"Self-doubt is universal among aspiring writers. So is the difficulty in finding motivation,” says Chetan Mahajan, co-founder of the Himalayan Writing Retreat, based in Satkhol in Nainital, Uttarakhand. It is with this understanding that Mahajan had, in November 2020, started a quiet but helpful “writers’ support group” called The First Draft Club (FDC). This was in addition to the retreat’s other programmes, which has had faculty like poet Arundhathi Subramaniam and writer Jerry Pinto.
The FDC, in essence, aims to help writers find motivation through community. “Many people dream of writing a book. But writing can be hard, and people lose steam. FDC pushes them to finish that first draft. Once the first draft is done, they have something to edit, to polish into a finished work,” he says.
The FDC’s 13th edition starts on 7 May, with members meeting author and poet Anukrti Upadhyay. More such expert sessions will happen every Sunday, even as the interactions between club members continue through the week.
Once a part of FDC, members begin with a commitment to a certain number of words they will write each month. The idea is that being in touch with other members, sharing insights and encouragement keeps the writers going. “With over 70 members in the typical FDC, people buddy up or form sub-groups. And the experts who talk to them...are deeply inspiring,” Mahajan says.
A writer and formerly the president of HCL Learning, Mahajan co-founded the Himalayan Writing Retreat in 2016, with clinical psychologist and writer Vandita Dubey. It offers courses, online programmes, residencies, a book club in which writers can get their books discussed and a space for “destination book launches”. Over the years, the retreat’s widening gamut of services and programmes has started to look like a concerted push towards building an all-encompassing go-to writers’ ecosystem. But Mahajan disagrees.
“You are assuming there is a grand plan. There is no plan. It is mainly passion mixed in with dumb luck and serendipity,” he says. Regardless, their various avenues of writer-support has resulted in 45 published books, including The People Of The Indus, a historical graphic novel by Nikhil Gulati and prizes like the win at the New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2020 for A Night With The Tiger by Subi Taba.
“The first FDC was free—people signed up but never showed,” recalls Mahajan. From the next time, they began requesting at registration, a donation towards Chirag School, an experimental Hindi-medium primary school in Nainital. The commitment helped in participation; the fee of Rs. 750 continues today.
The current edition is, for the first time, being held as a “creative collaboration” with HarperCollins India. Speakers include screenwriter Venita Coelho, historian Tripurdaman Singh, editor Swati Chopra, and writer Akash Singh Rathore. Writers can still sign up for May; the next FDC will start in July.
Based on suggestions from writers, the May edition will, for the first time, have writing sprints, or timed writing goals. This is just like when “(participants) asked about creating sub-groups, and we shared (member) details. They (then) held meet-ups in their cities,” he adds, reinforcing that writers, despite choosing a lonely craft, also love community.
For more details, visit Himalayanwritingretreat.com