Group Writing Anxieties

Group writing can be painfully difficult. So much of writing is about exposing yourself to other people. Good writing often makes the writer and the reader feel extremely vulnerable, as if secrets are being told. Writing with imminent group-feedback on the horizon feels like preparing one’s dirty laundry to be publicly aired and critiqued. With that in mind, it takes an incredibly comfortable and supportive group of people to make workshopping a practical possibility, let alone a meaningful exercise. The support and friendship I felt coming from all my fellow Wricers is what made the workshopping, even the program itself, so meaningful to me.

20160410_173157The piece I began working on in Yangshuo is a very personal work. It’s a semi-fictionalised account of the few days I spent in Hong Kong on my way to Guangzhou, and the old friends I caught up with there. Through the work, I tried to go out on a limb and tackle discomforts I have about the ways I understand race and culture as an Australian. Many of us brought similarly personal stories to the workshop table, dealing with past traumas or deeply private beliefs which can be grating to have challenged. The feedback I received on my writing went further than helping with the formatting and story structure; the openness and honesty which the WrICE environment fosters made it possible for the other writers to actually challenge the morality of the work, even to the point of directly asking me to see the world differently, and I think the outcome of that is beginning to be visible not just in the writing but in my life generally.

There are a few things which I think contributed to this idyllic writing environment. First and foremost is that everyone who came along was a uniquely likeable and interesting person. Letting a group of people like this into an emptied out hotel for one week is a great way to build fast friendships. Secondly, the structuring of the group meant that our friendships were never tested against anxieties around seniority or who had the right to voice an opinion. David and Francesca never felt like our authoritarian “mum and dad”, they were (and still are) our friends. This lack of hierarchy and the fact that no one tried to default to either of them for opinions on what they were writing helped build the sense of mutual respect which was needed to create the fantastic workshopping environment. Lastly, the relative isolation of our writerly Eden in Yangshuo made me feel like I was living in a special creative universe, with different laws and possibilities. I was somewhat sceptical before I came about what the WrICE program could do for me, worrying that I might waste the time or just lose sight of my work when comparing it to established writers like Alice Pung, but this was not the case. The WrICE program helped me to be braver with my writing, and made me feel confident working with other writers.

20160412_212726

Another really major thing that the intercultural experience of WrICE gave me was a chance to hear about the histories of Indonesia and the Philippines through a very personalised, cultural lens. Thank you to Larry Ypil, Maggie Tiojakin and Eliza Vitri Handayani for that. Hearing intelligent and emotionally sensitive people talk at length about the things which help define their country to them is one of the most moving intercultural experiences a person can have. I want to end this blog post with a link to a song I wrote while I was in Yangshuo. I wrote it after talking to Maggie and Eliza about the reign of President Suharto in Indonesia, particularly thinking about the persecution suffered by the Chinese Indonesian population during and in the aftermath of this period. I never would have written something like this if I hadn’t been given the chance to talk to these other writers. Not only would I have not known about what happened, I never would have had the courage to comment on the feelings people must have had through such a tumultuous time if it weren’t  for the support and encouragement I received in doing so. For me, this song is a personal achievement, marking what can be possible when working in the light of other writers.

https://soundcloud.com/peter-darcy-clynes/oh-lee-kuan-yew

Writers and Workshopping in China

My introduction to writers and workshopping came in 2007. I was adrift on an extended travel, aimless—the kind of travel that’s marred by the constant anxiety of needing more funds to continue the trip. I took up residence in Beijing with an Icelandic expat who’d decided to write a novel. The man spent countless nights painfully toiling over his computer, empty Ching Dow stubbies stacked over the kitchen table, ashtray overflowing. On mornings when I’d wake, I’d find him sleepless and crazed, walking around our level-sixteen salmon-coloured apartment reciting lines, asking me about cadence and rhythm, grilling me about his protagonist’s motivations. Back then I wasn’t a writer at all; I’d tell him to go to bed, let it rest. I grew tired of his constant need for feedback, his relentless desire to expose himself like that.

It was with a certain irony that eight years later I returned to China a writer for residency. The night I arrived, I gazed out at the pimple-faced lights of Guangzhou and tried to reconnect with who I’d been before. This was the same China I remembered, of dirty pastel-coloured high-rises and push bikes, of red signage and smog, but I was irrevocably different.

