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October 28, 2004 - Creative Writing, Part 2 - 2004-10-27

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: October 28, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: we continue our conversation about creative writing with a self-described "addicted, compulsive reviser."

RS: Chitra Divakaruni has written four novels; her newest, "Queen of Dreams," was just published. But when she's not writing books, she's helping future writers as a professor at the University of Houston.

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Fortunately, in some ways, writing is not a totally logical process. At some point if you start thinking 'I have to do this and this and this,' you're overwhelmed by the task. But when you begin to write, intuitively a lot of this comes to you. Because, with my students, and certainly I think many of our listeners, we've been readers all our lives. We know what works in literature from the point of view of the reader."

AA: "Now here's a technical question for you: Where do you stand on adjectives and adverbs?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Well, I think each story has its own rules. Some stories will require a minimalistic writing where you cut back on those adjectives and adverbs. And some stories, the style that will bring that story out most fruitfully will require a lot of description, a lot of detail. And therefore you need to bring in adjectives and adverbs and powerful verbs as well. Sometimes we forget that verbs can be so very descriptive. And we have to try. And if it's not working, there's always revision."

RS: "You're both a writer of fiction and a teacher. Those are two very different worlds. How do you jump from one to the other?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "That is very difficult. It's a real juggling act. My situation at the university is, I teach one semester and then I get the rest of the year off. And it's really when I have time off that I do most of my writing, because I find when I'm writing I have to enter the fictional universe of my stories.

"For example, when I was writing 'Queen of Dreams,' much of that story is set in India, where the mother is undergoing training as a dream interpreter and she's living in a community of dream interpreters. And I really for days had to just be in that world. Otherwise I couldn't write it. And it's very disruptive when you have to get out of that creative mode of thinking and that imaginative mode of thinking and you have to move to the critical mode of thinking, which is where I am when I am teaching."

RS: "What kind of advice would you give to our listeners, those who speak English as a foreign language who might want to write in their native language or perhaps someday in English?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Well, one of the things that I always say to my students, and I think this applies to everyone, because it has been very helpful for me as well, is to read a lot, and to read as a writer, which is different. Because when you read as a writer, now you're reading much more slowly, and you're reading with a pen or pencil in your hand and you're marking things that you really admire. And as you admire these things, you're trying to figure out the technique of the writer. ‘Well, here I really like how the character relates to another person, I can really understand the feelings. What did the writer do to create this?’ So that kind of reading I think is very, very helpful. And it's often something that we don't do when we're just reading right through a book."

AA: "Well, I imagine you must write a great essay. [laughter] Actually I was wondering if you have any advice for a student out there who had to write an essay either to get into school or something -- "

RS: "What advice would you give to my son who is applying for the university right now and has to write these college essays?"

AA: "Do you stick to the dreaded five-paragraph essay, or what's your advice?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Well, what I would first say is read the directions very carefully [laughter] because directions will often give you a sense of what they're looking for. And we want to work with language in these essays. We want to use exact descriptive phrases that will stay in the reader's mind. And then, of course, I think what's really important is being honest, being truthful and writing something you're passionate about.

"A lot of these essays will ask you to say something that is special about yourself, to describe something that has had meaning in your life and has taught you something. Now sometimes students will take the easy path and they'll write about an experience that isn't risky, that's pretty much along the beaten path. And what I say to my students, and what I tried to do in 'Queen of Dreams,' is to take risks. I think good writers take risks, and they're not afraid to open themselves up for their readers."

RS: Novelist Chitra Divakaruni is a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston.

AA: And now for a programming note: Wordmaster will move to Wednesday, with a repeat on Saturday, starting next week. We will put the exact times on our Website at

RS: And you can always write to use at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.