Between 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.