IMG_0407

 

 

We sat around a 15 seater table taking turns, the philosophy being that we would ‘get to know one another through our writing’. As an emerging writer, I’ve only ever workshopped in a university context, in classes of fellow emerging writers all coming to terms with their craft. Perhaps it’s the fact of studying the craft so closely that leads to a workshopping experience that focuses on the minutiae of your writing: the syntax, the rhythm, the words. The WrICE experience afforded me a different type of workshop. An hour was spent on each story, slowly dissecting both the characters’ and the writer’s motivations, and the story’s specific and universal themes. Here, the deeper layers were the thing. What’s it about? Writers asked. What’s it really about? Forcing me to traverse below the surface layers of my story and ask bigger questions about the human condition and why we desire to tell the stories we do. Maybe it was the insightful opportunity of sharing my stories with people who live in very different contexts, people who have unique identities and perspectives on the world that forced me to look at my story fresh and uncover layers I didn’t know existed.

 

IMG_0414

 

 

My stories touch on things that are shameful and sad. I find sharing my work terribly exposing. As people, we dance around our gaps. And yet, on the page this is harder to do. I used to harbour an ambivalence about the act of writing. A sort-of suspicion born from the memory of my Icelandic friend; I’d be laboured by questions around what writing was essentially for and if it was just an indulgent luxury. Now I understand writing as an offering.

IMG_0425

 

 

One of my favourite poets Anis Mojgani once wrote: all of this has never been for me … for I am cutting out parts of myself to give them to you. As writers, we give of ourselves when we share our work—and it can be awfully frightening. Indeed, we engage in the act of exchanging stories to build conduits of understanding. And in doing so, we open ourselves up and give others permission to do the same.

IMG_0448

I feel blessed to have been able to share my stories with some of the Asia-Pacific’s most cutting-edge and talented writers. I’ve come away with insights into why we choose to share our work; and why this has the potential to deepen our understanding of both others and ourselves.

 

Story: Mia Wotherspoon

The dynamics of group workshopping

The hotel in Yangshuo where WrICE residents stayed and workshopped

The hotel in Yangshuo where WrICE residents stayed and workshopped.

This first part of this year’s WrICE residency took part in Yangshuo, a tropical, mountainous town in south-east China. Over five days, each writer presented his or her work to the group for feedback and advice.

Sharing your work can be a nerve-racking experience, because you expose your writing and yourself to your peers and their judgement. You’re especially vulnerable when you don’t know your peers very well, so we were all keen to get to know each other.

We had a group dinner and learnt a bit about one other and what we’re each working on; and we took turns at presenting some polished work to the rest of the group. The readings were powerful and thought-provoking, and gave everyone an idea of the amazing talent in the group. It was a brilliant way to introduce ourselves and to connect with each other. By the end of the night, we were all a lot closer and we all realised that we were in a safe space to share our work.

2-WrICE-fellows-workshopping-in-China-in-2016

Workshopping always involved a lot of deep discussion.

The residency provided something that’s priceless for a writer: time and space to write.

We had free time until 3pm each day and everyone usually used this time to write. Seeing everyone else working hard all around me, I felt motivated to produce something worthy of my new colleagues. I was amazed at my newfound mysterious ability to avoid procrastination, as I forced myself to enter the writing zone. Wanting the respect of your peers is a great motivator.

From 3pm to 6pm we all convened to workshop each other’s work. We could present anything we wanted, but I always find workshopping is a great opportunity to get feedback on something I’m struggling with – I’m often too close to my own work to see it’s problems. Other times, I experiment and try new things – with voice, character, dialogue and form – to find out whether it works or not. There were sharp minds around me and I trusted their creative instincts.

3-WrICE-residency-dinner-China-2016

Bonding over Beer Fish.

The group was comprised of established writers, early career writers and a few student writers, but everyone’s opinion had equal weight. Writers often have different creative processes, but they often face the same challenges, for example, with plot, pace, consistency, character motivations and so on. There was now a mutual respect and friendship between us, and all feedback was given openly and with deference.

After Yangshuo, we travelled to Guangzhou where we collaborated with Sun Yat-sen University in a number of events. I was privileged to run a workshop with Filipino writer and fellow WrICE participant, Larry Ypil. The students did a few writing exercises and enthusiastically shared their work, and I was amazed by the quality and weight of their work, which for them was written in a foreign language, English.

4-Larry-Ypil-and-Ara-Sarafian-nonfiction-workshop-at-Sun-Yat-sen-university-in-China

A group photo with the students in the nonfiction workshop.

In the workshop, we discussed with students the importance of finding connections in their work – whether this is a connection to place, such as home, or connections between the themes and ideas in their work. “You might not find these connections until you’ve finished writing a draft of the whole story or manuscript,” I said, “but you will usually be able to find some connections and symbology.”

Now that the residency has ended, I find myself thinking about the new connections I’ve made with the other WrICE writers.

Writing is often a difficult and lonely venture, but experienced, talented writers often encounter the same challenges with the craft. It’s natural to feel vulnerable when you read your work to others, because you’re presenting something raw that has come from deep within you.

If you find people you trust and who understand the writing process, you can feel safe that they’ll respect your writing and therefore you. I’m grateful to have found such people through WrICE.

