Writing the Dark, the Funny, and the Darkly Funny: an Interview with Kritika Pandey
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
WW: In your workshop, you explore writing fiction that balances dark themes with humor. What are the key challenges writers face when trying to maintain this balance, and how does your workshop address these challenges?"
KP: We live in a world that profits off of disconnecting us from ourselves, making us ill, quite literally. And so, the biggest difficulty in exploring all this darkness inside the human soul is the near-total lack of light to illuminate the way. Put simply, the darkness is the darkness precisely because it’s in the dark. So if we were to simply flick the light switch on, it’ll look exactly like everything else we know, accept, appreciate, love, and understand, or at least try to. Great works of literature get us to empathize with flawed people by reminding us that they’re not all that different from the rest of us, thereby encouraging us to explore our own inner complexities.
As for humor, that’s just the inevitable result of a sincere engagement with the difficulties of existence. Because comedy is nothing but tragedy that repeats endlessly, which, in turn, is the true essence of the human condition (eat, sleep, bathe, work, worry, repeat). We are just empty kernels of endless repetition and that’s profoundly disturbing but also quite hilarious if you think about it.
WW: How have your personal experiences and writing practices shaped the curriculum and teaching methods of this workshop? Are there elements of your own journey as a writer that you bring into the classroom?
KP: I am a woman of color who wants to create works of literature that will stand the test of time. So I dont allow myself to fetishize the cliches of my racialized and gendered experience. That’s the lazy approach. I try to go beyond all that stuff the publishing industry would gladly devour, and arrive at the difficulties that, say, Dostoevsky would have encountered when he began his writing career. If there is no god, then how do we know what to do with our lives? What does it mean to be a person in the middle of late-stage capitalism? What is the meaning of love in a world torn by hatred? If contradiction is inherent to being human, then how, if ever, do we feel whole? I’m not interested in solving problems that are easier than that.
Also, I come to the world of writing stories in English from an Indian perspective. I feel like an outsider in the language (English is my second language) I write in even as I write about my loneliness and alienation in the place that I come from. So my characters must contain complexities that transcend the narrow confines of language and culture. I try to do this by maintaining a good handle on human psychology. And if that's the trick to the language barrier, then I suspect its the trick to other barriers too, such as gender, race, class, etc.
WW: Your course description mentions dealing with characters’ long stretches of ennui without boring readers. Could you elaborate on your approach or techniques for making these potentially mundane aspects of life engaging in a narrative?
KP: One important job of a writing workshop is to inspire an almost obsessive love for all of existence. When you begin to see magic everywhere, all the time, then you know how to entertain your readers even as they get into the minds of a character that’s bored to death. How did Ottessa Moshfegh write about a woman who takes sleeping pills to sleep for a whole year without putting her readers to sleep? By being an astute observer and a sincere lover of life. Many of her characters find themselves in these spiritually and materially impoverished situations and go on and on about how much they hate it. But Moshfegh doesn’t hate it without also simultaneously finding it incredibly beautiful. Life, that is. As Albert Camus said, there is no love of life without despair about life. So once you stop pretending that the despair/boredom/difficulty doesn’t exist, there’s room for love, and consequently, entertainment.
WW: How do you guide your students in finding their unique voice and approach, particularly in tackling age-old themes like love, loss, and belonging in fresh and exciting ways?
KP: I treat all my students as intelligent, serious artists. This means I question and challenge them because I believe they want to get really, really good at this thing. I also believe that everyone brings to their writing an entire range of rich, lived experiences. The student’s advantage is that they’ve gone through all of this firsthand (and most likely have rewritten their work sample multiple times). But their disadvantage is that they don’t have an outsider’s view on it (and the more you rewrite something, the less able you are to read it from a random reader’s point of view). I try to foster a workshop environment where we can allow each other to revisit and reimagine our characters and their trajectories as if we were meeting them and encountering everything for the first time.
WW: You mention equipping students with new psychoanalytical and philosophical methods for abstracting fiction. Can you give an example of how these methods can transform a writer’s approach to storytelling?
KP: My favorite psychoanalyst is Lacan because he taught me that us humans don’t want to achieve a particular goal. We think we want that car, that vacation, that award, that person, that pet, and so forth, but what we really want is to keep wanting, again and again. In other words, the shape of our desire is perfectly round.
