Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The BS Column: Five Lessons from the Teacher Man

(Published in the Business Standard, July 20, 2009.
There are some writers you respect chiefly for the calibre of their work; what they're like as human beings is almost irrelevant. And there are some writers who become important to you because their work reflects their personality: in Frank McCourt's case, I loved his writing not just for his amazing stories, but for the humour and generosity that seemed to be so much part of him. Here's a tribute from the New York Times; and here's an excerpt from Teacher Man.)

Frank McCourt, who died this week of meningitis, was by his own account a resounding failure. In his forties, he was still a substitute teacher. His first marriage failed. He made an abortive attempt to earn a doctorate at Trinity. He felt inferior in the company of writers—even in the company of inferior writers. In his sixties, he began to write; he was 66 when he published his first book, and he hoped it would sell a few hundred copies.

The book McCourt wrote became the Pulitzer-winning bestseller, Angela’s Ashes. In his third book, Teacher Man, McCourt offered a bleak summary of his life: “I was born in New York and taken to Ireland before I was four. I had three brothers. My father, an alcoholic, wild man, great patriot, ready always to die for Ireland, abandoned us when I was ten going on eleven. A baby sister died, twin boys died, two boys were born. My mother begged for food, clothing, and coal to boil water for the tea… My brothers and I left school at fourteen, worked, dreamed of America, and one by one, sailed away.” It wasn’t just the inherent drama of his life that made Angela’s Ashes such a well-loved book—it was the honesty and humour with which he told his story.

McCourt never held forth on the craft of writing; and yet, reading his books could teach you more about being a writer than most creative writing 101 classes. In tribute to him, here are five things I learned about writing from his work.

Write with honesty, without expectation: “Just one more year, God, just one more year because this book is the one thing I want to do in my life, what’s left of it.” In the wake of the success of Angela’s Ashes, many people who had buried dreams of being a writer dusted their manuscripts off and tried to emulate McCourt. Few made it; they were looking for the success McCourt had serendipitously found, and didn’t share either his talent or his need to tell his story. “I never dreamed it would be a bestseller,” McCourt continues. He wrote this book, not looking for results, for the only reason that counts—he wanted to.

Collect stories, wherever you find them: For most of his life, McCourt didn’t even realise he was doing this—collecting and shaping his childhood memories, listening to the thousands of students he taught over the years, capturing the essence of the characters he met when working at the dockyards. Looking at a bunch of excuse notes forged by his students, he has an epiphany. “The drawer [of excuse notes] was filled with samples of American talent never mentioned in song, story or scholarly study. How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction, fantasy, creativity, crawthumping, self-pity, family problems…. Here was American high school writing at its best—raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, lying.”

Recognise the kind of writer you don’t want to be: Early in his career, McCourt meets a “real” writer, Edward Dahlberg, who is often cited on lists of unjustly neglected American writers. “I envied him for living the life of a writer, a dream I was too timid to chance,” writes McCourt. But Dahlberg is a pompous poser, susceptible to flattery, whining and bitter, fond of the heavy-handed putdown. “Except for himself, [he] dismissed everyone in the twentieth century,” says McCourt, witheringly contemptuous of Dahlberg’s “moaning” about the daily suffering of a writer at his desk. McCourt will find the guidance he needs elsewhere.

Unleash creativity: In a fabulous passage, McCourt energizes his class by getting them to read recipes from cookbooks as though they were poetry. They read the recipes out to an impromptu band composed of the class’s guitarists, harmonica and oboe players. They argue over the kind of music that should accompany English trifle—not the bongo drums—or pork chops—definitely the harmonica.

Two asides; McCourt follows this class by reading his students more conventional poetry, trusting that they will now have developed a ear for it. And the reason why he can describe experiences like this—or the death of his baby sister back in Ireland—so well is because of his lifelong habit of keeping notes, doing the mundane tasks of cross-checking his memories, keeping track of dates. He does the creative experiments, in his writing and in the classroom, but he also does the scut-work.

And finally? “Listen. Are you listening? You’re not listening. I am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing. Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing. … A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore…. Find what you love and do it.”

The 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize: call for nominations

The Shakti Bhatt Foundation invites nominations for the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.

Last year's winner was Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

• Entries may be in any genre: poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction (travel writing, autobiography, biography, and narrative journalism), and drama.
• All authors from the subcontinent are eligible but their books must be published in India.
• The books must be in English or translated into English from an Indian language.
• Books that have been published elsewhere and have already won prizes are eligible, though less likely to win.
• Vanity press publications are ineligible.

A 3-member advisory board will shortlist 6 books published between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009. This year, the board includes writers Anjum Hasan, Zac O'Yeah and poet Jeet Thayil. The shortlisted books will be sent to the 2009 panel of judges: novelist Rana Dasgupta, editor Mukund Padmanabhan and Professor Meenakshi Mukherji.

The winner will be announced in the second half of November and the prize presentation will take place in December 2009. The winner will receive a cash award of Rs One Lakh and a trophy.

The Shakti Bhatt Foundation is a non-profit trust set up by the late writer/editor's family to keep her memory alive. It wishes to reward first-time authors of all ages.

For further information, contact shaktibhattprize@gmail.com

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Crossword Award: translators

Translators, briefly profiled--Prema Jayakumar ("There has to be an emotional involvement") and Ira Pande: "It seems to me that each time we present a book as a translated work, we offer an apology for writing in a language that is not the globalised and the mainstream one. This shows a terrible lack of faith in our literary worth and self-image."

Prema Jayakumar's translation of M S Sethu's The Wind from the Hills and Ira Pande's translation of the late Manohar Shyam Joshi's T'ta Professor are on the shortlist for the Vodafone Crossword award, winners to be announced next week on the 23rd.

There's an interesting discussion of the award in the comments section of this blog: does the Crossword matter to readers?
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