Novel approach to nurturing creative authors of tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong has long been maligned for a dearth of literary talent, its best-seller lists often topped by investment self-help books or memoirs penned by starlets sharing their musings on show business.

But the emergence of two master's programmes on creative writing in English might just help reverse that trend.

The two-year part-time programmes, launched by the University of Hong Kong in 2009 and City University last year, aim to nurture creative talents who will help rid the city of its cultural desert label and put it on the literary map.

Creative writing workshops surfaced in the US decades ago; prize-winning authors Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro once took such classes. But Page Richards, who is in charge of the HKU master's programme, says they did not simply take the idea from the US and stick it onto the local landscape.

'Storytelling is unique in Hong Kong,' she says. 'There are special intonations that are formed by Cantonese and unique cultural references. We want to see what Hong Kong homegrown writers are interested in and focus on emerging writers. Most of our students do not come from overseas but from Hong Kong.'

This is an approach similar to CityU's, which has a focus on Asian writing in English, as well as literature in English with Asian themes.

Xu Xi, a published author with books on Hong Kong and Asian culture under her belt, is one of two writers in-residence with the CityU programme. She feels the city provides fertile soil for training aspiring English-language writers.

'Hong Kong is primarily a Chinese city, but it is international with signs written in both English and Chinese. People from all over the world can negotiate around the city [without much difficulty],' she says.

The CityU programme, which leads to a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, has enrolled 47 students since it was launched. There are 22 to 25 students per class, each paying HK$143,100 in course fees.

The HKU programme charges HK$102,500 and has accepted 56 applicants so far, enrolling students only every other year. Each class consists of 24 to 26 students. It confers a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in English on graduates.

Both programmes seek to dispel the notion of writing as a solitary enterprise in which the scribe is cooped up in a small room hammering away at the keyboard. Rather, the course leaders try to create a community of literary kindred spirits who share with fellow up-and-coming authors their passion for the written word.

In fact, writers have a long tradition of passing on their craft through mentorship, Richards says.

'They talk about questions of their craft, how long it takes to age a character and how much dialogue we need before major events happen in a story,' she says.

HKU also ropes in literary masters such as Chinese-American Gish Jen and young writers who have just burst onto the scene, giving students role models to look up to.

'We have well-known and less well-known and younger writers serving as advisers on how to polish students' writing. They come intermittently through the whole programme. The wide range of writers representing different stages of a professional writing career can show how a writer grows,' Richards says.

Another special feature of the HKU course is a retreat that students go on every semester.

'The retreat is held in a slightly different setting, like the beautiful historical Elliot Chamber, [on campus],' Richards says. 'Local or overseas writers will come and meet students for two days. They focus on a particular element, like dialogue or setting in fiction.'

HKU poetry student Clare Leung Mei-yee, an English teacher, says she gained much inspiration from a retreat overseen by Australian poet Dennis Haskell last year.

'He taught us how to visualise our perceptions and flesh out as many visual images as possible in our works,' she says. 'Only through the use of multiple sensory descriptions can a writer generate readers' empathy.'

Over at CityU, students receive online feedback on their writing from their advisers, who include Pulitzer-Prize-winning American Robert Olen Butler, Xu says.

'Students will eventually meet all of the teachers, who will teach a workshop, give a lecture or reading and talk about their writing life when they come to Hong Kong,' she says.

The concept of creative writing was made popular by the University of Iowa in the first half of the 20th century. In 1922, Iowa became America's first university to accept creative work, such as a collection of poems, as theses for advanced degrees.

Soon, a writing community brimming with creative ideas flourished and people descended on the Iowa campus to enrol in writing courses in drama, fiction and poetry. Writing workshops, in which a senior writer leads a discussion on a student's creative work, gained prominence during this period.

The famous Iowa Writers' Workshop was established in 1936, bringing together writers of various genres. The workshop became a prototype for hundreds of writing programmes across the country.

No doubt most famous authors put pen to paper without ever attending writing lessons, driven instead by innate creativity and literary sensitivity.

Nevertheless, Xu and Richards point to a host of attributes that can be nurtured.

The first and foremost is to develop a voracious appetite for reading. Xu says anyone interested in the CityU programme has to love language and reading: 'I can't stand people who want to become a poet but never read poetry,' she says. 'Nobody will read your works if you don't read others'. [The art of writing] is to imitate the masters. Like painting, you learn by looking at beautiful art. You have to read literature from around the world.

'You can teach creative techniques and try to make people see their weaknesses and think from another perspective ... Fundamentally, people by nature are creative. Just sometimes the environment or education suppresses it and we can help them unlock [what lies beneath].'

Richards says the key to creative writing is to step back and look at the surroundings in a microscopic way. 'You have to slow down and observe the inner and outer beauty of things, to magnify the details you would otherwise [overlook]. After slowing down, you organise the perceptions when writing.'

While creative writing students in the US have to choose a genre to specialise in before their programme begins, Richards says HKU wants its students to be exposed to as many genres as possible before specialisation.

'We think many students here [unlike their US counterparts] don't have the chance to take classes in creative writing in high schools and colleges. They may never have the chance to try creative writing,' she says.

'To be a writer, you need to know as many instruments as possible. When we pick instruments, we pick all the history that goes with them ... we want students to experiment with plays, poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction before specialising in the second year. For those who have blind spots in specific genres, we want to illuminate those spots.'