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Teaching creative writing: Notes from IIT Madras

Teaching creative writing: Notes from IIT Madras

  • 22nd Feb 2021
  • The Hindu

Author: K Srilata

It was clear to me that most of my students were not going to end up with a publishable story or poem. That wasn't the goal.

The year is 2003. I am a newly minted assistant professor recruited primarily to teach communicative English to undergraduate techie students and to humanise them via that odd elective course in literature. I am both excited and nervous at the same time. Who are these students I am about to meet? What are they like? My head is on fire with questions. My first class - spent teaching the rules of letter writing to a large class of mostly male, mostly amused students - is a disaster. Gradually, and very painfully, I get better at a game I am most certainly not a natural at.

A year down the line I have managed to find a tiny sliver of head space from which to write poetry after a long hiatus. My children are still young. I carry with me a visceral sense of being split and splintered, of being torn between work and motherhood and the wanting to write. It is at a point of absolute insanity that something goblinesque in me sits up and writes a proposal for an elective workshop-style course in creative writing to be offered to the same, largely male, undergraduate, techie population of students that is our constituency. This is a time before elite private universities legitimise, even glamourise courses in writing. Much to my surprise, the department is largely encouraging and the course is passed, a fact I attribute to our location outside the traditional Indian university circuit.

Tailored teaching

Creative writing pedagogy in India serves a different constituency, and to model it on the MFA programmes of British or American universities would not quite work. For one thing, my students bring with them varied levels of capabilities. Not all are at ease with English and so, I learn to emphasise the richness of the multilingual imagination and of translation, of reading and writing in the languages one is most at home in. I learn that not all writing prompts and readings work - they are but seeds that may or may not sprout.

I learn how to structure each three-hour session, beginning always with some free-writing time, moving on to a lecture on an aspect of writing, followed by illustrative readings and the setting of a writing exercise, and then the class gets on with the writing. I learn how to work around infrastructural limitations - the absence of classrooms and spaces designed for discussion, for instance.

I learn the importance of minimising myself in the classroom, of not talking all the time, of letting my students get on with the work of communing with themselves, mining their lives lived outside the classroom to produce work. I learn to treat struggling writers with respect, to see them as young people in progress with interesting stories to tell,to offer feedback that I hope (but am never sure) will be of help. All this makes me a tentative teacher.

It was clear to me that most of my students were not going to end up with a publishable story or poem. That wasn't the goal. I hoped, however, that in learning how to shape a piece of creative work, they would have added to their repertoire of transferable skills and found pleasurable moments of pause. The writer Joyce Carol Oates once remarked, "I have forced myself to start writing when I have ... felt my soul as thin as a playing card... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything." I hoped that writing would do this for my students - would give them what my own writing had given me.

Fresh voices

With the introduction of the five-year integrated master's programme in the humanities at IIT Madras, my class began to fill up with literature majors. This meant I now had more women students. They enriched the course with their very different perspectives and writing voices. I also invited writers to speak to the students about their work. I remember a student saying to me years after she had graduated that the course had "democratised" writing for her - that she would never have had the courage to write otherwise.

Another student wrote in to say that he liked the in-class writing time when students sat down to write "blushing internally, pens indecisive". Students who have since passed out and are now practising poets tell me that what drew them to the course was the "opportunity to engage directly with literature and not filtered through the prism of literary theory" and the understanding it gave them about writing being "a sustained practice with its own toolkits." One student remembered my assigning the class a poetry writing task, sitting down to write myself and sharing my draft with the class. She said seeing a published version of the same poem subsequently made the whole process real to her.

"Assorted comfortable seating spaces and nooks and bay windows and maybe even some open spaces - writing spaces that are always available for those who do not have a 'room of their own.'" This is what a former student said she would have liked. I am still thinking of ways to enable that - though it does feel like a pipe dream. In the meantime, I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach the practice of writing. For not only has it made my own writing life more spacious, it has also been my emotional connect with academia.

(The writer is a professor of English at IIT Madras. Her latest book is the poetry collection, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans.)