Imagination, perseverance, craft and experience all play important parts in making of a fiction writer. Of these, imagination and perseverance are somewhat ‘inner’, you have them as part of basic nature, even if perseverance, to a certain extent, can be taught. Craft and experience are the ‘outer’ traits- they can be obtained from outside, provided you are willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone now and then. Therefore, when Indic Academy most generously offered me a scholarship to attend a Masterclass with the Himalayan Writing Retreat run by noted writer and creative writing teacher Chetan Mahajan, I saw it as an excellent opportunity to learn more about the craft, as well as to share into the experiences of my fellow attendees. And if that meant swapping the pleasantly double-digit temperature nights of Pune for the freezing ones at Satkhol in Uttarakhand, why; them’s the breaks!
I was further enthused when I learned that noted playwright and novelist Manjula Padmanabhan was going to conduct this writing workshop. While the creator of the cartoon strip Suki and the recipient of the Onassis award for theatre (for her play Harvest), scarcely needs introduction, let me just say that to have a writer with her experience of traversing a wide range of literary spheres meant we knew this retreat was not to be missed.
The ‘wow’ moment came early for me when on the first full day of the workshop, Manjula made us read each other’s work (without knowing who the author was), and drove home the lesson that the moment a written book transfers from the hands of the author to the reader, the book belongs to the reader. The fact that neither the prose format nor the word-count alters the essentially interactive nature of fiction writing was a true revelation.
Manjula insisted that each one of us start a project (short story/novella/novel) that would be our takeaway from this retreat. Her advice to me was to step out of my comfort zone (genre writing) and attempt writing something out of my usual wheelhouse. That was perhaps the push I needed to start writing my first non-genre novel and before we left the retreat, I had already written close to 5000 words. When each one of us read our own works, I was blown away by the sheer diversity of view-points, subject matters and settings as well as how absolutely polished some of my fellow travellers’ first drafts read.
A few words about our guru, if you don’t mind! At the beginning, I was a little intimidated (both by her presence and her CV), but as we went from one session to another, Manjula proved to be the best teacher we could have hoped for. Widely travelled, world-wise, warm and witty, her own experiences infused a fresh perspective in every discussion/exercise we did. Since the group size was small, one could also see Manjula quickly tailoring her interaction style based upon the personality traits of the participants. The three days were hard work- from nine in the morning till eight in the night, and yet one thing that almost never happened was anyone looking at their watches. For a storyteller as technically proficient as Manjula, identifying pain-points in craft was never a problem, but the way she fitted the important things into a three-day schedule was a learning in itself.
If it is all the same with you, I would rather not talk about how the scenic beauty of Uttarakhand and the location of the retreat absolutely blew me away, because I may not be able to stop! I can write a lengthy blog about the thoughts one gets as one watches the sun rises over the Himalayas alone. Let me just say, Chetan and his team proved themselves to be capable hosts- gracious, inventive and warm. As one participant mentioned, the retreat had all the warmth of a school reunion, even though none of the participants knew each other before the program.
Chetan was an engaged organizer. We were all amazed at his energy. He participated in the activities with us, managed the logistics for people travelling in and out from different locations, managed the boarding facilities for people not used to the cold and elevation, and still found time to take us on nature walks when the time permitted. Some of the best interactions I had with my fellow writers happened on those walks with Chetan’s two hyper-active dogs leading the way for us.
Let me close by expressing how it would have been impossible for me to manage all of this (financially as well as logistically) without the strong support of the swell folks at the Indic Academy, more specifically my mentor Shri Hari Kiran ji. Thank you team Indic!
All in all, I think Himalayan Writing Retreat Masterclass helped me meet others with aspirations and challenges similar to my own, introduced me to an extra-ordinary mentor and collectively helped me remind myself (yet again) why we aspire to what we aspire to.
Time well spent; I say!
Read other reports of Himalayan Writing Retreat workshops written by Madhulika Sagaram and Dr. Pingali Gopal.
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