It has been said that the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is to study literature at University. The process of studying and analysing breaks down great works of art, takes the magic out of them and ruins personal creativity. Student of English Literature now writer and Lecturer in Creative Writing, Rajorshi Chakraborti, disagrees!
“First of all, I believe better readers make better writers,” he says. “Reading makes you reflect on the relationship between story and style. Attentive reading is one of the best forms of apprenticeship.”
In order to write he implies that a writer needs a story and a distinctive voice with which to tell it and that aspiring writers may learn from other writers without ‘copying’ them. He also believes that while aspects of craft can be taught, choosing what story to tell and how is a process of personal discovery.
“Part of writing is awaiting gifts and results from the unconscious, somewhat like a guy who goes fishing. He goes to the right place and just waits. He knows he will get a bite. The conscious thing is to live as richly as possible and to introduce yourself to as wide a range of art forms as possible. Then allow it all to digest. Then you will come up with your story and the wonderful forms which are your stories. You cross your fingers and hope it is all being processed silently. One day, there’s a pull on the line, and that’s the story.”
“What we aim for ,” he smiles, now adopting creative writing lecturer mode, albeit over cup of coffee in Starbucks, “is to make everybody better writers, so that they are closer to finding their own voice. We help them to make progress, or at least remove certain obstacles. There are aspects of the craft which can be taught Ãbut there’s more to it. Trying to transplant your voice or literary values onto a studentÃ•s story would be a great error. ThatÃ•s not how we do it. It’s about asking questions that enable students to find their own subject and their voice.”
Rajorshi grew up in Calcutta and Bombay, where his father was an industrial banker and his mother an English teacher. Both encouraged him to read and he read and wrote his way through his teenage years. He wrote several short stories and two novels which he has never shown to anyone. The process was therapeutic, in that it flushed a lot of early errors through his system, the sort of things that are better out, but not necessarily offered to the reading public. It was, if you like, practice. During this time, he won a United World College scholarship to study in Victoria, Canada and crossed to the other side of the world at the, some might say, tender age of 16.
Two years later, he crossed the world again, this time to Hull University to read English Literature.
He wasn’t writing. “The longing still burned,” he says, “but no story emerged that was powerful enough to write down, so I just read. I introduced myself to as many writers, films, art forms and music forms as I could find. Even though I was not writing, I was reading with the eye of a writer, asking, how and why is this page intriguing me?”
He was on the river bank, fishing, hopefully. Further study beckoned, this time at Edinburgh (where better to expose oneself to the Arts?) where he has lived for the last 9 years, working towards a PhD and teaching, not Literature but Creative Writing.
Raj’s great grandfather was the pioneering children’s writer, Hemendrakumar Roy, a versatile, eccentric, Bengali Lewis Carroll who wrote fantasy, science fiction and detective novels for children and translated the Rubaiyat of Omar KhayyÃ m into Bengali. You might say that writing and teaching are in the blood and Raj was prepared to wait for the right bite.
Sure enough, through this glut of creative exposure, some images persisted until what Raj calls his ‘epiphany moment’ in 2002. The result was the novel Or the Day Seizes You. To precis the plot, the hero lives in Calcutta with his wife and daughter. His marriage breaks up and he runs away to London out of loss and shame. But you can’t run away from your self and when his uncle is murdered, he returns to Calcutta to face his demons. That said, Raj’s books are not about plot, so much as story, and the way that story is told, in the case of Or the Day Seizes You through the use of dream-like sequences and the paranoia of the haunted hero.
The book was turned down by several British publishers, one saying it was ‘too Indian’ and another saying it was ‘not Indian enough’.
“That taught me a lesson,” Raj smiles, now in writer mode. “Don’t write to please anyone, ..” This time of rejection slips helped Raj to clarify why he wanted to write. “I came to understand that I do it simply because of the journey. The fundamental miracle is the emergence of the writing.”
Or the Day Seizes You was finally published by Penguin in India and achieved some success. His editor moved to Harper Collins and this was one reason why Raj’s second novel Derangements was published by Harper Collins. It was shortlisted for the Hutch Crossword Award, a fact which left Raj grateful, although he doesn’t see writing as a competitive activity. Again, it has achieved modest success, despite clearly puzzling some of its reviewers.
“My fiction is escapist and unreal,” Raj admits. “because it’s a concentration of everything I find beautiful, moving and interesting, but present in much greater concentration than in everyday life. As Hitchcock said, ‘Art is life with the dull bits cut out.’.”
This is certainly the feeling one gets on reading Derangements. Rather than performing for a target audience, Raj writes what he wants to write and leaves it to his agent to worry about marketing and selling. But if this sounds arrogant, he isn’t. He acknowledges the trust, time and energy that readers put into reading and hopes that they and he will meet half way.
“There are passages in art, music, films, that have made me feel less lonely in the world, so I return to them in times of joy or sadness. If I have a target, it’s that there will be similar moments for other people in my work, that will make their world more vibrant and enchanting.”
The luxury of writing for writing’s sake, has been achieved by having a full time job, which Raj greatly appreciates. He acknowledges that teaching is an ideal profession for a writer as some parts of the year are busy and some are quiet, so some times you are being stimulated and some times you can be creative yourself. “The other nice thing about university,” he adds, “is that your colleagues take what you do seriously. They are very supportive.”
Raj relates the writing of his own teenage years to that of his younger students. “A lot of great novels centre around regret, lost love, guilt, the sort of themes that wouldn’t usually engage teenagers. It’s hard for them to empathise. You can engage intellectually at that age with such themes but not yet empathically. To write a rich, moving novel, , you need to have experienced various aspects of life, maybe that’s why there aren’t so many novelist-prodigies.”
But this shouldn’t deter them from writing, he believes, leaning forward with conviction. “When it comes to writing, everyone is a winner. Everyone who writes enriches themselves, even students who don’t do it professionally are enriching themselves.”
If this makes writing a form of therapy, that’s fine by Raj. He knows that not everyone will produce great writing that will be loved by other readers, but he encourages their right to express themselves, even if not publicly, through the magic of the written word.
Through his own life, he exemplifies a blend of a love of reading, with a love of teaching and a love of writing. It can be done.
Watch out for theÂ third Rajorshi Chakraborti novel later this year.