Jestfully Yours: Masterclasses with Jerry Pinto


Considering the limited word count and a scientifically proven fact that a goldfish can retain a thought longer than most readers today, this piece of writing (ok, blog) will steer clear of Jerry Pinto’s published works as a journalist, author and translator as well as his involvement with various organizations and his noted achievements, all of which are widely known and documented in the print and virtual world, in a deliberate attempt to distil what could qualify as ‘Improvised Insight’—minus the theatrics, sounds and voice modulation that those present had the good fortune to experience. It will also resort to shorter sentence construction. Hopefully.

Trying to encapsulate Jerry Pinto’s Masterclass into a succinct blog is like pouring beer in a glass—from tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle, to slowly positioning it upright as you pour. No spillage. Controlled and contained. Unlike the two-day session I had the pleasure of attending. Some noteworthy excerpts:

Publishing—a conspiracy of the highly educated or so it seemed!

A younger Jerry had acquired a law degree and was a mathematics tutor. He wanted to be a writer but was fairly sure that no one would publish what he wrote. He felt that writers (back then) were all natural geniuses. The world of writing that got published appeared to be a closed shop, with no way to get in. Luckily his friends thought otherwise. Jerry was pushed and persuaded to write, which he did for a newspaper. The newspaper went on to publish the work and ushered him into their world. He settled in. Soon the fate of a piece of writing in a newspaper became very clear to him. It lived only for a day. He wanted permanency. He wanted a book with a spine that could sit on someone’s shelf. That, he imagined, was permanency. But when a book is discarded and winds up being sold on the streets for a quarter of the printed price, he sees its impermanency too.

A publisher’s silence—there is nothing more grim.

Based on personal experience, Jerry described the initial communication cycle between a publisher and a writer for a solicited manuscript:

Publisher sends a letter to the Writer, ‘We would like you to write this book.’

Writer sends in first draft to the Publisher, hoping to receive a response that reads—

‘Received your manuscript. Will get back to you soon.’

Instead, Writer receives no response. Not a word.

Writer has relocated to Outer Siberia, a cold and distant place with no communication.

In his head.

Publisher finally responds to the Writer, after one year, ‘Lets meet and talk.’

Research is not reading. Reading is what you do last.

Jerry gave us a reality check when he pointed out that paper research or online research through Wikipedia and Google searches was akin to reinventing the wheel. For him, authentic research is people, the streets and roads and lanes, the market, buses and trains, conversations, listening. He backed this with an incident involving the noted British author Graham Greene. The author was visiting someone at a hospital in Britain when a child in the ward died of a spasm. Greene ran to the side of the bed to see what happened. The father stood mute and dumbstruck, in utter shock, unable to express his pain in any form of language or gesture. The mother began to weep, lament, wail in agony. The other patients in the ward could not bear to see this, hear this, and so they all plugged in to the radio. But Greene kept listening to and watching the woman, recording in his mind the platitudes with which she spoke. He saw immense grief which was very Greek in its size and scope, but the words that were coming out of her mouth were commonplace. He continued to listen and observe because that is the job of a writer. To listen. To observe.

‘For a writer, any device that cuts you off from listening is your enemy. If you are travelling on buses and trains, with earphones plugged in, you are cutting out conversation, comments, the way people speak, the rhythms of their language. In the absence of these inputs, writing takes on a strange and strained form. It is only you and your world that you are drawing from.’

Is there any way of writing dialogues without resorting to stereotypes?

He had some very interesting examples and intriguing insights to answer this self-posed question. His favourite being women and men explaining colours. He observes that women and men never use the same words to describe colours. What men see as red or brown, women see as tan or cranberry or wine. To women, colours are complicated shades—teal, umber, pink with an undertone. If the same complicated (even if, accurate) description of colours were to be used by a man, people would assume he is gay. This is because we are thinking stereotypically. However, what if it is a painter who thinks of colour in interesting and different ways? Who invariably ‘sees’ it more accurately? What if it is Picasso, a heterosexual man who loved colour all his life, practically invented emotive colour for the twentieth century? Should there be a need to define Picasso’s choice of words for colours in terms of his sexual orientation? A writer may not consciously use stereotypes; yet, he/she needs to know the stereotypical notions.

He went on to explain how abstraction of tone in writing is important to be able to construct credible characters. For this, a writer needs to know how the character, depending on various demographic factors, is likely to talk and incorporate the misinterpretations and malapropisms of the characters in dialogue.

How does one deal with writer’s block?

For Jerry, it is rather simple. To him, writing is like any other profession in which one needs to be at it. He made a valid point by replacing the case of a writer with a plumber or a cook—nobody knows of a plumber saying, ‘I will not plumb,’ or a cook declaring, ‘I shall not cook,’—‘for I have a [plumber’s/cook’s] block!’ So if you are a writer, you write. You write when it is going well and you write when all’s falling apart. You write when it is dry and desiccated and you write when there are icicles around because you will break through into clear water if you persist. He also stresses the fact that it is equally important to cancel and throw out ‘bad pages’, keeping in mind Ernest Hemingway’s lines, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

It is evident that Jerry is a zealous reader; therefore, his advice—on how to detect bad writing—is reading. ‘If you have read enough and if you read every day and if you read more than you should, you will develop a sense of when you are writing badly.’

Ideally Jerry Pinto’s talks ought to be experienced and not read about. His topics are always new and relevant. Jerry’s second novel, Murder in Mahim, published by Speaking Tiger Books, will be launched in November this year.

Urvashi Bachani


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