Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Craft of Writing

Creative writing courses for aspiring writers seem like a new trend. These courses — usually — spanning two years — have no more than ten to twenty students in each batch, have accomplished writers as teachers ( big names like Salman Rushdie would prefer guest lectures while others may become artists-in-residence, though of course exceptions apply). 

Eventually, the students are required to submit a collection of poems, short stories or a novel as a thesis, which is then marked. Most students abroad choose these programmes because they provide a chance to fully focus on writing  without distraction. You have readings, evaluations, analysis, topics to write on, creativity boosting exercises and an academic atmosphere of peace away from the professional worries and family vows.

Just like other masters’ courses, these are also expensive. In a way these are easier to get into because often there are no mandatory GRE and other conventional application requirements — other than your published or unpublished manuscripts. Yet, such a policy also makes it harder to differentiate yourself on any standardised template because the number of seats is so limited and the selection criteria so ambiguous. Top schools can indeed be very difficult to get into. The “tilt” or “niche” of the school, say experimental fiction or Subaltern poetry also influences the student.

Bilal Tanweer, a MFA graduate from Columbia University, teaches creative writing courses at LUMS. “These courses deal with the craft’s aspects on a very basic level,” says Tanweer.  “These include techniques writers use to build narratives. In writing workshops we try to study and develop an understanding of the various ways narratives in fiction are built and what are the advantages and limitations of each way.”

An MFA programme connects you to publishers, literary agents (who help in all aspects of publishing) and editors. The publishing circuits in the United States, the MFA Creative Writing stronghold, are huge, layered and highly professional. Although the publishers don’t reject your work simply because you don’t have a degree it does help one in learning some tricks of the trade and in building contacts with publishers and contemporary writers. This often results in publication success for many graduates. The tricks and tips provided for success can be very formulaic and while this isn’t necessarily positive for fiction writing, they can help in writing non-fiction and journalistic pieces.

A creative writer’s innovative and original style may only be marketable in the “long run”, and who knows, perhaps aspiring for relatively safe, formulaic, and lucrative is the realistic way to start for most writers. But an MFA from Pakistan might even beget such a result because of the limited market size. And looking westwards with Pakistani training may not garner you enough credibility.

Some of course believe that a creative writing degree is useless, partly because most great writers — from any given region or time — had no such degree. Though other arts like music, theatre and dance have had a concept of apprenticeship that goes back to hundreds if not thousands of years, writing has been free from such ostensible clutches. Some — though not all — of those who disapprove of this MFA credentialing trend also argue that talent is either genetic or natural, and cannot be taught per se.

Prof Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin, the Head of the English Department at Punjab University, believes there is no formula for writing success and that all great writers were great readers. She added that the western curiosity regarding Pakistan due to the “War on Terror” has led to their hailing “B” grade and mediocre fiction as masterpieces; therefore the success Pakistani authors experience there now might not be based solely on the work’s literary merit. She adds that “You cannot put in what the good Lord has left out.”

Pakistan is churning out thousands of bachelors, masters and M.Phils in English Literature who eventually end up teaching English at various levels. A creative writing degree can push one a step closer to becoming an accomplished writer, but who otherwise will have more or less the same market for jobs as one with an post-graduate degree in literature. One can always go back to teaching at various levels of the educational food-chain. Also, an MFA may give one the time to reflect on one’s literary prowess (or lack thereof) and put it under the scrutiny of teachers and class-fellows. It should also further polish your grammar, expressions and teach you the structures of short stories, novellas, novels, poems etc. Reading is crucial for good writing and most courses include extensive reading lists as well as optional literature courses.

Many of the new crop of Pakistani English authors such as H. M. Naqvi, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin actually do have degrees in creative writing. But since their literary careers have just started, their artistic merit and legacy is still to be determined. Though most of these authors agree that the training helped them, almost all also say that it is not necessary for becoming a good writer. The older generation of writers and poets like Ahmed Ali, Alamgir Hashmi, Dr Tariq Rahman and Zulfikar Ghose didn’t have such training of course.

“Of course it’s not imperative to have an MFA/BFA to write fiction— or to paint or to sculpt, for that matter.” says Bilal Tanweer. “These are just options available to artists to study with other artists and deepen their understanding of their art.”

When asked what difference the creative writing course made to his fiction, Mohammed Hanif responded “It doesn’t really make a difference, though it does give you the time to devote yourself to writing.”

But one doesn’t have to go all the way for the two years masters. Workshops that cost much less and last only for a few days, weeks or months are readily available in almost any western university and then there are online courses. Full-time courses are available and brief workshops are available in Europe and America (London School of Journalism, University of California Riverside, and so on). Literary journals (Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House) and non-profit organisations (Paris Writers Workshop, Lighthouse Writers Workshop) also hold regular workshops.

More and more creative writing courses have started in various universities. Although a full-time degree course has yet to materialise, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Kinnaird College, Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Indus Valley School, and Lahore School of Economics now offer short courses in creative writing. The British Council also holds workshops in creative writing.

“BNU offers two types of creative writing courses — Script Writing and Creative Writing for Mass Communication students.” says Asghar Nadeem Syed, the dean of the Television, Film and Theatre department at BNU. “We teach the basics of fiction, poetry and creative writing to the Creative Writing students in Mass Communication.” He points out that there is no such training available in Urdu and other regional languages.

Though Punjab University has no such course yet, its prestigious English department has been holding workshops under Zulfiqar Ghose’s guidance for three years now.

“The English Department feels very privileged to have had poet, critic, and writer of fiction Zulfiqar Ghose hold creative writing workshops for students on several occasions.” says Prof Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin. His initial reluctance vanished when he saw the enthusiasm and keenness of the students to learn. Ghose loves doing these annual workshops, where he takes ten to twelve students to discuss their writings. Ali Sethi and Kamila Shamsie have also given talks.

Pakistani literature in any language will flourish only when there is a local market for it. Plus the class barriers, where students from poorer economic stratus cannot access writing training, need to be diminished. Liberal arts colleges like National College of Arts, Punjab University and even Allama Iqbal Open University and Virtual University should step forward to train young Pakistani creative writers.
This article was first published in The News on Sunday

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