Thoughts on Teaching Creative Writing

Yesterday, I completed teaching a twenty-week novel-writing course with students from grade six to eight. We met for three hours, once a week, online. Each one of them has now completed a novel of between 10-15 chapters that had gone through at least two drafts, designed a cover, wrote up a book blurb for the back, offered a bio and a dedication and an author photo of themselves. Yesterday, their parents were invited to a group book launch where we celebrated the achievement of this marathon-comparable project they took on. I recorded each of them reading a passage from their story a week earlier so that I could edit a video and thus avoid internet glitches and nervous stumbling. As in all the writing stages leading up to this moment, in which students either soared or hobbled depending on their commitment to the project or their relationship with words and sentences or their relationship with themselves and their imagination, the book launch was also a learning opportunity. To take a creative endeavour that started from an idea, that for many months had been a private pursuit (supported only by me as confidant), and then release it into the world, and to do it with grace and love, understanding that it now has a life of its own, is a lesson they are just beginning to understand.

From a teacher’s point of view, having all those small squares before me, filled with the faces of students I would have otherwise seen in person, I had the illusion of a classroom setting and had to occasionally remind myself that each of them was sitting in a room by themselves, just like me. The reticence in volunteering to share their writing, when I assigned them a “fun, no-pressure” exercises spoke to the challenge of creating a supportive environment in this isolation, that allowed energy to flow between them. Like many working through this pandemic, I found myself exhausted after each class. The urge to reach out to a student in order to connect is natural, but sometimes it felt as if I was trying to crawl through the computer screen, as if there were a tunnel system of ducts on the other side, leading to each of them. Victories were counted in small moments. A smattering of smiles or (literally) muted laughs during one student’s sharing of writing. A short, semi-volatile give-and-take between a couple of students during some of our weekly book discussions. The flower garden of waving hands at the conclusion of each class.

From a writer’s point of view – and to be honest, a writer who is currently struggling to find my way back to writing – observing their progress has been enlightening. There were students who started off strong and then sputtered towards the end. There were students whose engines didn’t ignite at the opening flag, but later sped to the finish. There were students who wrote slow and steady, like Aesop’s tortoise, a chapter a week, every week. I saw remarkably mature writing by some, and diligent prep work with dense character profiles for the whole cast. I saw unsteady writers who still outshined their peers in their ability to take risks, to attempt a metaphor, sometimes falling flat and sometimes getting it dead-on.

The finish of an online creative course, especially one this long, is expectedly anticlimactic, which is why I’m writing down these thoughts as part of my transition, before I take a few weeks off prior to prepping for a two-week comedy writing course I will teach teenagers who are online in Korea. One recent thing that has lifted me up during this emotional dip is a book given to me by Joon Park, the creator of the CWC, the creative writing program of which I, among other children’s writers, are part of. The book is called School Blues (Chagrin d’école in the original French) and written by the author and retired educator, Daniel Pennac). In the same way that I felt I found an early childhood education mentor in reading the books of Vivian Gussin Paley, School Blues also brings a philosophical (and yes, even a grammatical) prism to understanding the student/teacher relationship, what it means to learn and what, at its heart, is its purpose. So much to digest and to ponder, and in the process of doing so, reminding me that I’m still a student too.

Thoughts on teaching in the time of Covid

Yesterday evening I completed the teaching of my children’s creative writing course. It was online and on Zoom, as is most of our lives. We started in September with the majority of the students in various cities in China and one in Hong Kong (it was morning for them), and the rest of them, here with me in Vancouver. The Wi-Fi was spotty for some, terrible for a couple, most kept their screens black, and others had no access to YouTube where I might have downloaded videos to supplement teaching. So bizarrely, despite the technology that made this pan-world course even possible, it was a pretty low-tech affair, relying on a smorgasbord of simple writing exercises, group storytelling, puzzle games to foster curiosity and question-asking, group book discussions to foster opinions and how to articulate them. There were successes and there were frustrations but certainly nothing to compare to the challenges many teachers have had to deal with even more of that, along with the fears and stresses of in-person teaching.

I have nothing profound or pithy to tie this post up in, other than to wish everyone – teacher and student alike – who has tried their best under these strange circumstances, to take time to rest over the holidays, to acknowledge you got through it, and to be kind to yourself if outcomes did not meet your standards.

photo from the Singapore Botanical Gardens website

A Cozy Chat with Me

An online interview with me was recently published on Among many things, I had a chance to discuss the ideas behind The Very, Very Far North and the upcoming sequel, Just Beyond the Very, Very Far North. You can click on the link to read it:

A Cozy Chat with Dan Bar-el

A Shudder in the Dark

I went to see 2001 a space odyssey with my twelve year old brother when I was six. What the hell were my parents thinking? It’s more a testament to my brother’s particular sophistication at his young age. I certainly didn’t know what was going on, but I remember being utterly in awe of the psychedelic “Star Gate” sequence accompanied by the avant-garde music. I remember, too, being haunted for weeks by the giant foetus at the very end. I’ve seen the movie many times since and formulated my own theories to the meaning.

All this has come to mind because I took Friday afternoon off to see a recent film, Ad Astra, on a big screen. I’ve come to realize that I am drawn to movies about outer space in a way similar to what amusement park rides must be to thrill seekers: they both exhilarate and terrify me. It’s not the Star Wars kind of space film that does this. It’s not the Star Trek version either, although I do like the speculative ideas in which Star Trek explores. I suppose it’s more of the spiritual variety of space film, and I’m not even sure whether my attraction relies completely on the story, or just those moments depicting the silence and the emptiness of the universe, the lone human travelling farther and farther away from the only planet they might feel safe, towards … towards what? A closer understanding of god or merely the void, the darkness? Those moments, as depicted, make me shiver.

The astronaut characters in these movies are often damaged souls, struggling or highly introspective, which as film critic, Anthony Lane rightly points out, is completely opposite to reality. “Anyone prone to anxiety wouldn’t have been allowed within a quarter of a million miles of such a quest”. I wonder if this reaction or craving of mine is rooted only in that six year old’s experience  in front of a giant screen, or does this speak to everyone’s personal precipice, as science and curiosity carries us forever onward? In the long ago days of maps with oceans leading towards a cliff’s edge, my counterpart may have sought seafarer stories for the same reason. But outer space, as depicted, is not storm-ridden. It’s a smooth, silent ride to infinity. And to be honest, it’s not really silent. There is always a soundtrack accompanying these sequences which play on my emotions, upsettingly discordant, or eerie or profound – not the John Williams’ space opera version. In my early twenties, I took a few stabs at writing a play involving an astronaut who refuses to return to earth, who has conversations with what might be god or a figment of his delusional mind. The play didn’t go anywhere. What I did know for certain was that in the soundscape to this production, Alan Stivell’s Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique would be heard, pulling on the heartstrings, as it were. That playwriting effort was it for me. I’ve never had a spark to write another outer space story since, yet I am always wanting to be told one.

I can’t say that Ad Astra is a successful film, in my opinion. It’s a little bit Kubrick, a little bit Heart of Darkness. If seen through a spiritual prism, I think I see where its intentions were, and as I’ve said, because of that, there are those moments within that visual narrative, that squeeze at my throat. What a thing to be praising, right? But ultimately, it’s about awe. Fear and exhilaration. The unknown. The opposite of boredom. Or cynicism.