"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Friday, February 11, 2011

Karachi LitFest - Day 1

Well into the first half (okay, the first paragraph) of this blogpost, a nasty little strain of Karachi fever came around to make my acquaintance. It started with a pain in the legs that, in the subsequent delirium of the fever, was misdiagnosed by me as a blood sugar surge (this assessment also had something to do with the fact that I’d guiltily consumed half a tub of pure, Swiss chocolate ice cream just minutes earlier). It was only after I’d groaned to Shehla that I’d finally given myself diabetes and had started preparing for my final farewells that a well-timed cup of chai parted the heavy curtains of delirium and showed me that I was simply running a temperature.

Yes, Lipton can do that.

Anyway, the fever's been beat and we're back to the real blog entry! As we’d mentioned earlier, there was a DWL contingent at the Karachi Literature Festival 2011, which kicked off on the 5th of February at the charming little Carlton Hotel in DHA Phase VIII. One look and you knew that the programme was an ambitious one. The organisers had divided the day into one-hour sessions running simultaneously across several of the hotel’s halls. This meant that attending one session almost always entailed missing out on another promising one, which was frustrating but also made one feel like one was pleasantly spoilt for choice.

It was evident that the ‘celebrity author’ card had been played to pull in the crowds and that the strategy had worked amazingly: an enormous number of people attended the event and there was a fantastic buzz throughout. The true success of a literature festival probably depends on its ability to create that vibe, trumping other more obvious indicators such as the number of books being launched or sometimes even the quality of the discussion. For two days, one could have contentedly sat in the central cafĂ© area of the Carlton and soaked in the charged conversations for hours without getting bored or attending a single session. It also helped that after every twenty unknown faces you’d see a famous one. (I’m a celebrity junkie… now stop raising your eyebrow and move on.)

Those of us who were there the first day were excited about attending the creative writing workshop by Zulfikar Ghose. If you’re interested in creative writing, here are some of the lessons we took away from that session.

Probably the most valuable thing that Mr. Ghose tried to drum into our heads was to ditch the nonsense and get straight to the point. He spoke in some detail about the model of the traditional, well-made story as exemplified by Anton Chekhov’s work and shared some golden ‘rules’ of writing stories (all the while insisting that there were no rules, btw) that Chekhov himself had penned in his time.

The key thing about this form of writing is that it is pretension-free and doesn’t beat around the bush. Clarity and brevity are the order of the day, and the skillful storyteller is expected to steer clear of abstract words, generalizations and subjective assessments. Consequently, Mr. Ghose himself seemed to be a little wary of a stream of consciousness approach, which lends itself more easily to the dreaded abstractions, biases and generalizations that Chekhov warned against. He seemed to be more in favour of a good, old fashioned story, written with complete objectivity and brimming with expectation, continous action and ‘fluid movement’.

Not to worry, though, as achieving this is not as difficult as it sounds. Mr. Ghose made a simple and (I thought) utterly gorgeous articulation of what we as writers set out to do. In his opinion, writing is nothing more than a formula of language to understand the world around us. In other words, everything is an ongoing story… you just need to figure out how to get it down on paper. And for this, you don’t need an idea or a great Point to get started; you could just as well begin with an image. After that, stay with objective description and the rest will take care of itself, said Mr. Ghose. Aim for clear images, clichĂ©-free messages and none of the tedium of lengthy, overly descriptive paragraphs.

The technique he suggested for this was to imagine that you, the writer, are a camera and that you can only see as much as the lens will show you. Move from character to object to situation, describing things as you see them. Weave background information into that description, thus allowing the reader to absorb the details at a subconscious level without being hammered over the head with them (we keep saying this on the DWL forums as well: show, don’t tell). Aim to create an image that will convey a larger story, basically, and that will give the reader subtle insights into the plot.

There’s a hilarious example here from a short story that he was reading out to the workshop group (A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor). The writer describes the character of the mother as ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears’. To compare a face to a cabbage was odd, to say the least, Mr. Ghose pointed out to us. But could she have done it any better? Probably not, in my humble opinion, because the cabbage says it all. It implies that the young woman’s face wasn’t radiantly innocent as the face of a saint may be, rather it was bland and insipid. Right from the first sentence on her, we get the feeling that this is a woman who lacks character. Another thing our workshop moderator pointed out was that no woman in the West would wear a head-kerchief unless she was bald (unlikely in this case as the woman was young) or her hair was unwashed! Suddenly, the young mother was sketched out clearly in front of us and we knew exactly what kind of person was being introduced here, all with the help of a cabbage reference and a hair accessory.

Mr. Zulfikar Ghose highly recommended reading O’Connor’s story, incidentally, as a perfect example of a narrative with continuous action. For an alternative look at restrained characterization, he pointed to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As general reading, he suggested that any aspiring writers go through Henry James’ famous essay, titled The Art of Fiction.

Hope you enjoyed reading this and got something out of it. God knows it took long enough to write! Next we’ll be posting a more informal entry by Hamdan Malik, one of our DWLers who was present at the festival and who proved amazingly adept at dragging unwilling waiters to our table to take down the order!