Last week, I once again taught two writing workshops at the Creative Arts Seminar organized on the campus of the National University of Singapore by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch, as part of the year-round Creative Arts Programme. The kids who attend are largely already streamed into GEB classes in their schools, although certainly not all; any students in Secondary Year 2 and 3, and Junior College Year 1, who show a strong interest in creative writing can apply to the program (Sec4 and JC2 students who previously attended can come back as councillors). The biggest part of the application is the creative portfolio, which should show evidence of a sense of form, precision with language, truthfulness of feeling, originality of thought and imagination, and sensitivity to the world at large.
So what you get at the CAS are students who really want to be there. As someone who has taught from Sec 1 all the way up to university, it is a welcome and rare experience to have a roomful of students who are actively excited about what you may have to say. They’re engaged and enthusiastic, they ask good questions, they take lots of notes, and they thank you afterward for teaching them. A nice change from what a teacher normally experiences, and I never take such instances for granted.
In addition to teaching the workshops, however, this year I was also invited to give a plenary lecture on a topic of my choice. The time slot was an hour, so I was asked to talk for about 45 minutes, and then allow 15 minutes for Q&A. Lecturing is not usually my forte, but I was still keen to take up the challenge. I knew that I wanted to talk about speculative fiction, and on the transformative effect it can have on the reader, so I decided to write a speech about four key moments in my life where speculative fiction has had a profound impact. I titled it “Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction,” and it seemed to go over quite well.
What I hadn’t been told in advance, and this is probably for the best, was that my plenary speech was the very first program item during the week-long seminar; the students spent Monday morning at registration and orientation, then had lunch, then filed into the lecture theatre to listen to me. So I basically opened the entire seminar with my speech. Had I known about this prior to walking in the door, I would have likely been a nervous wreck, but as it was, I didn’t have time to worry about it, so I just got down to work and did my thing. The kids laughed, and went “Aww,” and got very quiet in all the right spots, and then gave generous and flattering applause at the end.
During the Q&A, spurred by my assertions that they should all “embrace their strange” (whatever that might mean), many of the questions were about my impressions of the divide between “high” and “low” culture, and between mainstream and speculative fiction. It was incredibly interesting to see that the students were already thinking about these issues, and also disheartening to hear that authority figures actively dissuaded them from reading genre fiction, labelling such reads as mere “airport books” (with the assumption that they are both disposable and low in literary merit). I reinforced the notion that no one has the right to tell the students what to read for pleasure, and that if they get something (whatever that may be) out of reading Michael Crichton or George RR Martin or even Stephanie Meyer, that they should continue to do so proudly.
My Sec2/3 workshop was entitled “Worldbuilding 101: Strange New Worlds” (lecture notes) and focused mostly on setting and building a fictional world. This replaced last year’s workshop, which was much more introductory and covered a lot of ground but not very deeply; this year, I wanted to just focus on one topic for these kids, and go much more in-depth, with the result that they would have a much stronger foundation for working on their own speculative work.
My JC1 workshop was entitled “Tripping the Heavy Fantastic” (lecture notes), which was a repeat from last year (albeit tweaked slightly), and focused on cross-genre fiction (slipstream/fantastika/magic realism/etc.). I had high hopes for this one, as it went over so phenomenally well last year, and although the group wasn’t quite as active with their participation, and cliques of students tended to chat during the writing exercises, it still went quite well. By the end of the three hours, they each had the beginning to a new slipstream short story, and the ones who shared displayed vivid imaginations and some quite fine writing, even in rough draft. I encouraged them all to submit their work to LONTAR once they felt it was ready for publication.
Apparently, to my delight, both of the workshops filled up extremely quickly. It’s gratifying to see so much interest in what one is offering. However, if any of the students who wanted to get into one of my workshops and was unable to is reading this, I hope you’ll at least take a look at the lecture notes linked above at Scribd; it’s not the same as being there, and listening to me explain it all, but at least it’s something.
I was also quite chuffed to be able to sell so many of my books while I was there: 50 copies of Red Dot Irreal and around 40 copies of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. I set special discounted prices for the CAP students, and many bought both books together. Here’s hoping that they enjoy what they read in them, and that it spurs a lifelong love for speculative fiction. If anyone was unable to get your copy of either book, the best place to find them in Singapore is BooksActually.
It was a great few days, and I had a lot of fun. I wish I could do events like this much more often than just once or twice a year.