Saturday, July 06, 2013

In Writing Hell

Sometimes I envy UP Mindanao. They have a full-blown four year creative writing program. Ateneo de Davao only has one semester’s worth, and only for AB English and BS Education in English. Still, a semester should be better than nothing, or ought to be.

Now I’m not so sure if we should even bother. I entered into this semester with the optimism and determination. But whatever hopes I had at the beginning has been dashed fairly quickly.

I started on the assumption that students had some basic grasp of character, plot, and narrative. When I took this same class under Don Pagusara five years ago, my classmates -- the same age then as my students now -- could form a decent story with a strong emotional core. Now, pffft.

My female students write characters that are barely disguised princesses: rich, beautiful, liberated. My male students want to write serial killers and psychopaths. One student purports to write gay characters, but only ends up with tired and ridiculous stereotypes. And really, the greatest sin: the characters are not interesting.

Neither are the plots. They all run on rails, moving in a line from Point A to Point B. The character has some problem, the character solves the problem (or more often than not, has the problem solved by an outside agency), the end.

In order to move things along, I developed a basic plot for the students to work with. All the students needed to do was to develop a character and expand the narrative with descriptions, dialog, and, I hoped, some emotion. Granted, the plot was a touch melodramatic, but at least it had some movement and escalation.

The exercise was premised on a character saddled with a huge and immediate financial difficulty. I left it up to the students to come up with the situation.

A few played it earnestly, but the best they could come up with involved: (1) tuition fees; and (2) a terminally ill relative. Was the first reflective of the extent of the problems that these students faced? Was the second just the influence of sappy telenovelas? I would have been impressed if someone had thought of more adult concerns like foreclosure, eviction, or bankruptcy.

Disappointingly, many treated it as a big joke. For two of my students, the need arose from money to go on a vacation. Another just wanted money so he could see his favorite Korean boy band. Five twisted the plot altogether so they could write serial killers and psychopaths.

For your delectation, here are some choice bits (names withheld to protect the guilty):


Am I angry? A little bit. As a teacher, I expect some level of competence from my students, some level of understanding of what the exercise is supposed to achieve, and enough cooperation to at least try to make it work. Unfortunately, my students seem to lack context and empathy. I don’t relish the thought that I’m wasting my time.

But I'm adaptable. If this doesn't work, then I'm going to try something else. Maybe it's not Creative Writing these guys need but Creative Reading.  Who knows? Perhaps Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett will save the day.  If nothing else, I will whack them with Shakespeare.

Do you think I'm being too sensitive? But let me leave you with a little disturbing thought: these students of mine, who write of perfect princesses and psychopaths, these are going to be the next generation of teachers. They're going to be the ones teaching your kids.

Dwell on that.