Failing in the art of creative non-fiction

A trip to a writing workshop in India doesn’t turn out quite as planned.

At some point in the 1980s, Calcutta was left behind to fester. Its resistance to change and to modernisation is apparent everywhere you look; from the old-fashioned Ambassador-style taxi cabs, to the rickshaw-slow WiFi connections, to the dank holes that pass as guesthouses. It’s a peculiar place, then, for the University of East Anglia (UEA) to take its first steps into higher education in Asia. I can certainly think of easier and more appealing places to gather a global group of fledging writers.

This my second trip to the humid, sprawling mega-city, and my second time attending one of the UEA India creative writing workshops that happen here periodically. After being charmed by the chaos of the dilapidated city and being impressed with the writing course during my first visit eighteen months ago, I was excited to return this year and see how things were shaping up.

Amit Chaudhuri is the man responsible for UEA’s presence here. A celebrated lecturer, critic and author, he spends half his time teaching at the university’s literature department in Norwich, and the other half writing books and articles in Calcutta. His passion for the city was what decided the workshop’s location, while the structure of the 10-day course is modelled on UEA’s renowned MA in creative writing.

“It is the first time we have taken the programme abroad and this new initiative has lots of exciting possibilities for everyone involved,” Chaudhuri said when the first workshop was announced back in October 2012. “Nothing like this has been done before in India and from the reaction we have had to the idea it seems to be a welcome and timely initiative.”

At the last workshop, I met a plethora of aspiring and established writers from all over the world, brought together by a passion for words and a desire to share and develop work in a professional environment. The previous course was a stimulating, challenging and immersive experience, and many participants still exchange work regularly. In terms of kickstarting creativity and giving projects direction, it was a fast and effective way to find the inspiration and support required.

Joining Chaudhuri as co-tutor this time round is Ian Jack, a journalism and publishing legend whose CV includes co-founding The Independent on Sunday, editing literary journal Granta for 12 years and, in his retirement, still finding time to write a weekly column for The Guardian. Suffice to say that expectations were high for my second writerly adventure in Calcutta.

On the first day, I’m surprised to learn that despite his expertise and years of experience, this is Jack’s first time in a workshopping environment. His approach is casual; he lets the conversation about individual writers’ work flow without much interruption, contributing a few comments here and there. Other workshop newbies stray into the terrain of “liking” and “enjoying” the work, offering little in the way of constructive criticism or meaningful feedback. When I sat in the same room last April, tutor Kirsty Gunn’s detail-oriented teaching methods gave the workshop a very different feel.

As a story about the impact of social media is workshopped, Jack is visibly flummoxed. It soon becomes clear that he’s a technophobe, and his cluelessness is strangely heartwarming; an ode to a bygone age of writing from before the Internet existed. With the zest of an angry grandfather, he tells us about his objections to reader involvement with writing and journalism - the Guardian comments feature seems to be his biggest enemy. I gather he wouldn’t think much of the Contributoria platform.

The next day, I learn that Chaudhuri is largely in agreement with Jack on the subject of readers. He goes off on what another workshop participant dubs a “fuck the reader” rant in which he argues that writers should not be producing work with an audience in mind or with particular consideration for who might be reading. It’s an understandable approach to working for an award-winning renaissance man like Chaudhuri, but perhaps less relevant for those hoping to build a career as a writer in today’s industry.

After feeling so optimistic in the weeks leading up to the workshop, I can’t shake the feeling that things aren’t going very well this time. Speaking to the other participants, it’s quickly clear that I’m not the only one with reservations. Around half of the 24 writers who’ve travelled to Calcutta tell me that they expected more from the course.

“This workshop was advertised as a competitive process, but the quality of written work is generally very poor,” says one of the more accomplished writers from the group. “And the tutors? They’re not willing to say that some of the students at this workshop cannot communicate effectively in English and simply shouldn’t be here as writers.”

The disappointment and criticism seems to permeate all layers of the group - young and old, fresh and experienced. “This is the first writing course I have done, and I won’t be doing another anytime soon. I’m disappointed that so many of the students are more interested in an ego-boost than progressing their work,” another colleague adds.

Aside from issues of group dynamics and quality of work, others question the value of the workshop in light of its cost. To give some context, the tuition fee of 25,000 INR (£250) is equivalent to an entire month’s average earnings in Calcutta. “Two and a half hours a day for eight days is not enough for the tuition fee,” a workshop coursemate comments. “The tutors and administrators have taken 600,000 INR (£6,000) from the students here, and students receive little back in return. Money is the motivator for the existence of this course.”

Midway through the programme, ‘Calcutta belly’ strikes and I spend the next three days bouncing between the bed and the bathroom. The administrators don’t bother sending me other people’s work to read and return, and Jack decides to workshop my piece without me there. I don’t receive notes or a one-to-one session for either half of the course from either tutor, the latter being a fundamental part of UEA India’s offering to its students.

Apart from a couple of emails from Chaudhuri asking if I need a doctor, the workshop completely abandons me. I receive nothing in exchange for the £250 tuition fee I have paid, not to mention the non-refundable accommodation cost of over £300, the £400-plus expense of an international flight and the money spent on subsistence. The UEA India writing workshop has been a grand waste of time and money this time round.

If the UK’s landmark creative writing course hopes to have the same impact on this side of the world as it originally did at home, it seems to me that there’s a long way to go before it has any hope of achieving its goals. And as for Calcutta? A second visit to this backwards-facing city has been enough to put my curiosity about the place to rest; once the novelty has worn off, any redeeming features are difficult to see.

But I’m sure I’ll think of my time with UEA India every month for the next few, as I pay off the credit card bills from a wasted trip.

Originally published by Contributoria. Image by Eric Parker (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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