Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Path to Writing

I don't teach Nursing English 8x a week anymore to first year Lida students who have the emotionality of high school students and low motivation to learn English. Now I have 6-8 IELTS students (like the TOEFL Test of English as a Foreign Language) and my main task is get them to critically think and express and argue their opinion for the writing portion of the test. When they've been taught all of their life through rote memory and being obedient. Interesting. They can accumulate all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the language--it's like working out and getting big muscles--but how to use the language and when? How to persuade and convince? How to work out the pros and cons of a smoking ban, lowering the legal age to 15, computers as teachers, mass advertising, or nature vs. nature?

So I subscribe to that old adage (that I just madeup) when making a door, sometimes you have to stop fidgeting with the knob and instead install the hinges. And so last night, I had a playwriting workshop, where I administered the Promptor Exercise and had them each write a scene off of random prompts. 

Et voila!

Amazing what happens to language when you connect emotion and situation to it. I had been telling the students that if they see an IELTS writing question, and have no idea, to start thinking about how the question applies to Chinese society, to their own experience. Think about it in your Chinese mind (English is just mechanics to a goal right now) and then work it out in English. There is such thing as the language you develop your intellect in, but then critical thinking assumes a freedom of thought and the willingness or entitlement to speak it into the world.

So, each of the six students were given six little pieces of paper (6 in Chinese, I remind, sounds the same as 'flow' but this doesn't and does apply). On each piece of paper, one prompt is written: 
1: an action
2: a place
3: a secret
4: the first line of dialogue
5: the last line of dialogue
6: a statement in Chinese

I then go around with all of the #1 prompts, and each writer picks one (not their own), and then the same with the #2 prompts, and so on. So each writer has 6 elements that will be incorporated into their scene, all randomly selected, all disparate, which at first seems impossible and hilarious, but then they each write with a passion, a heart, a humor, that I have never seen in their essay writing.

Three were about lovers. Sandy's was 2 office mates walking in the park, when one tells the other that he is in love with someone in their office. The girl nervously asks who. It is her. They continue to walk.

Another saw a triangle. Fran's character A was in love with L (Lady) but L has boyfriend, B. L is telling A that she saw her boyfriend naked and kissing another woman in his apartment. It turns out that B was awoken by the doorbell, and when he answered the door, this mystery woman just started kissing him and he had to throw her off. A (and I) didn't believe the story, which works into Fran's plan as A want L to break up with B. I told her then A needs to be even more skeptical of B's story and really pile on the cheating angle so that she does break up with B and become free for A's wish to come true.

The last saw two lovers at a hospital.  Steven writes of an incomplete love that is declared too late--on the man's deathbed, he proposes, she accepts, he passes.

I have administered this Promptor Exercises in many a writing class, using the usual action, place, secret, first and last line. But this is the first time I used a Chinese phrase (cuz usually the students are English speaking) and this gave a more rooted flavor to the characters. I in my chicken scratch Chinese came up with an 'I don't know' (bu zhi dao) and even managed to write the last word without its two dashes on top.

The second three had distinct theatricality. The most hilarious and wacky was about a man who steals 'goods' from a shop and is chased by the shopkeeper until he loses her in the subway. There, his girlfriend is angry and has been waiting for an hour, until he tells her he wanted to get her Valentines and birthday gifts. He produces the bag of 'goods' and she is pleased but asks, 'How can you buy so many goods when we cannot even afford to buy a meal.' He tells her he has been collecting coins by singing and dancing in the subway. He begins to sing and dance when the shopkeeper approaches and says: 'Stop singing! I am going to kill you!' All is revealed, but after the shopkeeper finds out why he stole the goods, she lets them have it for free. I told Laura (or shall I say O. Laura) that she should have him sing one last song to the shopkeeper to sway her, and be more specific about the goods.

Serena had natural theatricality. An old woman sits in a park staring at an old man who is approaching from afar, staggering on a cane. He gets closer and closer until finally she says his name. Tears roll down their faces (she distinctly said she did not want them to say anything, and she had stage directions describing the approach that reflected their emotional states). Finally the old woman comes near him and says his name. He collapses. He tells her he has always loved her. He passes.  Serena had also imagined 4 small episodes from the time they were small and the circumstances that had taken them away from each other. I told her in theater, you could have the slow approach of the old man and meanwhile, the small scenettes played out between them, like the memory of the old woman has she is looking afar. Theater can allow two times to happen simultaneously on the stage.

Finally, Emma, who has already written a play and had it performed, writes the most innovative scene. A beggar is declaring love in a monologue. It turns out that he has a fake left foot. It turns out that his love is a half-loaf of bread. When the beggar throws the loaf up into the air, it does not come back down and the scene is then played out with God, a voice from above. The last line is uttered by God in Chinese, about he who eventually gets his way. The bread is thrown back down.

All were a-bubbling and enjoying each other's scenes. In today's class, I will read what their prompts gave me in a scene about Ah-Bu, typing on a keyboard on the side of a road.

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