I’d heard from others that teaching Creative Writing to undergrads, one tends to see things that those students don’t or can’t express anywhere else. In Canada, I recall hearing classes tended to have to wade through story after story of students’ first sexual experiences, of their best or worst sexual experiences, of imagined sexual experiences, and of course the perennial fantasies of sexual violence (mostly by male students).
Well, I am happy to report that this isn’t my experience in Korea. I’ve been teaching creative writing for a semester now to some really bright Korean undergrads who have pretty good English, and who seem to be getting a lot of what I talk about with them. Their stories are getting more and more nuanced, interesting, and powerful with each exercise, critique, and revision.
But… as with Canadians, it is also providing me with a very unusual, and sometimes slightly unsettling, look into the psychology of my students. I don’t mean to suggest I’m reading all the stories as if they all correspond to my students’ thinking, fantasies, or whatever. But it’s more about the deep orientation of one’s mind that shines through in one’s writing.
For example, in my own writing, there is an undeniable and unmistakable anti-authoritarian streak: characters are always fighting against some kind of big bad system, organization, or problem. They are almost never “working within the system.” They are almost always oppressed by the system personally, but pushed into it by the oppression by the system of large groups of others. They often blow shit up, or do things that are called, in mainstream society, terrorism. I don’t always approve of what they do. I often sympathize with their being at wit’s end in trying to figure out how to kill the Big Evil Elephant in the Room That Everyone Else is Trying to Ignore.
Being that I’m conscious of this, I’m of course working on diversifying my character types. “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)”, in Shine, was an attempt to move past that virtuous rebel character to a character who (a) is fighting alongside others, (b) is fighting a systemic problem which is not represented by “bad guys,” (c) mistakenly identifies some bad guys, and (d) ends up realizing way more people want an outcome like the one he wants, and he can work with them to achieve it.
I’m currently working on a story featuring a character who is, well, probably a borderline personality or something. He’s not a sociopath — though there is a sociopath in the story, and he recognizes that individual for what she is and it scares him — but he’s not all that sympathetic, not all that much of a crusader. He’s more a guy with pretty weak levels of compassion and altruism, who is nonetheless fighting for his survival in a world gone mad. (Or suddenly sane, maybe.)
As I often say: once you notice a habit in your writing, you need to try move away from it.
Well, in my students’ stories, there are some very interesting fixations and anxieties showing up. I feel as if they’re giving me a glimpse of their concerns, whether it’s the degree of racism present in (white) American society (though racism in Korea is curiously ignored, even when implicitly depicted); sexism and the sense that Korean society is becoming more violent (regardless of whether it’s true, many Koreans seem to believe that their society is growing more violent now); questions of sexuality/sexual identity/gender and their explicit social functions, and of breaking out of strict molds for any of these aspects of personality; the status of Korea on the intenational stage; notions of physical beauty and desirability of women in the eyes of men; and tensions with North Korea.
Oh, and of course, stuff any psychoanalyst would have a field day with: so many dead, dying, or murdered fathers; so many orphans; so few scenes involving a meal (unlike Korean cinema, where every narrative must include at least one meal)…
The last one has me wondering whether meals get written a lot in Korean fiction or not, actually. I don’t think I’ve run across very many meal scenes in the many translations of Korean stories and books I’ve read, come to think of it. Hmmm.
It’s been interesting. But I think next semester, in Creative Writing 2, it’s going to be poetry. I ran a poetry course a few years ago, which balanced readings and writing, and held a reading at the end of semester. It was great, we even did up a little chapbook. The poetry class was an evening class and got dropped from the roster, but I will try resurrect it in the second Creative Writing course. (And try get them specifically labeled: CRWR 1 is prose, CRWR 2 is poetry. We’ll see: if it affects enrollment, maybe not. But the poetry class was big… and great!)