For the last two weeks, I and some of my writing friends have been immersed in a series of Writing Workshops held by British Council Malaysia. Sharon has written in quite some detail in her posts “Sarah’s City of Stories Workshops” and “What We Did in Our Second Workshop” about our writing sessions with both Sarah Butler and Ardashir Vakil, so I’ll just write down what I took away from the workshops, and Sarah’s talk.
Sarah’s Butler’s Workshop
The Difference Between Story and Plot: “Story” is what we read in a short story of novel, the characters fleshed out, the sense of place established, and so on. Plot is the sequence of events that leads to a consequence in this story, period.
Sounds simple, but fact is that a whole lot of times in stuff we write, we need to grasp the essential difference between these two, and make sure each is complete in its own sphere.
The Importance of Examining One’s Writing from Time to Time:
Sarah got us to look at the body of our writing, and for me it revealed that most of my characters were quirky, and if not quirky, they were doing eccentric things. It is one thing to do such stories unconsciously, it is quite another to figure out that I’m doing it, and wondering why so. It makes me think if I’m choosing an interesting character because I’m afraid I would not be able to flesh out a less colourful one?
Feedback- How to Give and Receive It:
Give: Say at least one specific, positive thing about the writing. Point out the negatives as suggestions, not absolutes.
Receive: Accept all feedback without being defensive. Later, pick and choose the ones that would help sharpen your story. Value the questions your critical reader asks you and try to answer them all at a later date when you edit/re-write the story.
If you want to write, you must begin by beginning, continue by continuing, finish by finishing. This is the great secret of it all.
Gag your inner critic. Don’t worry about writing rubbish. Remember Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Be humble, seek feedback, listen and learn. But remember you’re in charge, and choose your readers carefully.
Ardashir Vakil’s Workshop
The Sentence is as Important as the Story: Using Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, Sexy, Vakil pointed out how each sentence can be carved and shaped to say quite a few things in a few words. Question each word, and justify its presence in the story. Less is More, in most cases, except for certain notable exceptions.
Yearning in a Story: By using an excerpt from “From Where you Dream” by Pulitzer-prize-winner Robert Olen Butler, we learnt the importance of the character’s YEARNING for something, how that drives the story, leads to change, and creates empathy.
How to Read like a Writer: By using examples from Chekov, Lahiri and Alice Monroe, we began to read into a story, and realized how reading and appreciating a short story needs effort, and makes us think on so many levels.
Finding Your Voice: Finding one’s voice is important for any writer, something akin to puberty.
We were introduced to a new way of finding it. Besides writing like crazy, listening to one’s own work to listen for traces of ourselves the way one speaks in real life, we were told one of the ways of finding our voice is : Choosing someone who when we read for the first time we had the immediate thought “Gosh, I wish I had written this!” Then emulate this writer, as an exercise.
I chose Jeanette Winterson. And that in itself told me a lot about my own writing.
The Writer’s Duty: Easily the most important thing I realised in the last fifteen days, is what is contained in the following excerpt from Zadie Smith’s essay Fail Better:
Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure – but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise. Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer. When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment – once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in – what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It’s certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can’t help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.
I strongly urge any serious aspiring writer to go read the entire essay. It opened my eyes in so many ways that it is impossible to express in words my extent of gratefulness.
I’m sure I absorbed a whole lot of other things, but just as education is what you remember after you’ve forgotten everything you learnt, I believe the workshops were as good for me as the things I easily remember from them.
Thanks go out to British Council for organising this event, and I’m sure all participants would like to have another series of workshops soon.