Can imaginative writing be “learned” or “taught”? Fiction, poetry, essays, plays, scripts and screenplays: can these be coached? Is a writing studio different from a classroom?
Why do we call it “creative” writing? Does the word “creative” have any meaning anymore? It is a buzzword everywhere, from the university to marketing meetings to advertising agencies to event and wedding planning. To be honest, William Shakespeare would not understand the meaning of the word “creative”. Neither would Homer, Milton, Vyas, Valmiki or Kalidasa.
The word “creative” suggests that writers “create” things that did not exist before. But this idea is relatively new. It goes back to the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century, which marked the private and the individual as a symbol of modernity. Even today, community evokes the presence of tradition while the private individual implies the modern. This is why “love marriage” is thought of as more “modern” than “arranged marriage.”
Finally, the growing popularity of print made literature a private thing, something which people write and read alone. This made way for the novel, a new art form, unlike plays and poems that were performed in public in the past.
That was how the idea of the modern “creative writer” came into being: one imagined as sitting alone and creating stories from nowhere. It is something that would make no sense to Shakespeare, Milton or Homer, all of whom, from a modern perspective, appear to be smart thieves. None of them bothered to “create” stories, simply taking them from myths and legends, histories, or the Bible.
“Creative” appears to be an unreliable word. But is there nothing special about the kind of writing that we find in a poem, a novel, a personal essay, or a play? What differentiates it from the manual that comes with a new computer or a microwave oven?
Two things, definitely, are different. First, literature is always a unique event. This, in fact, is a key difference between the arts and the social sciences. The social sciences are interested in group behaviour. Literature is interested in the unique and the personal. Such is the difference between history and fiction. It is not that one is about things that really happened and the other is about things that did not. Fiction can also be rooted in real life. The real difference is that history focuses on the public story while fiction tells a private one.
Secondly, here’s the other key difference: critical language appeals to reason, but imaginative language appeals to the whole person, including the senses. The poet T S Eliot said it beautifully: a poet unites the sound of a typewriter (hearing), reading (thought), falling in love (emotion), and the aroma of cooking (smell). There is no difference between thinking and feeling in good imaginative writing. No conflict between the heart and the brain or any other part of the body.
What, indeed, is writing? What is its goal? Writing is persuasion. The particular is rooted in the experience of a person. But how does another person participate in this experience? An essayist may tell her reader: “This is what I believe, and here is why you should believe it too.” A novelist might say: “Come, enter this world, live with these characters I have crafted.” A poet would say: “Here is a moment worth experiencing, come and experience it.”
It is a process of seduction; A call to intimate companionship. The Sanskrit word for literature is Sahitya, which has its root in Sahit, companionship; companionship between the reader and the writer.
So what do you need to be a good writer? Again, two things: One, An interesting relationship with life. Not an interesting life. All life is interesting. There is no such thing as an uninteresting life. Joseph Conrad had exciting sea adventures around the world and started writing at the age of 40, and he wrote some amazing novels. Emily Dickinson practically lived the life of a nun, barely leaving her room, and she wrote amazing poetry. Don’t go anywhere looking for a “subject”. Art is where you are. Always. Art is the shadow behind you; it’s there, but if you look around, it’s gone. It’s not the life you have. It’s how you look at it. It doesn’t matter what the book is about; it’s how you treat it. Like justice, art is blind to its subjects.
Two, an interesting relationship with language. Not a command over language, in the sense it pushes you to excel in an academic or a business setting. It is a relationship that is fresh and quirky, shocking yet attractive—a mix of the alien and the familiar in magical proportions. Because that’s what art is—the warmth of the familiar cut across by the cold hand of the alien.
So what can one achieve in a creative writing studio? If the wild inner spirit of writing is to be left to the mysterious chemistry between you, your life, and your language, what is there left for the class to achieve?
They create a space for writers to come together. They push writing to go from the therapeutic to the affective. Therapeutic: that journal entry where you vented your anger, romance, frustration, love, disgust. Affective: the piece of writing that successfully evokes all these emotions in the reader. Where writing goes from being about you to being directed to the reader.
And how does it do that? By turning writers into readers and back to writers again. That’s the workshop experience at the heart of the writing studio. Exchange, critique, offer your writing soul up naked for all to see, caress, love, scratch and beat. Rinse and repeat. Discuss, love, attack. Making literary friends and enemies for life, sometimes both in the same person.
Creative writing is the only form that demands a celebration of the subjective. Subject, not self. The difference between the two is the essence of writing. Such differences are not matters of technique. They cannot be “taught”.
But such flashes of knowledge light up the communal writerly space. No one knows how they happen. They are volatile chemical reactions whose composition remains unknown. They happen without such spaces all the time. But historically, writers have sought each other out. The writing studio formalises this space.
An ideal creative writing community talks technique without being enslaved by it. Chats about craft without letting craft trap the soul; sharpens writing without smothering its wildness; hones the form of body that must hold the formless soul.
The most academic of the arts and the most artistic of all academic subjects, writing belongs to a special place in the university, and to campus life.
(Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is the author of several books, most recently, the novel, The Scent of God (2019). @_saikatmajumdar)