Friday, January 15, 2010

All about writing

Acclaimed author Jaishree Misra gives a master class to students of St. Teresa's College

By Shevlin Sebastian

Noted author Jaishree Misra comes to her alma mater, St Teresa’s College, Kochi, for the first time, recently, after her graduation more than two decades ago. Accompanied by English lecturer Tessy Antony, she meets teachers, nuns, and students.

“I am overwhelmed by the warmth,” she says. “It is so nice to meet teachers who had inspired me so much.”

When she left, years ago, she had painful memories. “I was fleeing from Kochi,” she says. “If you read my novel ‘Ancient Promises’, you will understand what I mean.”

But Jaishree has come for a specific purpose: to give a master class in creative writing to the students of the English department.

The hall is nearly full when she began speaking. After her opening remarks, she surprises everybody with an unusual statement. “Writing cannot be taught,” she says. “What I mean by that is that you cannot teach someone to love writing. Unless you care for it enough, you cannot continue to do it in the face of numerous rejections from publishers.”

She says that this passion for writing is something you have or do not have. “But if you have it, you will need a set of technical skills which I will impart to you.”

Jaishree tells the students to use a simple and spare style. “This is the current trend in publishing, especially in Britain,” she says. “They prefer that you avoid adjectives and adverbs. You should also concentrate on place and atmosphere.”

To get an idea of this, she tells the students to read the first few pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald’. “It is masterly writing,” she says.

Then from a white sheet of paper, she reads off other bits of advice: Don’t mix up tenses. Avoid grammatical and punctuation errors. Beware of using clich├ęs. Avoid repeat words. Don’t have characters disappearing from the narrative after barely introducing them. Don’t change the point of view by which the book is written. It will confuse the reader.

Later, Jaishree speaks about the different genres of fiction: literary and commercial fiction, as well as the niche segments: crime, historical, science fiction, or chick-lit.

“Select what is appropriate for you,” she says. To have a publishable manuscript, you need a good story, fluid and original prose, convincing characters, and an ability to bring pen pictures to life. “Don’t over-describe,” she warns. “You need to find the right balance. There also has to be an emotional punch, so that the reader is drawn into the book.”

Jaishree elaborates at length on the need to do research if one is writing about an historical era. She says that she spent hours at the British Library in London, as well as the National Archives in Delhi while writing a novel on Rani Lakshmibhai of Jhansi (1828-58).

“But once you begin writing you should forget the archival material and use your imagination,” she says.

Jaishree concludes by urging the students to write every day. “Get the wordage done,” she says. “There is nothing more terrifying than a blank page.” And just as the students feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, Jaishree gives an encouraging smile and says, “You hear irresistible stories all the time. A convent or a college has so many irresistible stories. Each of you has an irresistible story. So find out the story and write it to the best of your ability.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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