Phalguni Vittal Rao
Getting The Write Habit Right
As a writer, one of my greatest struggles is simply sitting down to write. That amazing idea will have been sitting in my head for weeks and months, with my mind chiselling out the perfect story, characters, plot twists, themes, dialogue and what not. But when I finally sit down to write, staring at a blank page for an unquantifiable amount of time has become standard procedure.
How do we get down to sitting and typing that first draft out of us?
So, at Bhasha Centre, we decided to address this specific question. We decided to create a low-investment, entry-level workshop to engender the habit of writing (and surprise, surprise, hence the title).
We got in touch with Chanakya Vyas, playwright of plays like Algorithms and Jhund, and former Artistic Director of Indian Ensemble, which had held a programme called First Draft for writers and was appreciated by two batches of playwrights.
Together, we hammered out a 3-day module, to get aspiring writers to exercise their writing muscle, by simply exercising it.
I was present at the workshop as an organiser, a fly on the wall who ensured people got their chai-coffee and lunch on time but it was utterly fascinating to watch other people write. The scrunching up of the eyes, intensely scrutinising the page or the screen, fingers ready to go on the laptop keyboard the minute inspiration hit them.
We had an exciting bunch of people - a lawyer, software engineer, an educator, a mass communication graduate, a dancer. They all found it useful to have a structure for writing and most of their time was spent in actually writing their scripts.
The workshop has also changed from the first time we did it in December 2022. Back then, on the third and final day, we invited actors to do a reading of scenes that the participants had written the previous day. We later felt that it was perhaps not the most helpful to writers. More than anything, it felt too soon to have something read out loud before even a first draft was complete. I feel writing is different from acting. As an actor, when you watch other people perform, you learn a lot through seeing them. But you become a better writer by reading more and writing more. There is merit in having actors give voice to the words you’ve written; a lot of things change when you hear the dialogue out loud – you find things that work, and those that don’t. But perhaps these things would make more sense after one has written a couple of drafts.
When we began designing the workshop, our intention was to bring the fun back in writing -- that writing doesn't have to be a pursuit only for people who are serious about doing theatre. You don't have to be a Mahesh Elkunchwar to be able to enjoy writing plays or you don't have to write an award-winning play at the first go, and most importantly, you don’t have to be a theatre-goer to write a play. It can merely be one of the ways in which your creativity finds expression.
So, when we did the workshop in March this time, we changed things up a bit and decided to spend more time writing on the third day as well. The energy of the room changed, with participants sticking with their scenes and pushing their way through the story they wanted to share. The focus remained on individual writing practice of participants with check-ins from Chanakya at regular intervals. After the workshop got over, the participants met again with Chanakya over Zoom the following weekend with wherever they had reached in their writing (some of them had finished a first draft) for feedback. The hope is that they go back again and again to rewrite their drafts.
During the three days, there was also a lot of discussion around the craft of writing itself. We live in a visually-influenced society: we consume movies, tv shows, comics, reels and cartoons on a daily basis. This inadvertently can seep into the way we write where we might end up imagining scenes and characters as a director would. Chanakya said, “Don’t think like directors while writing.” One of the other things that came up was how do we choose characters for the story we want to tell. “Don’t cross out a character till you’ve written them,” cautioned Chanakya, adding that we must let ourselves write the characters, let them take on a life of their own before editing out the bits that don’t work.
As always, it was incredibly fascinating to watch a group of writers at work, so much so that I may have begun writing the play that’s been in my head for so long.
We plan to host at least four more workshops over the course of 2023. And we hope that some of these plays end up on The Drama Library, because at the end of the day, we want more people to write plays and we want more people to be able to read plays, to discover new writers, and to generally spend some time with the theatre, outside of a theatre.