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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Story moja creative writing workshop

On the first day of the story-moja hay festival I attended a creative writing master-class run by Hari Kunzru. An amazing British novelist and short story writer once named as one of Britain's, best young novelists. Those unfamiliar with his work can check out a sample. 
The feeling in the workshop was of a conversation with a guy who could easily become a friend although a friend with vastly more experience and practical insights into the art of writing and being creative than many of my others. From just the introductions of the attendants,  he was able to introduce a very important rule for short story writing, limits. He looked around the room and talked about how in those few moments a writer writing about the event had already been introduced to a host of different potential characters, characters who in their minutiae,in the peculiarity of each of their mannerisms could fill up a few thousand words but a short story writer must know his limits and ask himself if these details are important to the story.

We began the workshop with a discussion on beginnings, Hari Kunzru talked about what American author Richard Harsham had said of beginnings, “its never verbal, I can't express it in words, its not graspable, writing is about bringing into words something which is not, a feeling, a sense, an image.” Short story writing especially provides the writer with the chance to throw things up in the air and see where they land always remembering that a necessary quality of any author is the ability to fail in public. 

Try something outlandish and experimental, “anything goes” is the first step to a good short story,  as long as its interesting which is incidentally the second step. The third being to write for a reader and keep this in mind so that that reader can make sense of the inner workings of your consciousness. Also never ever listen to the “man on your shoulder,” the  one who tells you what you should do while writing, variously saying writing is too serious an endeavour for such frivolity then that it is too frivolous a pursuit for such earnestness. Only listen to the voice whose direction takes your writing on a tour of pleasure, listen to what's fun, what's weird and what's unique. Don't be afraid to look anywhere for a story.

He told us about this magazine he had once read, the magazine was doing a feature on a clothing billionaire and his young wife as they showed off their old wealth and their new baby. There was a glossary of photos, luxury and opulence at every shot. The baby's room decorated with no thought to expense, the baby itself  wrapped in the finery most fashionable for infants at that time, the billionaire was self satisfied and his young wife had an avaricious glint in her eye as she held up her baby to the world as if saying, “now that I’ve had the billionaire's baby I’m set for life.” While this was not what the photoshhoot was trying to represent Hari Kunzru could not get the image of the avaricious glint out of his mind and set about writing a story inspired by this. A story not told in the usual linear sequence but a story  structured around the objects in the photoshoot, picking them up and discarding them as each provided the reader with an insight into the characters in focus. Using a static representation of things to show that the characters cared more about the outside opulence represented than any kind of inner wealth. 

He also confessed his love for the use of “unliterary words” using this story as an example. He talked about how in New York people were so concerned about chemicals, fretting over the contents of their food, obsessing about the need for organic labels the same  people who lived in a city with plumes of noxious exhaust fumes falling out of cars, a city ruled by madmen with guns. He couldn't understand that with all those real perils in their face New-Yorkers still thought that what would kill them was a chemical in food they ate, to avoid this they turned to healthier foods though most people aren't experts in the chemistry of food and don't really know what's dangerous or not. He introduced this idiosyncrasy into his story by making the female character one of these people worried about chemicals at every turn. This allowed the story to have words in the family of ribulosebisphosphatecarboxylaseoxygenase. Words not usually put in literature, in this case the names of chemical compounds.

The true test of an author is the ability to kill his children Hari Kunzru said. A lot of things go on the cutting floor when a work is being written,a passage that may have taken months to write, a text that flowed fully formed, it does not matter that the writer felt like a mixture of Tolstoy and Kafka as he wrote that part , none of this matters when it comes time to cut. “If it doesn't go it has to go.” The realisation of this is what separates a real writer from the rest. The ability to let go of labours of love the ability to kill his children, Less can be more as the example of Raymond Carver a renowned short story writer showed. He uses stripped prose in his stories, in areas where the reader may expect emotional exposition he would leave gaps, inviting the reader to meet him halfway. These short stories gave the reader a sense of what should happen, let the reader make predictions and expect a resolution one way or another, but at the point where the resolution would have been the stories curved away from this. A story that dealt with the failure to deal with a  situation leaving the reader with a sense of sadness and frustration more akin to what happens in real life. Emotional gaps feeled in by the reader in such situations did more to move that reader  than any amount of melodramatic posturing by the author.

An extremely useful tool to a budding writer is the ability to avoid using a big baseball pointer to show what he expects the reader to think or feel. While researching a period novel set in the 20's Hari Kunzru went back to a series of books about WWI that had left him with a feeling of having been there and seen those times, The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, on this re-read he found a surprising dearth of details about this period. It was obvious that a great deal of research had gone into the writing of the books but it wasn't thrown in the reader's face. It was subtle,in the shadows and this made the book authentic. Acclaimed novelist Ben Okri who was also at the workshop agreed with this saying it wasn’t the facts of the research that made a piece of writing authentic but the implication of it. Ben Okri gave the example of the debate that had raged over who had actually written the Quran and that the most compelling piece of evidence that it had been written by an Arab was the absence of the mention of a camel throughout the whole book. Hari Kunzru went on to say that including all the obscure details about what the author had researched could be an exercise in intellectual vanity. Done more for the author than the reader as the author could then be trying to say look how smart I am I read all these other books as I was writing this one.

The workshop a lot of the times took on a conversational tone, when Hari Kunzru was asked if it was true that in order to write a book of any type  the potential author should read 100 books of that genre, he answered that it was true that only a voracious reader can make a good writer  ,“but I’ve only read 98 so am still rubbish.” Later still when extolling the virtues of being different and standing out as a writer he said “perhaps you should try to read 101 books.” He mentioned the different ways authors would create characters. Some wrote full biographies of their characters with details and details that were only implied in the story itself, like a really tall character stooping in a  doorway. One author he knew of wrote letters to himself from the characters in his novel.

Writing novels  requires a lot of discipline, an endeavour that should not be entered half hearted as the world the author created would be their residence for years. It the discipline to stay on track, since it is extremely easy to lose control. He gave the example Jonathan Safran who while writing one novel gained an obsession with table tennis perhaps as a way to distract him from his increasingly difficult project. A novel that had pages and pages of manuscript with no structure in sight. The final work was four times shorter and bore little resemblance to the beginning. A useful way to avoid this was to stick to a plan, an extremely difficult proposition with novels, Hari Kunzru said that to keep on track he would use index cards and write down all the things he wanted to put in the novel, put them on a board and then arrange them chronologically, a physical representation he could sit in front of. Indexes of flight correction if the story strayed too far off path.

Writing in the end is about overcoming inhibitions. Overcoming the inhibition to put something on paper, the inhibition to show it to another human being, the inhibition prompting you to avoid failure. Until an author stands bare to the public stripped of all his inhibitions and presenting a work that gave pleasure in the writing and hopefully pleasure in the reading.