Jeet Thayil Masterclass


Jeet Thayil was so chill. He spoke quietly and calmly, and said many wise things.

  • ‘Look at your self-indulgences. Usually the places where you had the most fun are the bits that need to go.’

This is one of those truths that are upsetting to admit but you know they’re right. I feel like the joy of writing comes from language and expressing something that you can’t express in any other form. That means the writing can veer off into fun tangents that fulfil me as a writer needing to express something, but wouldn’t connect with the reader or add to the work; as though the purpose is to get the words out, rather than to actually communicate. Maybe the trick is to do the word-vomit thing, walk away for a bit so it’s not as raw, then put on the reader hat and test whether it’s actually advancing the piece.

  • ‘The job of a writer is to take a received form, old or new, and do something new with it.’

I love his idea that we join a lineage of people working over the same forms. I saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a while ago, which was a terrible, terrible movie, as most Arthurian adaptations are these days. It didn’t even have Merlin in it and Jude Law turned into Balrog for some reason. I knew as I was watching that somewhere on the internet people would be crying about the purity of the story. But I was thinking later about how these stories have always been retold and reworked, with each person adding bits, taking bits out, putting emphasis on different points. Some people might make it a love story, others an action story, or a story about fate or male friendship. The story still moves along the same plot points, but the emphasis changes. Each version reflects something of the person telling it. Guy Ritchie has every right to botch the story because it belongs to him as much as to any of us. Jeet was thinking more of sonnets of course. But I like the idea that there’s no pure form, or a Platonic idea of a particular thing. The forms grow and shift, and they don’t break each other, but each new version brings a new storyteller’s emphasis and significance.

  • ‘If you can’t write out of your own head then what’s the point? So long as you don’t appropriate another culture’s trauma.’

This was part of a statement about writing into other cultures and races. I definitely don’t agree with this. I think writing across different genders is okay so long as you aren’t stereotypical or reductive, but writing into different cultures is a risky game. This is what keeps me up at night about my project. Someone mentioned in class that it was okay so long as you don’t try to embody a character from a different race, which I wouldn’t do anyway. Even if you weren’t worried about the moral implications of doing this – it’s impossible to accurately reflect a culture you aren’t a part of. Our social lives are so nuanced and complicated, and an outsider could never write them in a way that wasn’t a stereotype. I was honestly quite surprised that Jeet endorsed this so heartily.


I’ve been thinking about small details and gestures lately, and when I say ‘thinking’ I mean ‘stressing’. I’m worried I don’t deeply imagine characters enough. A thing that has stuck with me from The Luminaries was the way Catton used tiny actions and gestures so vividly that, even though they were the smallest details on the page, they jumped out from the rest. Perhaps because they were gestures that I see all the time but had never pointed to or identified. A year later I still remember the way a character took his hat off and held it in both hands, and a particular description of a hand curling around a cigarette.

I bought How Fiction Works by James Wood. It’s a hard read. I keep getting to the end of a paragraph and realising I haven’t taken in anything. But this quote summed up what I’ve been thinking:

Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us towards it, whereas literature teaches us to notice – to notice the way my mother, say, often wipes her lips just before kissing me; the drilling sound of a London cab when its diesel engine is flabbily idling, the way old leather jackets have white lines in them like striations of fat in pieces of meat (p. 52).

I need to get better at noticing. I hadn’t thought about how being task-focused affects my writing. I feel like I have to get the actions down as quickly as possible and race towards the end of the scene. This means I rarely slow down and imagine the details of the scene, or consider my sentence structure.

Even now, I’m sitting at my desk typing, and that action is usually all I would write in a scene. I wouldn’t think to write that I keep tapping my fingernails on the top of the mouse when I’m thinking, or that I bounce my right leg, or that I’m getting hungry but I want to finish this before I make dinner so I’m just sitting here getting hungrier and hungrier, and soon I’ll be too hungry to make anything and will probably eat shredded cheese from the bag.

I notice these details when I’m reading and they seem to be what makes the scenes real, rather than looking like the ball scenes in Disney movies where every person in the crowd has the same face. I’m reading HHhH and it’s really hard to get into. I think because Laurent Binet is so resistant to making anything up, or imagining anything, even tiny details. There’s lots of people doing things, but no sounds of shoes clacking in the hallways or people running their hands over their moustaches. I feel like I can’t see anything, except Binet sweating over his notes.


Alie Benge is a writer and copyeditor. Her writing has been published in takahē, Headland, Mimicry, and Geometry. She was joint winner of the 2017 Landfall Essay Competition, and is working on a memoir about her childhood in Ethiopia.