Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Designing a Course in Creative Writing

-         - Dr Brian Mendonça

When I was asked to teach a course on creative writing at Carmel College, I had no clue where to start. After gamely saying ‘yes,’ I had plenty of time to dwell on the enormity of my folly.

Of course, I had brought out two slim volumes of verse – but was that enough to offer a course on creative writing?  Half of my readers did not understand what I wrote, and the other half couldn’t care less. There were a few though, just a few, in whom my poetry struck the right chord. But did today’s college students have time for poetry, strutting around with their iPads and Kindles? I wasn’t sure. The website of the London School of Journalism (lsj.org) did give me some leads but told more than it showed.

Well, I thought, the only way to take this forward was to be creative about ‘creative writing.’ A glance at the Goa University syllabus made me heave a sigh of the relief when I noticed the adjectival clause after the title of the paper. It said ‘Creative Writing for Beginners.’ ‘That includes me!’ I thought to myself..

We began by discussing what creative writing meant. How it was different from other ways of writing. We read Marquez’s Prologue to Strange Pilgrims -- his collection of short stories, perhaps as a preamble to his ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ in the same collection.  For the novel form, we did a slice of Saramago, reading from the Portuguese, from his novel O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis based on the life of Pessoa.

Somewhere, conventions of reading too came into play.  When I did Llosa’s short story ‘The Chilean Girls’ and came to the last line, a student said with indignation, ‘The story is incomplete – It does not have a happy ending’ (One girl thought the narrator was a lech). A back copy of the Economist helped me to contextualize Peru and Chile, complete with a map and Macchu Picchu (13 Feb. 2010).

I found women-centric stories, particularly the girl-meets-mysterious boy variety, had the girls by the edge of their seats – never mind exams. So, ‘One Night in Late September’ from a 1973 collection of short stories by Vernon Thomas gushingly titled Roses for Remembrance showed how important selecting the right materials for teenagers is. 

My forays into teaching creative writing (and the appreciation of it) received a further fillip when I discovered that the English Compulsory paper was titled ‘Teaching Language Through Literature.’ I took recourse to role-play when we did Willy Goes’ terrific tale, ‘Shi! Solid Gold Man!!’ (Goa Today, Jan 2012).  This story was right up their street. They could relate to it from their own experience of dating and may have even met guys at Kamat restaurant featured in the story. Similarly, Astrid Pinheiro’s poem ‘The Bride Rejoices’ published on the eve of Liberation Day served as a fine example of allegory (Navhind Times, 18 Dec. 2011).

How does one bring to students the immediacy of a creative writer’s experience? Vikram Seth’s recent Rivered Earth came to our rescue. The sheer ingenuity of its conception swept us off our feet. So much so, the girls were chanting under the tree, ‘Child of son, of daughter / Tombed and wombed in water . . .’ When students wanted to know what a libretto was, I distributed copies of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and had them listen to Samuel Barber’s setting of the lines to music-- on the car speakers of my i10. 

Shashi Deshpande’s essay ‘Writing From the Margin,’ from the book by the same name, showed the challenges women writers have to face in India and how she overcame them. In Navtej Sarna’s, ‘Of Writers and writers,’ we peeped into the writerly world and how writers write (Hindu, 4 March 2012). We also took in Osho’s view of creativity being basically music, ‘only the medium differs’ (Osho World, Feb 2012).

All this time I was writing, to hone my skills. ‘Undra Mhojea Mama’ was picked up by South Asian Ensemble, and published in Toronto as an example of Creative Non-Fiction (First published in Navhind Times, 6 Dec 2011; SAE, Autumn 2011). I promptly included this genre on my creative writing course and passed my published article around to inspire the girls to write their own experiences. When ‘Nishte Zai Go . . .!’ was published the girls were already on study leave but it drove home the point of CNF being about the ordinariness of life presented creatively (Navhind Times, 31 March 2012).

The Department of English organized a creative writing workshop where a poet (Manohar Shetty), a short story writer (Savia Veigas) and a novelist (Damodar Mauzo) interacted with the students about their craft.

We rounded off the course with a stab at proof-reading symbols which I felt was an important skill for a writer. The students came through fine, scoring on a bandwith of 57 -- 80/100 on aggregate.  Their enthusiasm powered the course.  

The student’s specially enjoyed an exercise in story writing where a few opening lines were given in prose and each of the students had to add a few lines of their own -- in a space of 3 minutes each! -- to develop the story. What was particularly lively was the discussion which followed. Students felt a great sense of collaboration and achievement.

Among the many assignments my students did, one was to develop a poem from the opening lines which were taken from an already published poem. The poem below, I felt, made the journey worthwhile . . .


-      - Cecília Meireles

(Translated from the Portuguese by Rita Sanyal)

There’s the sun that has arrived early on the windy mountain    
And the white translucent clothes that the washermen
Have opened out in the air . . .

[Continued below by Jolaine De Souza, SYBA Allied, Creative Writing student (2011-12)]

There’s the honking of the bakers horn that draws the people out
onto the streets.
And the morning chatter of the women
waiting to fill their pots at the public tap.
There’s the village schoolmaster, and his students
chanting the ABC.
And there’s Miguel the drunkard
lying passed out in the street.

Then the morning becomes afternoon.

There’s the sun that bears down
fiercely on everyone’s backs
And the clanking of utensils and
the rolling of mats.

There’s the sound of people taking
their afternoon siesta
And of the children playing on the ground.

There’s the whistle of the factory
signalling the end of the day
The white shirts are muddied and stained
And the sun has slunk away.

Pix: Varal de Poesia - Ceclia Meireles; Article published in ELT Weekly Volume 4, Issue 23, 4 June 2012.

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