Before the workshop started, in a lovely space on Siri Fort Road, Delhi, with the Seven Sisters tapping away insistently on the glass panels, we could see that American writer Evan Purcell knew what he was talking about. The proof? A big pile of books to sign from a session he had done in a school that morning. And in an example of the kind of eye to detail that a good writer should have, he autographed and wrote a different message and drew a different monster in each of them.
Evan has travelled and worked in many countries–Zanzibar, China, Bhutan, Russia, Kazakhstan, among others–and has written a variety of genres–screenplays, short stories, romances, picture books and middle-grade novels. The focus of this workshop was how to bring the two skills together–how travel illuminates and inspires storytelling, and how storytelling can be enriched by the diversity that travel makes the writer experience.
The workshop was 90 minutes, and I think most of the participants would have been happier if it had been longer. Evan made us do a series of writing exercises to experience the the points he was making, and we are sure that there was more we could have learnt, had there been time.
The most important thing to do when one travels, said Evan, was to ask questions about the place and the people and lives. It is only through asking people about their daily lives and beliefs and habits that one truly gets a sense of how different or similar places and people’s lives are.
Evan talked about the importance of noticing details when in a strange (or even familiar place). He listed his impression of a street in the part of town where he lived in Zanzibar, and asked the participants to list the details of any one specific place (road/area) where they had travelled.
The homework from this exercise was for all of us to go back and walk down a path near where we live or work and see every day, and specifically list everything we see/hear/smell etc.
- Integrate the experience through action
But a list of details in a book, as we know, makes for dull reading. So details have to be integrated through experience, in the case of fiction, by the experience of the protagonist or character who is travelling through that space.
As an exercise, Evan asked us to use the list we had created for the previous exercise to describe the narrator running at top speed through the space. Extra points, he said, for those who managed to integrate interaction with the space and other people in it.
- Integrate the experience through plot
Evan gave us a list of things he passed on his daily walk from his house to the school in Bhutan where he taught. Then he asked us to write description in first person as if the narrator were walking that route with his/her beloved.
When we read out our pieces, it was interesting to see how each person’s notion of romance had shaped the way the common elements were deployed.
- Shape dialogue using cultural contexts
Evan wrote out a fairly generic, even inane, dialogue between two people. He described very broadly the age and gender of the two people, and asked us to rewrite the dialogue in a specific setting and cultural context. It was quite amazing how the dialogue we had initially thought was inane quickly became charged with meaning.
- Distill experience into fiction
While the average traveller’s travel experiences may not make for rivetting reading, especially in fiction, it is possible, said Evan, to distill the essence of experiences to add depth to fiction. For example, any memorable experience can be reused, especially if one can remove one’s self from it and critically examine it for its emotional or plot potential.
Since we had run out of time to do writing exercises, we did an oral one, where participants shared memorable travel experiences and, as a group, we suggested how these could be used depending on the genre in which one was writing.
It was a thought-provoking and fun-filled workshop, and I do believe that the participants went away ready to travel and to examine their previous experiences in creative ways. Since writing is essentially a solitary activity, the thing that every writer or budding writer needs periodically is to rethink how they write and Evan provided much food for thought.
Though he did mention the scent of momos at one point in the workshop, which left all of us rather hungry!