Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Creative Writing Workshop in Kota Kinabalu (Round Two)

Robert Raymer making a point
On Saturday, 13 August, we had our second creative writing workshop in KK, “Turning your Personal Experience into a First Draft of a First Person Narrative.” At the earlier Universiti Malaysia Sabah workshop we had an extra two hours but at the first SPArks workshop in April 2011 we didn’t have enough time to do the subject justice, so it was good they invited me back.

About half of the participants from the first workshop had returned including Tina Kisil whose book Footprints in the Paddy Field was nominated for 2011 Popular-The Star Reader’s Choice Award for nonfiction, Farida Shukoor, who initially contacted me in 2009 about coming to KK (I taught her son at USM), Jude Day who made the arrangements for both of our workshops, and Lo Sin Yee who again flew up from Miri and even brought one of his works for me to edit (as originally planned before we added a third workshop). There was also Mark Storey who had arranged the UMS workshop back in April.   Several others, however, missed because of either exams or Ramadan, something we failed to consider when we chose the date. Fortunately others filled the vacancies so we nearly reached our target of 24.

Making full use of the four-hour allotted time, we devoted three hours to the narrative that they chose to write, after generating 15 topics for them to choose from. For those who seemed to have forgotten that they had lived a full life of significant experiences, I read them something that I wrote for my creative writing students at two universities (and expanded it by a paragraph): 

Typical experiences
If you’re a typical student at a typical university, you’ve already accumulated hundreds of experiences that have made an impact on your life. You’ve made and lost friends; done things you’re either proud of, ashamed of, or regretted; been punished for doing things you weren’t supposed to; felt guilty over things no one knows about; been blamed or wrongly accused by a sibling, a friend, or a parent; been scolded (and punished) by a teacher for being late, not doing your home­work or being part of a noisy class­room; fought with siblings, friends, or enemies; been bullied by older or bigger children (including relatives); survived a crash in a car or motorcycle or bicycle; moved with your family to another house or lived away from your parents; been proposi­tion­ed by someone from either the opposite or the same sex; con­sider­ed running away from home (even if you only made it next door or to a relative’s house); taken something that didn’t belong to you (which you had either kept, returned or threw away); felt like you wanted to die because you were embarrassed or angry or frustrated; and grieved over the death of a pet or a relative.

For those of you who have taken part in extra-curri­cular activities such as sports, or choir, or belonged to some association or club, or have won an award, or have been praised for making something creative or for having a talent like singing or dancing or drawing, or have had the oppor­tunity to travel around your country or overseas, then you’ll have plenty more experiences to write about.

If you’re older than your typical student you’ve probably had jobs, been engaged or jilted, been married or separated or divorced, had babies, raised children, bought and sold or crashed cars, and even bought a house. Not to mention the thousand other life experiences you’ve had in your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and do I hear seventies?
* * *
I then asked them to choose one topic that they’ll be working with for the pre-writing process. I kept stressing that they choose their topic carefully. A good topic often chooses you. Maybe there’s an unresolved issue from your past that needs addressing. Some topics, I told them, especially if they had a traumatic experience like a death of someone they were close to, or were molested as a child (which is, unfortunately, increasingly common), will not be easy for them to write, but in doing so, it would be therapeutic for them. Later, if they wish to share it or publish it, others can benefit from it, as I blogged about regarding a short story that I wrote based on one of my relatives.

During the pre-writing process, I gave them plenty of prompts to explore and flush out, not only the details but also people’s motivation and their emotional state. This forced them to think about, not just themselves and what they did or what happened to them, but also to consider why they did those things and why others acted the way they did. This was a real eye opener for them, to consider what all was going on in other people’s lives and their own, thus establishing a cause and effect relationship.

Later, I asked them, “Had you written off the top of your heads, would you have considered any of this? Therefore your narrative would have been far different, not as fully developed, nor as interesting for those who read it.” Before I finally let them write that first draft, when I had them raring to go, I asked them to outline the main points, which helps them to think through the narrative from beginning to end, thus improving its organization. This is often the stage that my students would back away from their topic, realizing that they chose one that really wasn’t all that significant. It’s always better they find this out before they invest several hours writing and rewriting. Even better, if they chose the right topic from the beginning! Sure enough one of the participants asked if he could switch topics!

