I recently started something just for the love of it. Does it involve money? Yes, about half a year’s salary. Time? Yes, all my leave days, for the next 24 months, as well as many more hours on distance modules in between. It also involves me juggling work, family and other commitments for this pursuit, and flying 8 hours to and fro once or twice a year for intensive 12-hour days.
Just to write. And in so doing, to be a better writer, and hopefully, a better teacher of writers.
I recently came back from one such intensive stretch, which comprised workshops, lectures and classes for 10 days straight, including weekends.
Did I sleep much? No. I averaged about five hours sleep per night.
Did I eat well? No. I had only three hot meals in 10 days.
Was I living it up, sitting in the lap of luxury? Definitely not. I stayed in a student hostel, carried a giant backpack and a trolley bag up and down the public bus to and from the airport, and at one point, made do with a can of tuna and two slices of two-day-old bread for dinner.
But I met my tribe, and I loved every minute of it.
A typical day in this stretch would be like this:
9 – 12 noon : Class on reading like a writer, during which everyone would discuss short stories or chapters from a novel from a writer’s point of view. Sessions were spent on sentence types, character, plot structure, dialogue, etc. It helped that all the tutors were themselves published writers and university lecturers, as they understood the challenges and joys of the ‘writing life’.
12 – 1 pm : Lunch break, usually a cold sandwich or a salad from the sole café in the vicinity.
1.15- 2.15 pm : Lunch lecture. Topics included long-form poetry and trauma narratives.
2.30 – 5.30 pm: Workshop session. Prior to these sessions, each member of the class submitted a short story or a chapter from a novel they were working on. These were then emailed to everyone. During each workshop session, the group would discuss one or two of these stories in great depth and provide extremely detailed feedback to the writer.
5.30 – 6.30 pm: Dinner break, usually something cold. Like a salad or a sandwich. Or a can of tuna with two-day-old bread.
6.30 – 8.30/9 pm: Evening lecture. During the recent 10-day stint, we had the privilege of listening to two Pulitzer Prize winners – Rae Armantrout and Adam Johnson, who were both very inspiring.
We also had readings by our tutors as well as our peers. I read two poems, one on the Singapore Stone that was inspired by my docent experience at the museum (yet another non-work related pursuit) and the other on travel.
I hadn’t intended to blog about this at all, but yesterday when I was raving about my experience to a colleague, he quoted Aldous Huxley — “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” This made me feel decidedly guilty about hoarding my experience. (Thanks, William.)
What have I learnt so far about writing?
1. Although writing is a solitary activity most of the time, ‘workshopping’ one’s pieces and listening to feedback helps writers get out of writing ruts and opens doors to new plot possibilities.
2. Writers are readers. Everyone there devoured books and articles and short stories, and freely shared their reading recommendations. More than ever, I realised how important it was to examine how other people wrote, not to ape them per se, but to study how they structured sentences and plots, and how they developed characters.
3. Writing is a pursuit meant for optimists. Writing fiction does not pay well at all (unless you are JK Rowling), and after all the effort, you a. might never get published and b. might have your books relegated to dusty 2nd-hand bookstores. But still, all the writers I met were happy with their artistic pursuit. Publishing is still a goal of course, but personally, my primary goal is to hone my craft to the best that it can get.
As a teacher of writers, this means I need to
1. Let my students read their works out loud and take pride in what they write. I need to respect their voice, and nudge them to tap their imagination and experience to develop three-dimensional characters and non-boring plots, even in short compositions with highly-structured prompts.
2. Encourage my students to read, not just to ‘improve their English’, but to think about what the writer is doing in the story; why the writer inserts dialogue at certain points, why certain adjectives are used.
3. Continue believing in my students, even if they fail their compositions or make major grammatical errors every other sentence. I need to affirm their identities as writers, and as storytellers, each with a unique voice and life stories.
I’m not a classroom teacher anymore, so I suppose it’s easy to say all this. I did try ‘workshopping’ a composition with a girl I’m teaching on a volunteer basis on Sundays at a children’s home though, and although she was a bit uncomfortable with reading her story out loud at first, I think the questioning and thinking through the overall plot and dialogue was helpful for her 2nd draft. I used to employ similar strategies with my students in the past – one-to-one sessions where I would talk them through their compositions and suggest changes and in-depth whole-class discussions around a student’s story – but I think I would have more skills to shape the classroom talk and the stories if I used the same strategies now.