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Social Distancing Could Be An Opportunity To Explore Your Creativity

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As the world has come to a standstill, I am reminded of The Stand by Stephen King where a group of individuals find themselves alone and stranded in the world. There is an eerie quality to this work that chilled me to the bone. Little did I know that years later the world would find itself in a similar state! The question now is, what do we do now that we are stranded in our houses? How do we face this ‘stand’?

Instead of giving way to the escalating panic, I’d suggest we calm down and take to the books. A website by the name of Open Culture, has announced 1,500 online courses in the time of the coronavirus. Surely, one of these could spark your interest. If the list seems too daunting, I have compiled my own list that perhaps you would find useful; for the last few years, I myself have been plagued by the notion of ‘utility’ of literature. I was bombarded with questions such as: “what is the practical implication of your degree?” “How do you propose to make use of it?” I was finally defeated, and for a long time sped away from my own discipline.

As I return to it, coincidentally during the onset of the virus, I can’t help but extend this leaning forward. I hope it will glisten with some form of ‘use’ since that had been my meditation for a few troubling years. Instead of just losing myself to hitherto unseen literary worlds, I wanted to stay grounded. So I have ended up designing a course. The course addresses several types of literary genres and is littered with copious writing techniques. The research amounted to reading various short stories, poems and plays.

I am happy to say, however, that I have found my old bearings. I can once again risk leaving this world and entering new vistas created by literature. This is the power of reading; you can encompass new ways of breathing in new worlds and become an explorer. In this article, I’d like to take you on a journey of discovering unknown rhythms. The unknown is an uncomfortable reality only till you fear it – once you take the plunge, you soon start acquiring the necessary limbs you need for survival in this new ‘haunted’ town. So, instead of fearing the corona stare, let’s out-stare it and take a walk into the power of reading. For the purpose of this article, I’ve curated a reading list.

Let’s start with the authority of Realism. This is by far the most natural way one can approach the world. It literally describes phenomena as one would talk in natural settings. This is the genre of most of the TV dramas; it is the genre of relatability and ordinary discourse. There is no element of fantasy here. Two of the books I’d recommend from this domain are: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Everyday life is portrayed to its true catching detail.

Here are a few relevant lines from Madame Bovary: “What better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright…’

I say these are relevant, because perhaps corona is urging us to seek this ‘better occupation.’ Realism features the relevance of the moment, and is truthful of the way it deals with instances and explores relationships. Boredom becomes a known thing easily in the hands of a realist writer, and we are swayed by it as we read Madame Bovary afflicted by the same. Love can hit us with a realist force, as it hit Anna, without the talk of dragons, dungeons and folklore.

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However, if you wish to taste a little bit of the magic of a spell, try a Magic Realist text. Latin American writers have thrived on this genre and two of my favorites remain Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. If you want to divulge in the short story, try your hand at A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings or The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Marquez. Both of these short stories capture in wit and charm surreal and irrational occurrences in otherwise realist settings. Leaving the comfortable shores of a realist text, magical realism seduces and tickles the reader into believing in the impossible. It’s a good dose to believe in at least ‘six impossible things’ as Alice would chime. It is out of these impossible beliefs that great thinkers and innovators have chanced upon what was till then simply not imagined. Imagination provides wings (Much like the angel in Marquez’s story) and at some point, eventually, flight becomes possible.

For those of you still not convinced, I bring a third kind of spell from my sleeve: Gothic Literature. The Gothic is for those who are in favour of a darker tendency. Gothic literature leaves behind the uncanny but lighter universe of magical realism, and embarks upon a more solemn and sinister journey. Don’t get me wrong, by ‘sinister’ I don’t mean unwell. This is a realm where we explore the domain of witches, vampires and ghosts. It is also the place of psychological exploration of the darker side of our own personalities. We confront those aspects of ourselves, which we are afraid to face. With the help of the Gothic realm, literature now teases out the unknown in a fierce manner. The Gothic can be accessed in the novel form: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte or in poems: Annabel Lee and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel by Coleridge. These are just a few of my selections.

I choose them because Catherine of Wuthering Heights dreams a dream in which heaven itself is not tempting to her, severed from her love. So she would rather live in the murky regions of the Gothic reality of love: “Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.”

Annabel Lee, is the poem of longing beyond death, the poet laments the loss yet disbelieves it as well, as there is the permanence of love which exceeds limits – such is the Gothic reality: “That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee. But our love it was stronger by far”

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner rears its head and beckons us toward itself. The spell is cast. We are at once removed from reality and listen to this strange, Gothic tale of the improbable. As readers we are forced to think on the implications of ‘guilt’ and the havoc it can wreak on a soul. The utter supernatural grip of this heavy emotion on one’s being and its full psychological repercussions are navigated in this long poem.

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For those who are still unconvinced of the power of literary worlds, I propose the second hand of the literary landscape: writing. If you are confronted by blank pages, then I would suggest trying a hand at surrealism. This is a great technique for exploring the hidden writer within you. Automatic Writing is what the surrealists, like Andre Breton, practiced. You need to find a quiet corner in your house, and try either of these two methods: firstly, think of nothing, and just start writing of the first thought that enters your mind. Do not keep your pen down, and keep writing non-stop for a while. You will see how patterns emerge, and discover yourself in this process. The second method is, Writing Prompts. Perhaps, “GOLD DUST WOMAN” (after a famous song by Fleetwood Mac) might provoke thinking, and you start writing on this theme. You can free-write till you reach the end of an emotion, and then start again. The key here is, let strange juxtapositions occur, let chance-encounters with words and images happen. You can write in the long form, or in spurts, however it may come.

For those writers who are still not satisfied, I have one more trick up my sleeve: Expressionism. This is the force of creativity that you find in a painting such as The Scream by Edvard Munch. It is a Dionysian force, and draws out reactions from the roots. Dionysus was the god of madness and theater and so this sort of expression digs deep into your psyche and explores the call to power in your being. I’ve used this exercise in my classroom and students had very creative responses to it. So you take a look at the painting by Munch, and using it as a prompt, personally reflect on what it suggests or may mean to you. Try to be courageous and write from the heart.

I hope I might have inspired you in this time of seeming non-activity to pursue a little bit of reading and writing. Further constructs to explore are artistic movements of early 20th century – Dadaism and Futurism, and Negritude (rooted in African Diaspora) and 19th century Art Movement Impressionism. Each one of these also offers a variety of ways of expression. At the end of the day, what is really necessary is to connect to the creativity within. These are some of the techniques and tools which allow that access.

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Naya Daur