Story: Ara Sarafian

Writing Workshops in Guangzhou

 

IMG_9135“Cultural exchange” happens in myriad ways, as in the WrICE workshops at Sun Yat-sen University. The workshop leaders, fresh from their own immersive writing experience in Yangshuo, ran three two-hour sessions on 12 April for mostly Chinese English-language and creative writing students. The space, organised by Professor DAI Fan, was a light-infused corner room amid the treetops.

Australian writers Alice Pung and Michele Lee ran the first workshop, “Telling Stories”. Alice began with an activity. “Write about your birth from the point of view of someone other than yourself,” said Alice. “But there are two rules. You must not tell us your birthplace and the period in which you were born.” These were to be described.

Eliza Vitri Handayani and Maggie Tiojakin presenting at workshopIn the sharing of the students’ vignettes, we heard of the intimate and personal drawn on the big canvas of history. Indeed, this correspondence between personal and political, private and public, threaded a morning of writing and sharing stories. I was struck by the participants’ enthusiasm for story as a way of making sense of the world – of a gay uncle lost to a mental institution during the Cultural Revolution; of the untended rice paddies and the old people left behind as the young head for the cities. Universal stories animated by their specificity.

Students listening to speakersIndonesian writers Eliza Vitri Handayani and Maggie Tiojakin also know what it is to write from life. But this day their focus was on fiction. Eliza, whose own writing explores the student protests against Suharto in the 1990s, encouraged the students to think about personalising the big events, to centre the story on character. Asking the “what if” question of real events was one technique. Maggie extended this with a three-step approach to developing a story from historical events – start with an idea or event, frame a “what if” question, then in the answer find the story. “Think about the potential of the story, not what the audience wants,” said Maggie. “Write stories you fall in love with.”

The WrICE banner by the door reminded everyone why they were there: “fostering connections between Australian and Asian writers and writing.” But I suspect people came for their own reasons. Regardless, this corner room offered a safe space for beginning and emerging writers to learn from published writers from other lands, and to begin to write and share their own stories. There was a bravery in this, especially when the story touched something deep and painful. This was when the exchange went both ways: these stories, spoken about and read out, raw and true, felt like a gift.
IMG_9144
Story: Penny Johnson

 

Writers from Asia Pacific join residencies in China and Melbourne

Five writers from the Asia Pacific will take part in a collaborative residency as part of RMIT’s Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program (WrICE).

The writers who have been awarded the fellowships are Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji), Lawrence Lacambra Ypil (The Philippines), DAI Fan (China), Eliza Vitri Handayani and Maggie Tiojakin both from Indonesia. They will join Australian writers Alice Pung and Michele Lee on their residences along with RMIT writing students Peter Clynes, Ara Sarafian and Mia Wotherspoon in Guangzhou and Yangshuo, China.

WrICE Co-Director, Associate Professor Francesca Rendle-Short said the Asia Pacific writers will make a wonderful contribution to the rich cultural mix that WrICE is known for along with Australian writers with Anglo, Cambodian and Hmong heritages. “I can’t wait to hear what sort of conversations all these writers will have together across the WrICE table and through the sharing of writing and their culture. I have no doubt it will be a genuine exchange of the highest order,” said Rendle-Short.

WRICEINTERNATIONALWritersImage_v1Fan, a Chinese writer and Professor of English at Sun Yat-sen University will host the group travelling to China. “The Sun Yat-sen University Centre for English-language Creative Writing cannot wait to welcome the WrICE group for this special opportunity to interact with local people and culture,” said Fan.

A poet and essayist from The Philippines, Lacambra Ypil’s first book of poems, The Highest Hiding Place was given the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award. Lacambra Ypil said WrICE will give him the chance to think what it means to be a writer in the Asia-Pacific region with its particular historical conditions and aesthetic traditions. “Working in the company of other writers will allow me to explore these concerns and how they shape the trajectory of my own writing,” he said.

Vitri Handayani said WrICE will enable her to get plenty of insight into the literary scene and conditions for writing and publishing in the countries where the other participants are working in. “That awareness can help to increase literary traffic between the countries, as we may see opportunities to market and promote works in countries we wouldn’t consider before,” she said.

The residency in China will be followed by a workshop and public events in Melbourne in association with the Melbourne Writers Festival, Footscray Community Arts Centre and Castlemaine arts in August.

Story: Alison Barker and Wendy Little

WrICE Established Writer and Early Career fellowships

The RMIT WrICE Program’s Established Writer and Early Career Writer Fellowships have been granted to multi-award winning writer Alice Pung (Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda) and Michele Lee, Asian-Australian playwright and author whose memoir Banana Girl was published in 2013.

