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On Stories and Storytelling (3)

(Last of 3 Parts)

One subject that I miss teaching  is Creative Writing. I consider it an ultimate challenge as an English and literature teacher to teach the said subject. It is quite challenging to lead a study of the different forms of discourse with the end goal of developing in the students the ability to write narrative, descriptive, expository, and argumentative compositions. What adds to the challenge is making the students understand the principles of stylistics, literary criticism, and linguistic and literary devices. As course requirements, I required them to submit a movie review, a short story analysis, two essays, and a short story.

When I created the syllabus for the course, I intentionally did not include poetry. It wasn’t just possible for me to cover both prose and poetry in one semester. It would  be difficult for them had I included a poem among those they should submit at the end of the term.

My students had struggles with writing stories. It was easier for them to produce essays. They just toyed with the movie review and short story analysis. Yes, it was easy for them to deconstruct a story and break it down into its different parts –  the so-called elements of fiction. But most of them had difficulty putting those component parts to  construct their own stories.

I told them that I had the same struggles when I began writing. My first stories then were terrible (I hope they are better now.) Writing a story is a skill that would require time to develop. I explained to them that the most famous and talented writers had to hone their craft over  a period of many years. Admittedly, I didn’t have statistical data to support that statement but it was (and still is) safe to assume that the literary greats had “burned oil in many midnights” before they attained their greatness.

I did not mention about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule for it might just instantly extinguish any flickering hope of any one of them to become a writer. Perhaps some of them may have bumped into that idea later on. If during those times I have already known about Kaufman’s 20 hour-rule, I would not be mentioning it either for I don’t like to give them false hope that it would take that so short a time to become good at writing stories.

To become good at writing stories, you have to attain a certain degree of fluency or proficiency in the language you are using to write your stories. If saying that your sentences should be syntactically correct is a mouthful then let me just say that they (your sentences) should be correct and comprehensible.

You already have an advantage if the language you intend to use to write your stories is your native language. You very well know how important is vocabulary in writing. Consider this: Native-level fluency (this is from Wikipedia) is estimated to require a lexicon between 20,000 to 40,000 words.

But it doesn’t mean that being a native speaker of that language automatically makes one a good writer. If so, we could have had lots of Shakespeares, Hemmingways,  Tolstoys, Hugos, Tagores, Xuns, and Rizals.   Many native speakers of their own languages could not write a simple story or a poem.

Proficiency in a language is only one of the many skills you have to develop. There are other skills necessary to writing well including the ability to choose the right words to develop related ideas, organize those ideas into a cohesive whole, and to creatively combine and contrast those ideas. And as I reiterated in part 1 of this 3-part series… “Writing stories require that you should be able to knit together the elements of fiction within the frame of the plot, to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis, falling action, and resolution.” 

In short, writing stories is an art and I doubt if anybody could learn it in just 20 hours. Just developing proficiency in a language, if you are not a native speaker of that language, is not achievable in 20 hours.  However, you might think spending 10,000 hours to develop a specific skill would probably be too much – unless you want to acquire true expertise in a specific field. If you do it for 5 days a week, because you might need a 2-day break, that’s 4 hours a day in nine years. 

You probably would like to start developing your writing skills at least one hour each day. That’s what I have been doing. It works for me.

Prior to writing the short story, I would require my students to submit a 10-sentence story line of the story that they are planning to write. One time, when I was giving them examples of story lines off the top of my head, one of them asked me where am I getting ideas for my stories.

Before answering that question, I asked them to, again, define literature. Then one of them gave exactly the definition upon which I intended to anchor my answer to the question one of them asked  – “Literature is a faithful reproduction of life executed in an artistic pattern.”

I explained that what we read in stories mirror the things happening in real life. Writers draw ideas for their stories from the experiences of people around them and from theirs as well. That’s how I do it.

“Literature,” I added, “is an artistic expression of significant human experiences.” (I can’t recall anymore who said that.) That’s the reason why when we are reading stories or watching movies we feel like it’s our personal story being told.

I told my students that rarely do I borrow someone’s experience to write a story because my life itself is a fountain of many story lines.

Part 1

Part 2

On Stories and Storytelling (2)

(Second of 3 Parts)

Obviously, the conflict is the problem to be resolved in a story. If you are familiar with literature, you know that there are three categories of conflict – man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself. Janet Burroway  proposed that the following should be included – man vs society, man vs God, and man vs machine. We may also refer to them as sources of conflict.

Sometime ago, in one of my literature classes in the Philippines, I told my students to watch the movie “Titanic.” That was when our topic was “elements of fiction.” Students would prefer watching movies over reading short stories or novels when dissecting stories.

When I asked them to identify the central conflict in the story, most of them answered “man vs nature.” You would understand why that was the answer given by them –Jack and Rose (and all the rest of the passengers) have to survive the sinking of the ship.   They were surprised when I told them that there’s a dual conflict in the story. There are two sources – “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” While the star-crossed lovers try to figure out how to stay away from the icy water of the ocean, they also have to contend with an extremely angry Cal  and his loyal minion Lovejoy.

That’s how clever some writers are. They push their readers or audience closer to the edge of their seats – to the edge of the cliff of excitement – by inserting a conflict within a conflict. With that, they make the “rising action” more intense. When a writer uses multiple sources of conflict, with all the conflicts equally significant, I call it “layered conflict.” (I am not sure if I was the first to call it this way.)

