One of the less serious but still inconvenient products of the pandemic is the gross idea that one can do things – a panel, a class, an interview, a conversation – over a virtual meeting. While we are typically reluctant to get with the times, the times have something to offer us in return. At Blue Pencil 2023, a festival of writing and news arts, we got to listen to journalist, editor, and curator Supriya Nair sitting in Mumbai, talk about the power of immersion that can be wielded by writing that is given the space to become. We also got to peek at the Nargis poster in her room from the movie Andaz. She was in conversation with Yasmin Daniel, a journalism student and a fan of the art, in “Longing for Form.” They started off by discussing long format, its possibilities, and Nair’s own journey with it.
She believes that a certain suspicion of the word “longform” might be wise in the practice of narrative journalism; the depth of a story is something we pursue, and its length is just a byproduct. As the co-founder of fiftytwo.in, a platform dedicated to such writing under the umbrella company All Things Small, Supriya Nair says, “if you can’t travel in space, how deeply can you travel in time?” It is different from the kind of writing print journalism can afford because the digital-only publication allows for the telling of stories without the constraints of either space or time. With the ambition to put out writing that stays relevant and interesting in the long term, one is asked what story they would choose to tell if they had a year to work on it.
The essays traverse different spheres from culture, history and politics to wildlife, science, meteorology and AI. All magazines are ultimately a reflection of the people who work in them. The varied fields are made a possibility by the interests of everyone working together on the publication. “I have absolutely nothing to do with the wildlife stories, I can barely tell a tree apart from a dog,” Miss Nair remarked matter-of-factly, and I like to imagine that we all shared that laugh with Yasmin behind the privacy of our switched-off cameras.
The most riveting idea Miss Nair offered was that of journalism and writing being a service we provide. A fundamental difference between that which newspapers do and that which magazines do is in the accessibility to engage with it. It is a bit of an exaggeration but, “you cannot read today’s Indian newspaper if you have not read yesterday’s,” because of all the context and previous knowledge required to understand it. A magazine, however, is tasked with introducing a reader to something new, that they didn’t already know about. “The story is an act of translation in which they allow you to believe for the duration of that essay that you will come away having experienced that story with the same kind of familiarity,” which the writer might have taken years to cultivate.
Supriya Nair has visibly given a lot of thought to what narrative journalism is; she emphasised again the nature of it being a service, and the prestige attached to it, and then quipped “as much prestige as can ever be attached to a fundamentally disreputable profession like journalism.” In this service, you are attempting to get the reader to care about what you have written, this brings out a “tenderness” in the writing, coming from a place of compassion and humility. By way of example of this hook, recently on Valentine’s Day, a piece on platonic relationships was published on fiftytwo.in.
In the piece, Prachi Pinglay attempts writing about something very personal, almost confessional, but approaches it like a reporting piece. This form of the personal essay is one that takes a lot of practice; Miss Nair brought up Professor Vijeta Kumar as an excellent practitioner of the form. This took the conversation to another favourite writer of mine, Joan Didion, who writes about “intensely personal things the way that someone would report on an event,” and about “events like elections the way that someone would write a personal essay.”
In front of these three incredibly intelligent and kind writers, a student might wonder about their place in the world, and how they would manage to be like them someday. As a concluding question, Yasmin asked Miss Nair to share a toolkit for someone attempting narrative journalism. “I have not met a single writer who gets it right on the first draft,” so the advantage of time is to keep rewriting and reworking your piece. Ask as many questions as possible, consider different structures, work on editing your peers’ work.
The questions from the audience then leapt in; they too wanted to know what Supriya Nair had to say about feeling insecure, or finding balance in writing. When I asked her if she ever gets tired of her writing, she revealed that almost compulsory predisposition all writers carry – to be embarrassed – but what she said next made me sit up: we need to be open to being unromantic, practical writers to suit the need of the hour. But more importantly, “if you stop telling yourself, ‘I am a writer,’ and you tell yourself, ‘I have to write,’ I feel like the tiredness becomes irrelevant.” To me, it was as if I had been told off, but in a fascinating way, like your favourite teacher telling you to stop whining and do your work.
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