Saturday, June 29, 2013

Teaching Creative Writing

This is the third straight year that I’m teaching the Creative Writing class at Ateneo de Davao. Creative Writing is in the curriculum mainly for AB English and BS English Education students. In past years, I’d gotten no more than 12 students per class. This year, though, I have 28 students, the biggest class I’ve ever taught.

Why do they give me this class? I think that over the years I’ve built a brand around Creative Writing. No grand plan, just a mix of luck, a network of friends, and a hobby that’s grown into something bigger. I’m flattered that they ask, and besides, I like teaching this class, so how can I say no?

The class size this year, though, is especially challenging. On the one hand, I’m happy to be reaching more students; on the other, it’s hard to give each one the individualized care and criticism that’s really needed.

Writing class is challenging in another way. Unlike, say, a writers workshop where people voluntarily apply and where we can choose who to take based on the competence of their work, students take this class because it’s required. The interest may not even be there. So there you go: they’re stuck in the class, and so am I.

What else is there to do but to make the best of the situation? I try to line up activities that are fun and engaging, and I work with the hope that, somehow, something is going to click and they might actually enjoy writing.

This year, I’m taking a page from the playbook of Tim Tomlinson. Tim is president of the New York Writers Association and faculty at New York University. Last year, he came by Davao and gave a writers workshop. We centered on one very simple activity: making lists. Of what? Just random stuff that comes to mind. It was a simple approach, but one that I found enjoyable and effective.

For our first class activity, I asked the students to write up 20 things about themselves. The exercise yielded surprising results. The students came up with some real gems. Like:

* When I was a kid, I used to steal condoms from my mother’s clinic because I thought they were balloons.

* My classmate asked me what my special talent was. So I took a lighter and burned my hair.

* I was the only child of my parents, until they decided to separate. Now I have a baby brother on my mother’s side and a baby brother and sister on my father’s side.

* I auditioned for X-factor and The Voice Philippines, but they didn’t show it on TV.

* When I was young, my father would lift me up to his shoulders to reach the sampaguitas up the fence at night.

Translating these unique life experiences into stories, though, is another matter. For all their exposure to media (or maybe because of it), most young students don’t really have a grasp of fiction, or even of storytelling. I’ve observed that students tend to think in terms of incidents, but don’t know how to string them together with context and development.

And that’s really the crux of the problem: being able to tell a good story. You’d think that everyone would know how to do that, but, sadly, no, and so we need to run a class to rediscover the art.