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No.2 of #52Stories: A tale of many stories

19 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Workshops | 1 Comment

52 Stories 2017Between September 2016 and January 2017, Devika Rangachari and I conducted a series of 15 sessions on creative writing at Amity International School, Saket, New Delhi, under our Royal Blue banner. The participants were 50-odd students of class VIII, approximately 13 years old, selected by the school to be part of the programme. The aim was to guide them in the basic craft of writing fiction and select the best stories written by the children to be published in an anthology (by the publishing wing of Amity).

While we’ve been conducting one-off creative writing sessions, this was the first long-term programme we’ve worked on (and we certainly hope it won’t be the last). Sharing the “secrets” of cobbling together a good story is always a fun experience, and having an enthusiastic audience always helps. Out of the original 50, about 25 or 30 eventually went on to finish the workshop (though, it must be said, some were erratic as other school activities coincided with our sessions), and 21 stories were selected for the anthology. According to the students’ feedback, they enjoyed the workshop and most of them did say it helped them write better. One or two also professed to developing an interest in reading fiction.

As for us, we learnt quite a bit too, and noticed some interesting things:

  1. Teenagers are quite amenable to being pushed into writing provided you make it interesting for them. However, they seem to respond more to a carrot-and-stick method than an open-ended, write-if-you-want to directive. Our rigid school system is to blame for this, as it seems to train them to deliver only if there’s a punishment or reward at the end of the assignment.
  2. Of the 50 students who were crammed into this session, perhaps 10 or 20 were really interested in writing. In an ideal system, this should have been a voluntary workshop. Also, even though we were the ones to put a cap of 50, the sessions worked much better when there were fewer kids as they were more interactive (and the students too said the same in their feedback).
  3. There was a bizarre preoccupation with death! A significant number of the stories submitted and read out over the course of the workshop had to do with death, dying, killing, suicide. Is it because, at 13, dying doesn’t seem as real because, well, you’re only 13? Many of the stories were also about being alone, being left alone, not having any family or losing/finding one’s family. That was more understandable.
  4. Most of the stories, with the exception of one or two, featured Western (American) settings and characters. It was interesting, because this is something that I did too when writing as a teen (only, my settings and protagonists were British as that was the fiction I’d grown up reading). This underlines the importance of representation of one’s own culture, environment or whatever you want to call it. These kids have grown up reading, and are reading, books based in the West, and seem to be unable to imagine stories based in their realities. Somewhere in their heads (as it was in mine when I was 13), to be in a story, you have to belong to that world, an imaginary, aspirational one they have imagined from the stories they have been reading. It is by no means a bad thing to set your story in a different culture or have characters who are not like you, but when that setting becomes the same, monolithic one, and the characters sound eerily unreal, it deserves some attention. (Discussing this will have to be a whole new post, though.)
  5. Even though Indian students are trained to respond like trained dogs—they’ll do something if not doing it means there will be a punishment—it doesn’t mean they’re above a bit of cheating to get there. Quite a few of the submitted stories were printed straight from the Web. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that it is easier for us to check for plaigairism than it is for them to find, download and print stories. In their defence, after a long lecture on how copyright violation is a crime for which one can go to jail, most of them did withdraw their stories.
  6. A surprising number of stories featured older protagonists, that is, these 13-year-olds were writing as adults, with what they thought were adult voices.
  7. And finally, the language skills of these class VIII students were appalling. With the exception of about three or four, not one could write a grammatically correct sentence. This was surprising as quite a few of them read. What was equally surprising was that the school didn’t seem particularly concerned about this in general.

It would be really interesting to examine if these observations were peculiar to this bunch of students or if they are a general statement on the middle-class, English-educated 13-year-olds in Delhi. I suppose we may find out eventually.



Introducing: 52 stories of 2017

7 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Workshops, Writeside, Writing | No Comments

52 Stories 2017It turns out that the only tried and tested method of regular blogging is to give myself a goal. And so, the theme for this year is “52 stories”.

Posts will be about about books, games, TV or anything else that has a story in it, mostly reviews, but maybe a bit about writing, and perhaps teaching writing (fiction) as well. The magic number is 52—in other words, there will (should) be a post every week (or so).

The inspiration for this year’s blogging theme comes from having spent 10 days at the “Children Understand More…” residency organized by the the Goethe-Institut India/Max Mueller Bhavan and Zubaan in Shantiniketan. Seventeen writers and illustrators came together at the idyllic Mitali Homestay in the land of Rabindranath Tagore to brainstorm and work on creating some quality children’s literature. All constraints, perceived or real, were removed, and the participants were free to explore themes and ideas that one customarily baulks from introducting to children. Along with Nadia Budde, Ben Dammers and Devika Rangachari, I was one of the mentors at the residency, tasked with helping the participants tease out workable ideas and shape them into works-in-progess that would eventually—hopefully—end up as published books.

Ben, Nadia, Payal, Devika: The tutors

This mentoring business is hard work…

Most of the participants rose to the challenge and a variety of fantastic books-in-the-making resulted. Some new talents were discovered, such as one writer discovering she was an artist too, and another writer finding a superbly edgy YA voice. Divested of the hindrance of thinking about the feasibility of being “publishable” and marketable, it created an atmosphere in which only the stories mattered. Among the themes that were batted around were religion and fear; identity; family, society and relationships; death; body image; mental illness; puberty; and climate change. Some worked individually, others collaborated, and most brainstormed and sought out critiques on their works-in-progress.*

Needless to say, it is impossible to come back from such an experience unmoved. The possibility of some or all of these ideas turning into books in the not-so-far future was exciting enough, but more than that, spending almost two weeks in the company of a group of talented artists, writers and storytellers was super-inspiring. And not insignificant was the fact that being cut off from the mundanities of one’s daily life, talking and thinking only about creating fiction for children, did inject a good dose of reassurance regarding the work one has been doing (or attempting to).

Which brings me back to the blogging theme of 2017. Yes, stories are important, critically important, in our understanding of our world, whether we’re writing them, reading them, watching them, taking part in them. And reading is not the only way in which we engage with stories.

So, strap on your seatbelt.


*To know more about the Children Understand More residency, read Bijal Vachharajani’s write-up.


Introducing the Royal Blue workshops

13 May 2016
Posted in: Workshops | No Comments

Royal Blue Workshops

There are exciting things afoot. Actually, one big exciting thing. A fellow author Devika Rangachari and I are starting writing workshops for big and little people in Delhi, under the banner Royal Blue. Find out more about us here.

The first Royal Blue workshop is taking place on 21 May 2016, a one-day creative writing session for children between the ages of 12 and 15. Aimed at young writers, this workshop will aim to show that writing can be fun and deeply satisfying, while teaching our young participants how to give shape to their ideas and voice to their characters.

Royal Blue intends to continue with its workshops after this first one, so if you have any suggestions or requests, do get in touch with us via my web form or write to royalblueworkshops at Gmail.

Meanwhile, if you know any youngsters in Delhi who want to flex their writing muscles, do ask them to register. But quickly, because seats are limited!