This is incredibly helpful when writing stories because all great stories are round, in that, motifs and themes and events and characters have got to repeat themselves for a story to reach its end. And even after, if the end is going to be any good. In that, the reader must never be done thinking about the story once they’re done reading it. As Donald Barthelme says, a great work of art should both invite and resist interpretation. So what is this space between invitation and resistance? Its repetition, contemplation, and rumination. Repetition is also key for building narrative coherence. Foreshadowing and flashbacks, two very important literary tools, are nothing but repetition.
As for the philosophers, my favorite one is Hegel, who essentially just put an end to all philosophizing when he said that the meaning of life and the point of being human isn’t some grand mystery that we will unearth once we figure out how. Instead, the meaning is this futile pursuit of meaning. We are most human precisely when we are uncomfortable with being one. For a storyteller, this is gold, because it simplifies everything that looks difficult, including the conundrum of how to end a story. Now we know that the idea is not to arrive at any conclusion, but just to highlight our innate need for one.
WW: At the end of the 4-week workshop, what do you hope your students will take away, not just in terms of their writing skills, but also in their perspective on literature and storytelling?
KP: A whole lot of critical thinking as well as emotional intelligence, and far less self-doubt!
WW: In your class, you discuss 'escalation and causality in storytelling' and 'the narrative significance of not knowing what comes next.' Could you share an insight or example of how you encourage your students to experiment with these elements in their own writing?
KP: George Saunders, who is an adorable human being, talks about how, once he began writing, he discovered his surprising capacity for cruelty. Now this doesn’t mean we have to be bad people to be good writers. It just means that there will always be a point after which you have to let the story write itself. At this point, the stakes will want to go up in ways that could make you uncomfortable and challenge your entire worldview. And your job will be to transcend the illusion of self and say to your character, ok, I’m not you, you are you, and you do you. Freud says that there is no one, true, authentic self, that we don’t just walk around wearing masks but we are our masks, and that what we try to repress is precisely the fact that there’s nothing to repress. I believe that if your characters don’t scare you from time to time, then you haven’t allowed them (and consequently yourself) to exist fully.
WW: You draw an interesting parallel between storytelling and other forms of art like painting, dance, and music. How do you believe these interdisciplinary insights enrich the process of writing a short story, and could you provide an example of how this is integrated into your teaching methodology?
KP: In her essay, ‘Structural Unity in Fiction’, Sandra Novack points out that Picasso’s Guernica relies heavily on repetition and variation of primitive geometrical forms and close attention to symmetry. Similarly, the composer Steve Reich came up with Different Trains by employing what Novack calls a “progressive layering of sounds – whistles, conductors’ voices, sirens, warning bells” each of which he revisits recurrently throughout the piece. This is exactly how compositional unity works in literature as well. So when a student touches upon a theme, subject, character, or image, before completely abandoning it for the rest of the story, I make sure to point it out. Because part of my job is to help them come up with ways to utilize these missed opportunities for building structural unity in their works.
WW: How has your experience as an educator in this workshop influenced or changed your own writing and storytelling practices? Are there any lessons or revelations from teaching that have impacted your personal creative process?"
KP: When you teach writing, you get to see that everyone has a unique relationship with language. What looks like this global system of communication, by which I mean the English language, is entirely diverse and subject to change depending on who’s using it. For instance, no two people mean the same thing when they use the word love. And yet, the word would lose all currency and meaning if we couldn’t say it to someone else in ways that they might understand, even if partially. That’s the irony and beauty of language. We don’t just speak it, it speaks us too. We don’t just invent it, it invents us too. What we say or write or read isn’t simply a product of our consciousness, but our consciousness is simultaneously shaped by it all. So to be a writing instructor is to be astoundingly alive by being in sincere communication with this big, beautiful world of ours. I’m very honored that I get to do this.
You can learn more about Kritika's upcoming Writing the Dark, the Funny, and the Darkly Funny Short Story Class and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?
Instructor Kritika Pandey won the global winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was on the shortlist in 2018 and 2016. A graduate of the MFA for Poets and Writers, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she was a resident writer at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico in 2021. Her writing has been generously supported by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and appeared in Granta, Kenyon Review, BBC Radio 4, and The Common, among others.