What if the one who wrote the script for the “Titanic” added an extra layer of conflict? Let’s say that somebody steals the necklace (“Heart of the Ocean”) and Rose asks Jack that they have to do everything to take it back. Let’s say that the thief is a hardened criminal who is willing to kill just to keep what he has stolen. Would the story be more exciting if while the lovers are trying to survive the unfolding sea tragedy, they have to pursue the one who took the expensive jewel and at the same time hide from Cal and Lovejoy?

I told my students that it will be easier for them to explain the conflict of  a story by starting with a guide question. In the case of the dual conflict in the Titanic, the questions should be: Will Jack and Rose survive the anger of Cal? Will they (also) survive the sinking of the ship?

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In another class – Literary Criticism –  I taught my students how to trace symbolism in stories. I also used the movie Titanic for the activity. It was easy for them to pick the necklace and explain the symbolism behind it – that the jewel is a symbol of Rose’s heart and her love for Jack. They gave nothing more about symbolism after the necklace.

So, I told them that for symbolism, they should not focus only on objects. The story – the writer – may try to convey a meaning through events in the story. For example, I  asked them if they could see any meaning beyond the band continuing to play while the ship is sinking. What about the sinking of the Titanic? What does it convey?

I told them that the decision of the band to continue playing while the ship sinks conveys two things. Firstly, it shows the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Secondly, that there are people that when confronted by whatever is inevitable, they could face it courageously.

And what does the sinking of the mighty “Titanic” symbolize? It shows how helpless mankind is against the forces of nature.

Part 3

Part 1

The Eulogy

(A Dramatic Monologue)

I promised not to cry. That is if I could help it. But should the people notice tears cascade from my eyes…should they hear my voice crack…should I suddenly break into tears… I know they will excuse me.  I know they understand. I know that they share the grief that I and the rest of my family feel.

Now I must tell them what I need to say…

We are all grieving for in that casket lies the body of a husband, father, friend and leader. Lifeless that he is now but he remains alive in our hearts and in our minds.

Should you ask me  to extol the qualities of that man as a husband, father and friend I could tell a thousand reasons why he is so beloved. But how is he as a leader? Ask me not for I am his son, what do you expect me to say. So, be the judge.

I dare you speak in this gathering now. Tell me. Divulge in this assembly. Has he done anything that tarnished the supposedly good image of a public servant? Has he accepted any bribe from anyone of you? Have you received five hundred pesos or a thousand from him so you would write his name in the ballot? Don’t be silent. Tell me that my father lied when the night before he died he assured us that never has he committed any act that will ruin the good name of our family.

I have to admit that there were many times when I was young that I begrudged his being a leader. Why? Him wanting to serve you took away a lot of quality time from us. I’m sorry. I was selfish. I did not like to share my father’s love and attention.

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I begrudged the fact that the families of my father’s fellow public servants have gone from rags to riches…instant millionaires. Their houses became bigger while we remained in the old house that my mother inherited from her parents. They have new cars while my father kept driving his old owner-type jeep. Their children graduated from prestigious universities while I had to endure the rigors of being a scholar and a working student in our state university. How I almost hated my father when he refused the offer of the university president that I become a scholar without taking any examination. He said that just like everybody else I have to go through the process. It’s a scholarship. I must have it only if I deserve it.

One time when my family faced a severe financial crisis, I confronted my father and said, “I heard about that bidding for that road project. Why don’t you just accept a commission from one of the bidders so our problem will be solved. Just once dad!” The only response I got from him was a slap in the face. I would have gotten more had my mother not intervened.

Then from being the head of this town your urged him to lead the whole province. He accepted the challenge. Then he rocked the boat. What he did in our town he promised to do to the province…rid it of illegal gambling, drugs and corruption…stop the quarrying being done in the mountains and rivers…bring our province back to the map of significance.

The latest surveys show him leading by a mile. His opponents got very nervous.

Then a week ago, while talking to some supporters, a visitor came to our house, a man accompanied by a slew of bodyguards. One of them was carrying a large travelling bag. He wanted us to just call him Mr. Chua. The supporters of my father went out when the talk started. I stayed. I was requested to open the travelling bag and there I saw bundles of crispy thousand bills.

“Withdraw from the race and you’ll have all of these. There’s another travelling bag in my van, if that is not enough. Refuse it and you know what will happen.” Mr. Chua said.

My father looked at me. He stood and approached Mr. Chua then slapped him. “How dare you bribe me in my house and in front of my son.”

As Mr. Chua wiped the blood from his lips he said, “You made your choice.”

The visitors left with their money.

The following day, while delivering a talk in a meeting… what I considered inevitable… what I feared was certain to happen… came to past. My father met his tragic end. A hail of bullet reportedly from two gunmen killed him.

Now we are grieving. Crying. Lost. A flock left by a shepherd.  You asked me if I could continue my father’s fight. I told you that my father asked me never to follow in his footsteps.

But for the first time in my life that I will go against my father’s desire. Forgive me father…but I feel obliged to continue what you started. They killed you but the flame of change which you kindled will not be extinguished by the bullet they sprayed on you. Your blood spilled is not a water  doused on that flame but a gasoline that will keep it burning.

My father will not bring to his grave the reforms he sought. His visions for a better life for all of us in this province will not die with him.

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