After spending a full hour writing out a first draft (or taking it as far as they could), we took a break, then we dabbled with some fiction via the topic “They Found Me”, which is the crux of many short stories and best-selling novels, easily adapted into children stories, thrillers, sci-fi, and mysteries. Two of my recent blog posts, on The Shack and the short story “Mr. Penumbra” are essentially “they found me” stories. In The Shack (which I recently read and Sin Yee brought a copy with him from Miri) in more ways than one -- in the beginning and also at the end, a series of them!

Usually, when time is permitted, we’ll read samples, as we did for my two-day workshop with the Malaysian Nurses Association  But this time around we’re saving them for a third workshop in October/November. Two weeks prior to the workshop, the attending participants will be sending me a typed version of either their narrative, their “they found me” story, or someone they may have started and finished from the first workshop, then I’ll go over the first two pages as I did for the MPH-Alliance Short Story Awards workshops in Kuching and Miri when I was one of their judges (which I blogged about in the first workshop—this way I'll make sure I get only one from each!).

Later, if any of the participants are interested, I’ll be editing their revised post-workshop versions  at a special rate, something I highly recommend, something I did when I first came to Malaysia and wrote the short stories that later became Lovers and Strangers Revisited, now being translated into French. And did it again when I first revisited the stories, even after they had already been published, many several times in several countries. As a writer, we do have our blind spots to our own stories, even when those stories are close to our hearts—the narratives of our lives—like those that we explored in this second creative writing workshop in Kota Kinabalu.

*If you know of other organizations or associations in Sabah/Sarawak/West Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei that would be interested in having me for workshop, please contact me.   Thank you!

** Here is a link for a blog post about this second workshop from one of the participants. 
***Here's another link from another participant
**** Here's the link to the third kk workshop. 22 October 2011! 

*Announcement latest workshops:  Writing Your Life Stories Workshop—Kuching! 23 June 2012 (with links to other workshops and writing tips!) and also a workshop in KK on 17 June 2012! 


sintaicharles said...

I liked 'They Found Me'. It is recommendable for my students.It was the only thing that kept me writing during the workshop.So refreshing and inspiring.

I still haven't got used to manual writing because of my deeply ingrained habit of typing on the computer. Have bought myself a ream of line papers and will practise writing the way you instructed during the course.

sintaicharles said...

Thanks for agreeing to edit my script. I really appreciate it.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

I write on the computer, too, which you can still do. Just answer those pre-writing questions to help flush out your story before you start, then weave in what you can as you write.

When I first began writing I wrote all my first drafts long hand, including my novels. Since the workshop I've been experimenting with longhand again by posing various questions between these two characters (that I'm getting to know, like a father daughter relationship between two strangers who fill a void in each other's life) and seeing where it takes me. Once I figure out where these two are coming from, what are their primary and secondary emotions and what's the cause and effect of that, then I'll have the foundation I'm looking for to start and a lot of momentum to begin.

Already I have several scenes but I need to get a fix on the chemistry between them to create the right amount of tension from the outset.

They Found Me is fun because you never quite know where you'll end up once you start brainstorming possibilities. There's no pressure and ideas pop out of nowhere.

sintaicharles said...

Robert, if you're interested, pls read my blog on the workshop.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Thanks for the post which I linked to my blog (bad photo though!). Glad you were able to complete the draft and polish it! I can only get you started, guide you in the right direction. The rest is your own self-discipline to see it through to completion. Looking forward to workshoping this narrative at our next event! All the best.

Tina said...

Hi Robert! I like "They Found Me" too and I wrote about the workshop. You'll see I've done my homework!

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Hi Tina. Glad you liked They Found Me. I was going to give you another topic, similar to that, but approached in a different manner. I'll introduce it at the third workshop, as a bonus.

By the way, no one can finish a masterpiece during a writing workshop, so no way am I ever disappointed. But you can start a masterpiece, and I find that rather exciting!

I'm just happy when people enjoy themselves and also put in the effort to get something going since that's why we're there...

Peggy Tan said...

Hi Robert, I've added you to my reading list on my blog.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Peggy, thanks!