For the past ten years, USP has collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Creative Writing to offer the USP-Piper Creative Writing Programme. This year was no different, as USP ran the programme in two parts in May and June 2016: a writing course, which was held for undergraduates over the course of six weeks, as well as a shorter three-day workshop, which was targeted at pre-university students. Both the course and the workshop aimed to introduce student writers to a greater diversity of genres and authors, help them hone their craft through mutual feedback and support, and equip them with a basic understanding of how to publish literary works.
This summer, we caught up with Cheyenne Black and Susan Nguyen, this year’s programme instructors, as well as Ong Lishan (Industrial and Systems Engineering + USP, Class of 2016) and Wan Bo (Mathematics + USP, Class of 2019), two participants of the writing course.
Cheyenne and Susan are both Master in Fine Arts students from the Creative Writing Center at Arizona State University, each with her unique passion and motivation for wanting to teach under this programme. For Susan, it was the opportunity to gain more teaching experience in a subject that she loves. She wanted to create a “safe environment” where students could learn to write and question what they thought they knew about great writing, and she welcomed the additional challenge of knowing that NUS typically does not offer workshops of this nature. Cheyenne shared the same desire to create that “safe environment” for students, saying that “if there is one person who can make or break a writer, it is their writing teacher”. Many voices, she pointed out, have been lost to “discouragement, harsh ‘truths’ and poor communication”. She added, ‘How many stories are we missing in the world because a writer gave up? How many poems? So I am interested in being a teacher that makes writers want to keep writing’
When asked about the experience of working with our students, both Susan and Cheyenne responded positively. Susan felt that the workshops had been successful in exposing students to feedback, helping them understand craft elements better, and motivating them to keep writing. Additionally, Cheyenne pointed out an interesting difference between the different types of students. “The pre-uni students were so passionate!” she exclaimed. “They cared about every word. They wanted to find concrete answers and rules which were evasive and difficult to pin down. [...] They aren't yet afraid of the work.” The undergraduates by contrast were much more hesitant. They needed to be encouraged to write “for themselves”, and to pay less heed to the possibility of their ideas being rejected. Helping the younger students find “stamina”, and helping the older students find confidence, was what Cheyenne described as one of the emotional tasks of teaching. “If I can help writers to find those things,” she said, “perhaps fewer stories and poems will be lost to the world”.
What was the undergraduates’ experience of the course? We caught up with USP students Wan Bo and Lishan on their motivations and perspectives. Prior to signing up for the course, neither were creative writers. Wan Bo joined because of an interest in literary criticism, rather than literary creation. He came from a math and philosophy background and only picked up English as a second language. Lishan came from a background of report-style and journalistic writing, and had never properly done creative writing before the course - she joined it to explore if creative writing could be her cup of tea as well. She did, eventually, find a sweet middle spot on the spectrum between creative writing and journalism. “I previously thought that [they] were extremely different,” she mused. “This course made me discover creative non-fiction, which lies in a comfortable middle ground for me. The skills I gained in this course, such as how to minimise ambiguity, engage the readers and provide a satisfactory ending, will be applicable to my journalistic writing in future.”
We asked both to share aspects of the course that they found meaningful or interesting. Wan Bo, who intended to analyse rather than create, admitted that he found himself exploring the less logical side of him that “loves working with the imaginary”. He remarked that one of Cheyenne’s concepts was particularly interesting, namely, the idea of holding your readers’ hands; that it is actually easier to surprise your readers if, prior to the point of revelation, you have already given them all the information they need to know. “The most exciting or revealing moment of a successful work actually contains nothing new,” he said, “it is just a recollection or brand new arrangement of all information.” Hence, it is actually not a bad idea to “hand-hold” your reader as the plot unfolds. The other extreme, which is revealing very little to the reader, actually hampers the creation of dramatic suspense as it prevents the reader from being fully engaged.
Lishan enjoyed the writing exercises. One of them was about how to write realistic dialogue. Much of what is communicated in real life, she explained, is implicit. Hence when writing dialogue, we should not explicitly verbalise what the characters meant, but rather show how they communicate through subtext and implicit meanings. This requires some level of trust on the writer’s part, to not underestimate the readers’ intelligence and “trust that [they can] make the mental leaps when reading our dialogues”.
We wondered if the instructors encountered any misconceptions that participants might have had about writing. Susan remarked that in terms of literary exposure, it was interesting to see students grapple with new forms of fiction and poetry that they had never previously come across before. The programme broadened their ideas about how language, form and style could be stretched to create art.
