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By Helena Kriel

Spalding MFA Faculty: Screenwriting, Playwriting

Spring residency and there I was hopping from room to room, talking, teaching, having the odd late night cocktail in The Brown lobby, and generally feeling stimulated and excited about life and being a writer, when….

I ran right into Alice Jennings, a poetry alum. She was hovering around the buffet table, looking colorful, interesting and dressed like no-one else, because she’s a poet and an artist. And…. she came to India with me when I took a group of writers in January, so was regally adorned with flaming silks, bangles and colors that only one who went to the place might wear. She said: “I’ve just been talking to Kathleen Driskell about our journey to India and I called it “Spalding goes wild.”

Spalding goes wild.

I liked that. A lot.

On a whim I consulted the ever trustworthy dictionary to inquire into “wild.”

Wild – dictionary definition: living in a state of nature, not tamed or domesticated.

All these words were of interest to me. Untamed? Yes. Living in a state of nature? Yes. Undomesticated? Yes.

Because a writer’s life can be still and static. Can be tame.

Because we’re inside behind a screen, rather than outside under the trees.

Because sitting in a chair is just that: it’s sitting in a chair.

Because the world is going on out there beyond the window.

My thinking has always been that one must adventure before one sits down. One has to catch the spirit of the world before one enters…. the life of the mind…. and apply the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.

I cannot sit down in a vacuum. I need to adventure in the world, be a vagabond before I can contemplate any notion of being civilized, the world is where I get my inspiration. So, the idea of taking writers on an adventure into the world was always of interest to me. I designed a creative odyssey and fifteen writers, mostly from Spalding, signed up.

Spalding goes wild.

Could I have chosen a more apt description of our journey to India?

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

Camel with pompoms

Sixteen people, one bus, one microphone, one wonderful Indian guide (India’s Clark Gable look-alike) one trustworthy driver (will I ever forget the shape of his stable, solid head and shoulders, taking us so smoothly over all that was not always smooth!) a literary festival with four simultaneous events, a creative guide (that would be me) and a sub-continent to abound in and play with. And also: camels with pompoms, an endless expanse of desert, a wedding with a band oompah oompah-ing, and breakfasts with curried chickpeas and hot naan. I could go on. But I won’t. I have to be disciplined here.

Helena and guide Devi Rathore Pratap Singh

Helena and guide Devi Rathore Pratap Singh

My idea was to give everyone “India legs” (an ability to navigate the chaos with confidence) and then tip them out into the sub-continent, to be in all that life, in the clutter and the confusion and the beauty, in all that India offers, while having the discipline to observe as a writer. Then we would return to the bus which was our creative think tank. Every day I set, let’s call them observation exercises: observe and find one red image, or observe dialectical tension (nothing like the land of contrasts to provide an endless tension of opposites) or observe behavior and make note of it.



One evening we went to a party at the literature festival (elegant hotel, lush gardens, flaming torches, sumptuous banquet, open bar, world musicians playing on a stage and people to talk to from all over the world) and I asked everyone to find a stranger to be in conversation with and write down all dialogue as the conversation ensued. We would read the dialogue when we returned to the bus later.

I headed into the fray, pen and paper in purse. And found myself in the company of a very tall, young Indian guy, Karan, (big and soulful almond eyes) who had flirtation on his agenda. I had dialogue on my agenda. We were perfect for one another. Conversation ensued…

Karan: I love your eyes. Those eyes can land me in trouble. Do you mind if I hold you from the waist?

HK: Wait… I have to write that down.

(I take out pen and paper and begin to scribble. He watches.)

Karan: You can write on my back.

HK: My pen won’t work if I write on your back.

Karan: It will seriously work. I have worked a lot on my back and chest. My back is really huge.

(He turns round and I lean the paper on his back and begin writing. He remains very still, so generously offering his back to me.)

Karan: If I get my car, will you come for a drive with me?

HK: What color is your car?

Karan: White.

HK: No.

Karan: Why?

HK: I only drive in yellow cars.

Karan: That is easy to fix. I’ll call us a taxi. And then we’ll have a long dialogue at my place. Are you up for it? And you can write all my dialogue the whole night.

We returned to the bus a few hours later, the mood was festive, even riotous, definitely untamed, as we hit the streets of Jaipur, headed back to our haveli. Everyone was called on (Ja-mi, Ja-mi! Di-anne, Di-anne!) to weave to the front of the bus, take the microphone and read their captured dialogue. And here I am, six months later, with the scrap of paper that was pressed against Karan’s huge back, now on my writing desk, offering up its piece of truth, that moment with Karan caught forever, and made more important because I took note of it. I set it to paper. Karan exists for me.

Flower Garlands

Flower Garlands

Because I cannot help myself, I am embarking again. India 2016. This time it is Jaipur Lit festival, Taj Mahal, tigers in the jungle of Ranthambore, and Bharatpur, the best water bird sanctuary in the world where we will enter the purity of the place on rickshaw, watch birds, the thousands that apparently make this place their winter home, and write. Perhaps this time next year I will have a fragment of whatever I have written folded into my journal, for safe keeping, and later use-ing.

The journey has a name.

Writers Wild. India 2016.

With great thanks to Alice Jennings.

The website is up (a piece of Jami Powell brilliance) and I invite you to take a look. And who knows, perhaps just… embark.

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Writers encamped, surrounded by endless desert

Helena Kriel was raised and educated in Johannesburg, South Africa. After graduating with a Dramatic Art and Literature degree from University of Witwatersrand she worked in Television, directing and writing. Her plays Pigs on Passion, Arachnid and I Can’t Wait To Tie You To The Sofa premiered at the National Arts Festival and were all produced a number of times. She was nominated for playwright of the year. She immigrated to America and won the Steven Spielberg Dianne Thomas Award for her first screenplay Virtuoso. She has been a working screenwriter in Los Angeles writing for the studios and independent producers. The adaptations of Ahab’s Wife, The Good Soldier, The Arabian Nights, Tsotsi, Valley Song, and Wuthering Heights are a few of her adaptations. Heated and The Other Woman are amongst her original screenplays. Kama Sutra was produced with Academy nominated director Mira Nair directing and released in 1996. Skin was produced by Elysian Films and released in 2009. Skin has won over eight festival awards and was named in the best ten independent films of 2009. She has finished her first novel: The Burning Ground. She is completing her first memoir: Heart and Stone. 


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