31 May, 2018
10 : 00
In May, as part of our ongoing Expert-in-Residence Programme, we welcomed writer Deva Poole to the Yew Chung International School of Beijing. Deva worked with Years 6-10 for four weeks, introducing a range of writing exercises and building on their enthusiasm for literature. We speak to him about the benefits of creative writing in school and his most memorable moments at YCIS Beijing.
Please introduce yourself
I’ve been in Beijing with my wife and daughter for almost five years now. In this time I’ve taught at Renmin University, started a second master’s degree programme and of course done a lot of writing. My main interest is short fiction, which I’ve published in literary magazines such as Shanghai Literary Review, Spittoon, Pavilion and others. I’d say most of my work could be considered speculative fiction (a broad category including genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism). If you can create anything imaginable through words, why limit yourself to the mundane? So if I want to insert a talking squirrel or change the colour of the sky, I just do it.
I also have some non-fiction writing projects, where I do have to pay more attention to the laws of reality. I’ve interviewed writers and visual artists for the website Loreli-China.com, and I’m writing an essay about the Chinese sculptor Hu Qingyan for the next issue of Spittoon Literary Magazine. In the autumn I’ll be writing a travel guide to Jingdezhen, a city with a long history of producing high quality porcelain.
What have you been doing with our students at YCIS Beijing?
I prefer to start with open-ended writing prompts to foster creative thinking. Often the difficult part about fiction can be finding ways to spark something in the mind so it can make those creative leaps. For example, students may be presented with a mysterious image, or two randomly paired words, or only the first line, and it’s up to them to decide what the story should be. There are infinite “correct” responses, the challenge is to write your story in the best possible way. This is where craft comes in. Refining dialogue, effective description, conflict and character motivation were things we worked on more in the revision process.
What do you enjoy most about working with children of school age?
YCIS Beijing students are great. They were a really enthusiastic and imaginative bunch of kids. It was inspiring to see how many different ideas they could come up with from some of the same writing prompts.
What are the benefits of learning creative writing at school?
If we break the term in two, we have two concepts creativity and writing, both of which are pretty useful. While I hope students will continue to write stories, both skills are transferable to other aspects of life. Creative thinking is vital in many areas, whether we’re trying to figure out how to start a small business, solve environmental problems, or just daily challenges. Developing strong writing skills is also important. Things like being able to craft a college essay, a cover letter for a job, or simply express oneself clearly in an email require strong writing skills. But on a deeper level, writing is a way to exercise the mind. Whereas a sculptor might work in stone, a writer's medium is language. As humans, we think using words, so learning to write better is also about learning to think more clearly.
Has there been anything particularly memorable during your time here?
I was especially impressed by the dedicated year 7 students who sacrificed their lunch breaks to join me out of their own interest in writing!
I have also been working with several classes to create ‘six word stories.’ Some of the best came from students who have English as a second language. Sometimes students who are feeling their way around the language write in surprising ways, with results that can be really fresh and interesting. One of the challenges of learning a new language is developing a sense of ownership. Creative writing can be quite beneficial for learners in this respect, since it isn’t as rigid as other forms of writing.
Do you have any tips for students looking to improve their writing skills?
I sure do! One is read, read, read. Books are to writers what bamboo is to pandas. The mind of a writer will starve if it doesn’t have enough books to eat.
Another is to keep a notebook of ideas. Maybe you’ll have a strange dream, hear a funny story, or notice something out of the ordinary in your daily life. You never know when inspiration will strike, but it tends to go away just as quickly if you don’t take the time to notice and reflect. If you’re just jotting down ideas, there’s also no pressure to write like Shakespeare. Later, when you do sit down to write, you’ll be starting with a handful of ideas to choose from instead of staring at a blank page.
Finally, write at a time and place that’s comfortable for you. Morning or evening? Pen and paper or computer? Silence or music? When you have free time, such as during the summer vacation, you can experiment with creating your ideal writing routine.