How Yale Writers’ Conference helped me overcome my bias

Even a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, but a scholar can’t.

 

I remember hearing this wise-saying in one of the speeches delivered by somebody, and how true is that! Scholarship is great but it’s considered as the greatest hurdle to surrender–a quality that actually tests the depth of spirituality one carries.

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In India, if you understand English, it is good. If you speak English, it is a great. But if you write in English, and poetry at that one, you are awesome (for yourself and for others too). If you happen to get some recognition from other countries; that’s it–you have conquered the world! It apparently means you have uber command over the language and whatever you write is just right. The scholar’s badge is awarded to you automatically.

However, things are not that black & white. The reality is always harsh and as they say ‘when it bites, it hurts’. Well, for me, it didn’t hurt but I must admit I had a change of opinion.

I was riding high surf when I applied to attend Yale Writers’ Conference in June 2015. After all, how many young people in India get to present their poetry at the Ivy League colleges?

I went and attended it. I came out a changed man. Changed about the perception that it does not hurt if you have to change what you wrote.

The baggage of being an Indian who writes English poetry is a heavy one–it’s like a donkey who trudges on the road because of the load but feels empty when somebody tries to reduce it. We feel hurt if somebody sympathizes that English is our third language and that we don’t write like a Western writer would do. Supposedly, if we write in English, we need to be as good as a native writer would be. But that’s a really a tough task. It’s kind of sanctimonious.

Perhaps for me, this load was particularly heavy because I didn’t have any literary studies related to poetry–I studied science and engineering. I worked in IT field and did digital marketing strategy. I had no formal training in meter, forms of poems, and even higher grammar. However, because I called myself an English writer, I am not allowed to take recourse in these self-justifications.

In India, there is another wise-saying on the camel that seems appropriate here:

And finally, the camel came under the mountain.

The translation seems more literal than contextual–it means to convey that the camel came to know about the mountain, which is so large and high–till now, the camel thought itself to be the tallest one.

Though I didn’t think myself as the supreme, I had my own perception about my ability to write in English, and having my first draft as the final version by default. Revision was not my forte. I felt poetry was an epiphany and there was no question of having a second look at it. Yale changed that. And I feel good about it. Some points I would like to mention:

  • You get to know how different people use English differently–I can say it from experience. The choice of words, the syntax, the depth and clarity of a thought: all these get screened, challenged and tested on the anvil of grammar, meaning, and ease.
  • The way a sentence flows because of different pronunciation; how strongly the word conveys the emotion; what essential element is missing; all this is given instantly. It’s like a software that processes your work and gives feedback to enhance its appeal.
  • It’s not bad if you have a second opinion about your work–some inputs are really interesting, and can actually change the way readers would look at your work. Being the owner of the content, you can’t control much how readers would react–having a pilot run with some fellow writers would help to refine your perspective.
  • Hearing reviews and inputs on your work actually helps in increasing your repertoire–it happened with me. The way I approached poetry was limited–now I feel more detailed and comprehensive.
  • Does not matter if you get some negative feedback or some words/lines that the reviewers didn’t like. It’s a very small sample size. If you are still passionate about those words/lines, you are free to retain them. However, if you have a second thought, you will be happy you got the second opinion.
  • And the last and absolutely not the least–you get confident that you can actually write for a global audience. India is the leading (perhaps the biggest, it was already the 3rd largest in 2011) book market for English language but not many authors in the West know that. At the same time, contemporary English poetry is not read in India at that big a scale. So, for Indians writers, it’s expansive to converse with Western writers; for them, it’s insightful to know how an Indian writer and a reader, for that matter, would think. It’s becomes a mutual exchange of cultural perspective. For me, this was the biggest affirmation and gain–English is my 3rd language, but it’s my primary language when it comes to writing. To have a positive feedback about ability to write poetry is, without doubt, the biggest ROI.

I can list a number of other similar benefits of attending this workshop, but the essence is: I am not biased now if somebody points out some possible changes in my poetry. It helped me to open up.

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