Monday, February 25, 2013

The portrait of the artist as a teacher

Best-selling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is also a professor of creative writing

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1998, best-selling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was teaching a course in literature at Foothill College in California, USA. “I was reading from a [1899] novel called 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopan,” she says. “The students would ask questions and clarify their doubts.” But Chitra noticed that one young woman, Susan James (name changed) was very quiet. “I could never figure out whether Susan was absorbing anything,” she says. Anyway, the course concluded and the students moved on.

However, one day, during the next semester, Susan dropped in to see Chitra. “She told me she had been going through a bad time and was contemplating suicide,” says Chitra. But in ‘The Awakening’, where the main character, Edna Pontellier, commits suicide it made Susan realise the impact it had on the people who were closest to Edna. “Susan said, ‘What a waste of a life suicide is, when Edna had talent, and lots of things going for her,’” says Chitra. “Susan said she decided she would not give up on her life.”

Chitra was stunned by what she had heard. “It made me realise how powerful literature is, and how it can change lives,” she says. “I became more sensitive to my students' needs.”

Today, Chitra is a teacher of creative writing at the University of Houston. It is a top-ranked national programme, where, out of hundreds of applications that the university receives, only 10 of the most talented writers are selected for the graduate fiction programme.

These students are determined to become writers,” she says. “While they are studying with us, they are also working on their first books. Some of them have already published one. But they want to learn and get better.”

Chitra teaches three-hour classes twice a week. She also spends a lot of time in her office where she has one-on-one interactions with the students. “A lot of the time I am working on their manuscripts, but, sometimes, I give them reading lists,” she says. “Or I help them prepare for their exams.”

As to the oft-repeated doubt about whether writing can be taught, Chitra says, “What a writing programme does is to sharpen the talent. We can teach the students to look for their strengths and weaknesses. Some may be good at creating characters, but not at writing plots. I can also point out when the story becomes uninteresting.”

Some of the topics that Chitra teaches include ways to structure a story, how to make the setting come alive, and create powerful characters.

Asked about the method to create a powerful character, Chitra says, “Picture the character in a setting doing something, so that you can get a sense of a person moving and speaking. Then you have to think about what makes the character a complex person. The most powerful people have many dimensions to them. They are not all good or bad. They have surprising traits. It will come out as you write the story.”

A strong character always needs something. “When we look at the great literature down the ages, from the Ramayana onwards, the heroes and heroines wanted something very strongly,” says Chitra. “Additionally, the character should face conflict or tension.”

But to do all this, you need to practice. “I have come across a lot of students who are very talented. The ones who go on to become established writers are the ones who put aside enough time to write, no matter how busy they are,” says Chitra, the author of 17 books. “Writing is very much like practising music. You can be a very talented musician, but if you don't practise, you will not go beyond a certain level.”  

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)


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