Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Story Behind the Story: A Teaching and Learning Aid

Two students from UKM (Malaysia) contacted me on Facebook about my short story “Teh-O in K.L.” from Lovers and Strangers Revisited, which they are studying in their TESL program. They were doing a report on it and wanted to know the significance of the title. After I directed them to my blog, "Teh-o in KL: The Story Behind the Story" (also accessible from my website) one of the students replied, “Thank you so much. A lot of correction has to be made based on reading your blog. Guessed we just touched the issue only at the surface (culture adaptation by foreigner), without realizing how do they feel.”

At UM where they teach three stories and at USM where they teach the entire collection, they actually use The Story Behind the Story as both a teaching and a learning aid for the students. What a great idea, I thought!

When I completed the blog series for all seventeen set-in-Malaysia stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I knew it would be useful for writers wanting to learn how to write a short story, the tricks (and the hard work) behind the literary magic. Rarely does a writer rewrite a published short story, yet, here I was revisiting those stories from the original Heinemann Asia publication of Lovers and Strangers (1993), rethinking them, even overhauling them for Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Silverfish 2005) and the expanded MPH version (2008), winner of the 2009 Popular-The Star Reader’s Choice Awards for fiction.

I also wanted to separate the fact from the fiction. In the preface to LSR, I wrote, “There’s a lot of truth in all fiction and a lot of fiction in all truth, so what may seem real may, in fact, be made up, and what may seem made up could very well be based on fact.” But, oh, the line between fact and fiction does blur a lot, so I thought this blog series would help to untangle it all, and show how a fact can be a great jumping off place for fiction.

But the Story Behind the Story blog series is much more than that, a behind the scenes look at a writer working at his craft. In the blog, I noted what prompted the idea, be it a character, a setting, a theme, a snippet of dialogue, and what significant editing and story changes that I made that led to their publication locally and overseas (fourteen have been published in US,UK, Australia). Altogether they’ve been published 77 times, taught in SPM literature and in universities and private colleges throughout Malaysia.

While making direct comparisons between the first published versions of my stories with those in the MPH collection for the blogs, I was blown away by how much the stories had in fact evolved. At a glance, it may look like the same story, but the differences are both subtle and stark. It’s not just the details, the preciseness of language; there have been changes of titles, of characters, of beginnings and endings, of point of view, and even shifting from past tense to present tense. Some of the stories even doubled in length; they had whole new endings, or new back-story weaved into it to make the story complete.

By comparing the MPH stories with the story’s blog would be invaluable to writers just learning their craft or wishing to break out, but also interesting to literature students and readers to see how much the stories have changed. You mean that critical scene at the jetty in “On Fridays” wasn’t even in the original, published story!

For teachers and students, a lot of insight can be gleaned from the blog series which can lead to discussions about character’s motivation, or the underlying theme, and all that’s going on just beneath the surface of the story—the real story behind the story.

Of course the one who learned the most through this process of putting this blog series together was me. I grew as a writer. More importantly, I could see the proof of how far I’ve come, which encourages me to push harder, and for that I have to thank those students who have contacted me, and their teachers and lecturers for their interest in the stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

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As a footnote, since posting this, a student from Kuala Lumpur contacted me about my short story "Neighbours" that she is studying for SPM literature. I sent her the "Neighbours: Story Behind the Story" link which she greatly appreciated and now she is sharing that with her teacher and fellow classmates. I also mentioned the article “Neighbours, a Suicide, and Making Choices” from Tropical Affairs. The teacher, she said, was already sharing this with the students,and making the book available for them to read.

That’s great, so now those students will get the whole story of “Neighbours”, the short story itself, the truth of my involvement in that suicide (finding him, sending him to the hospital, and having to tell his wife what just happened since none of my neighbors wanted to get involved), the decisions that I made as a writer to write that particular story (the choices I made since there were different stories that I could have written about this experience), and now all that went into the actual writing and revisiting the story, including changing the original title from “Aftermath” (after it had been published four times) to “Neighbours”.

***Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

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