Cheyenne talked about the participants’ attitudes towards writing, namely, how many of them felt that their parents and culture would not support or even “allow” them to be writers “as anything other than a hobby”. Cheyenne worked hard to convince the students that writing can, in fact, be a serious vocation. Although an unsteady income is likely, she said, there is the reward of a fulfilling artistic life. She spent significant time trying to connect the students to the Singapore writing scene to show them that there are resources and support, for writers within Singapore. Singapore is full of developing literary voices, each with their own value, each deserving serious development.
Amongst instructors and students alike, there was a general consensus that the workshop had been a success. Both Lishan and Wan Bo praised the environment that the workshop had created for them, with Lishan commenting that the comfortable class size, the participants’ shared interest in writing, and the supportive and helpful instructors all contributed to an extremely good learning environment. Cheyenne and Susan also described the Reading Session as a success. The Reading Session was a public event held at the end of the programme, where participants read out works that they had written. Cheyenne observed that the camaraderie amongst the writers was evident, which to her was “the best part of any reading anywhere: watching the writers draw strength from and rely on the camaraderie of one another. This is the essence of what it is to be a writer, to seek that understanding that only other writers have, and to use it to warm yourself when the rejections come in and the times are challenging”.
Now that the programme has ended, where do the students go from here? We discussed one possible end goal: that of publishing. During the course, Susan and Cheyenne touched on the process of making a career as a writer, and invited local publisher Kenny Leck (co-founder of BooksActually and founder of Math Paper Press) to talk about publishing locally. For those who would like to get published internationally, Cheyenne shared that there are many quality literary journals to be found online. She and Susan provided the students with lists of such journals to encourage them to get their work out there. “The best way to get published is to write quality work and to keep sending it out,” she said.
On getting published, Susan advised, “Read. If you want to get published, start reading literary magazines, so that you know what is out there. Read so that you find the publications that you most enjoy, as these will probably be the publications you one day submit to!” That said, Susan added that not every writer aims to get published. Writing is ultimately a personal endeavour, and getting published is “a very personal choice to make”.
We asked the students for advice they would give to fellow aspiring young writers. Lishan offered a word of caution. The workload for the writing course is heavy, she says, and students would do well to start on the assignments in advance so as to be more prepared and engaged. Wan Bo urged fellow writers to ultimately have faith in themselves, secure an independent perspective, and not underestimate their imaginative abilities.
Cheyenne and Susan also offered advice on the practical process of writing, each taking a different approach to their craft. “Write. Every. Day,” said Cheyenne. “Writing is like a well pump, if you write every day you keep the water near the surface and it flows easily when you move the handle. But if you neglect the practice for days or weeks, the water level will slowly sink until the effort of getting the water up to the surface is exhausting.” By contrast, Susan said that while writing everyday is a useful practice for some, it’s not for everyone. For her, the quality of her writing suffers when she does that. “I’d rather write every few days”, she remarked. Each writer is different, and the main purpose should be about discovering what routine best allows you to get something down on the page.
It is an exciting time to be a writer in Singapore, at this point in our nation’s history. As a young, independent nation with a very new literary scene, there is a sense of confidence and freshness about our local writers. Untrammelled by the expectations and standards set by past giants, we are free to create our own voices and write songs in our own keys. Young writers are “not only players on a board, they are board-makers!” Cheyenne enthused. “They will decide the future of the literary scene in Singapore in a way that few young writers will ever have a chance to do. They will become the cannon, not read the cannon. They will write it.”
The 2016 USP-Piper Creative Writing Programme has definitely contributed to the overall development of Singapore’s literary scene, giving a spur of energy to a larger transformation that is gradually changing our society. We thank Cheyenne and Susan for their valued guidance in this year’s programme, and look forward to many more years of collaboration with Arizona State University to come.
Cheyenne Black holds a BA (magna cum laude) in creative writing and interdisciplinary studies from Western Washington University. She is the managing editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review, and in addition to writing is an avid photographer, kayaker, book artist, and encaustic artist.
Susan Nguyen hails from Virginia. She is a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and her work has recently appeared in [PANK], diode, decomP, and Boxcar Poetry Review. Her other hobbies beyond reading and writing include photography, hiking and otherwise being outside, and collaging.
Ong Lishan has just graduated from NUS and USP, with a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering. She has done several journalistic assignments as a student writer for USP.
Wan Bo is a second-year Mathematics and USP student in NUS. His works, creative and academic, can be found at wb713.wordpress.com.