The Fellows will join a face-to-face community of writers in a collaborative immersion residency in Guangzhou and Yangshou, China, in April 2016 and a reciprocal residency later that year in Melbourne, in association with the Melbourne Writers Festival and Footscray Community Arts Centre.

aliceAlice Pung, who has this year been shortlisted as Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Novelist of the Year, said ‘I am so honoured to be invited to go to Guangzhou on this fellowship. What makes this trip even more special is that the South of China is where my family ancestry derives, and it will be the first time my husband and baby will visit China. I feel like I am going back to my roots, as a writer.’

micheleMichele Lee, who is a graduate of the RMIT Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing said ‘I think WrICE will help me shake up my own illusions, some new, some formed in childhood, and some long before that, inherited from my parents and theirs before them. And these useful ruptures will trickle into my imagination, into my keyboard, into writing.’

‘Since 2014, we have brought together 22 emerging and established writers from the across the region for collaborative residencies and public events in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Melbourne’ said WrICE Co-Director David Carlin. ‘WrICE is forming a rich mosaic of connections between writers across the region, a creative community in which Alice Pung and Michele Lee will be both warmly welcomed and highly esteemed.’

WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program) is a program of reciprocal cultural exchange and cultural immersion focused on writers and writing.  WrICE is an initiative of the nonfictionLab at RMIT University, generously supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

For interviews and general media enquiries: Alison Barker, 0433389497

Emerging RMIT writers off to China with the WrICE Program

Peter Clynes, Ara Sarafian and Mia Wotherspoon, all current students at RMIT, will head to Guangzhou and Yangshou in April 2016, along with other emerging and established writers. The WrICE program will provide a life-changing experience for the emerging fellows, who have already begun to make their mark as writers.

Clynes, a student of RMIT’s Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) and Diploma of Languages in Chinese, has acted as a co-editor for theQueen’s College Newspaper, and co-founded the Kumiho Society in order to self-publish a collection of short stories and visual arts with other members of his programs.

Ara

RMIT’s Ara Sarafian and Mia Wotherspoon

Sarafian is a previous winner of the Australian Writers’ Centre short story competition and been published in The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, and The Conversation, among others. He was short listed for the 2015 Monash Creative Writing Prize and is now writing his first manuscript while working part-time as an online editor for the ABC.

 Wotherspoon has previously undertaken an editorial internship for The Lifted Brow, and has written for Visible Ink. She is currently a freelance writer and editor, and is working on a full-length manuscript, a collection of short stories and some creative nonfiction warticles. Sarafian and Wotherspoon are both studying RMIT’s Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing. 

RMIT’s WrICE program, which aims to build an Asia-Pacific community of writers, spark networks and raise the professional profile of writers across the region, is an initiative of nonfictionLab with support from the Copyright Agency. Between 2013 and 2015, WrICE has brought together 24 emerging and established writers from the across the region for collaborative residencies and public events in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Melbourne.

Story by Emma Morgan (edited by Katrien Van Huyck)

WrICE fellows present at the Footscray Community Arts Centre

In late August, WrICE and Footscray Community Arts Centre worked together to present the diverse talents of participating fellows from the 2015 Vietnam trip. WrICE writers took part in numerous events in the Poetic (Days) Weekend, including a panel discussion, masterclasses and the program highlight poetry event, One Night Stanza.

1

On a cold Friday evening we were treated to a panel featuring Cate Kennedy, Jhoanna Cruz and Bao Chan Nguyen. The women discussed diversity and representation across literary mediums, how beneficial cultural immersion is to a writer, the struggles women face in the literary sector and how much they themselves were willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. South Australian Writer, Manal Younus was our host and did a
wonderful job of asking thoughtful, intelligent questions and encouraging the writers to speak freely.

We returned on an equally cold Saturday night for One Night Stanza, an all-women poetry event with WrICE writers Melody Paloma, Jhoanna Cruz and Bao Chan Nguyen. The event also featured poets Mayda Del Valle, Atong Atem and Manal Younus. One Night Stanza was an incredible event. Every poem felt important. They ranged from sad to funny to sweet and sometimes confronting. The performers read beautifully, clear voices carrying all the way to the back seats.

2It felt very special to sit in a warm room with our seats packed tightly together listening to these women read to us, showing us the value of poetry, as well as its power.

Writers Across Borders

Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2015

MWF

Melbourne Writers Festival

2015 Myanmar WrICE fellow, Nyein Way, participated in a panel discussion about Writing and Censorship at the Melbourne Writers Festival. He was joined by writers Miguel Syjuco (Philippines) and Sheng Keyi (China). The discussion was chaired by Melbourne writer Arnold Zable.

From left: Arnold Zable, Miguel Syjuco, Nyein Way, Sheng Keyi

From left: Arnold Zable, Miguel Syjuco, Nyein Way, Sheng Keyi