.
My jaw dropped. I hadn’t set the test. I had never stepped inside said school. I didn’t know anything about the teacher. But none of these explanations mattered. Because the mother was paying me, she needed to extract her money’s worth, which meant her child getting the highest points. By not doing so, I had failed my student.
I wish we did a better job as a society in India to equip our children to understand the concept of “failure”, whether real or imagined. Which is where I know writing and storytelling can make a difference. We need to be able write the honest stories of our lives, and tell our children that they too have the freedom to do so. Mind you, I am not advocating the five-paragraph essay we all learned to write in school about what we did during the summer vacation. I mean writing in a journal or a notebook or a diary or a blog, where you are YOU, stripped bare of pretention, where you are YOU, warts, faults and all.
My appreciation for what I call real stories first came about as a result of that “pointless” creative writing degree.
There were two books that changed my life; both nonfiction, both difficult to read: Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. I couldn’t handle the honesty with which their authors wrote about their messy lives. I marched to my professor. What was the point? I asked. What was I supposed to learn from these lives?
It took a few more months for the point to sink in. That all stories, especially the messy, unmentionable ones, must be told. So, I took baby steps, and my first real and personal story was about the loss of my maternal grandmother and my own sometimes shallow and immature behaviour around her. Initially, I worried what my classmates would think. I needn’t have. Because more than their approval, I needed to tell the story for myself. It not only allowed me to pay homage to my grandmother, it gave me a platform to examine my own behaviour, and also forgive (a little bit) the stupid teenager I used to be.
And it is this awareness that I bring into my classrooms. My students have ranged from 11-year-old poets, who write every day, to 80-year-old retirees, who have never thought of themselves as writers. In my classes, they have written about lovely things like first kisses, favourite foods, their best jobs, and nicest vacations. But they have also written about suicides, adultery, drugs, rape, divorce, and accidents. Turns out they all – including the numbers person, the science person, the non-artsy person – have things to say. Does writing it “solve” anything? Probably not. But it grants the freedom to acknowledge all versions of ourselves instead of the shiny one we must present on social media. And most days, that’s enough.
Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between and The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. She teaches creative writing, and edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review.