Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It's the middle of the week, and hitherto, I've sat through three of my five lectures for the week. Here is, by the way, a list of the modules I'm taking this semester:

1. EL2211: Historical Variation of English (50% open-book final exam, 15% class test, 15% individual essay, 10% group project, 10% class participation inclusive of group presentation)
2. EL2201: Structure of Sentences and Meaning (60% open-book final exam - not essay-based, 30% open-book quizzes, 10% class participation)
3. EN2271: Introduction to Playwriting
4. LAC3204: Chinese for Business and Social Science. Don't let your jaw hang too loose. I'll get to this one in a bit.
5. EC2101: Microeconomics

The week started off with EL2211 lecture. As expected, this is a pretty content-heavy module, but Gerlynn was right in saying it's actually pretty interesting. We learn about Old English and the like, and how it evolved (in terms of spelling, grammar and lexicon) over the ages to what it is now. The text we have to analyse for our group project is A Midsommer Nights Dreame, and the final exam counts for 50% of our final grade. I've seen the past semester test papers, and all I can say is that I signed up for this, so I might as well take all this in my stride.

But at least, despite the demands of this module, I know what to expect. Because I've taken English (EL) modules before, so I know the approximate level of rigour and what to expect by now. This is more than I could say for LAC3204. When I entered the seminar room, I had no idea who would be there, or how many people. There were 25 in all, and the group consists of a Canadian, a couple of Malaysians and a couple of PRCs. The notes were entirely in Chinese, and people spoke Mandarin (well, except for me and three girls from the Law Faculty, so we stuck together in class - good to flock with people you can communicate better with, right?). The lecturer is the maternal sort. I don't know about you, but my impression of Chinese teachers is that they are always maternal and nice. And Laoshi totally fits the stereotype. She has a background in media and commerce since she worked for several years in Mediacorp and a media group in Hong Kong (news production and associated fields). But, you know, as nervous as I was about the class, Laoshi managed to ease us into it and it turned out to be a surprisingly refreshing class, though we're expected to write some essays in Chinese and present it in front of the class. I'm not nervous about presenting in front of the class, but the fact that, after so many years of being spared from Chinese oral, speaking Mandarin in front of a crowd sounds daunting, to say the least. But I'll worry about that in due time.

The third class, today's class, was EN2271. And similarly, I didn't know what to expect. I've never experienced having a critique group before. There were 12 of us in all (Valerie-Ann, Tamara Kisha, Luke, Nick, Melissa, Joanne, Hazel, Denise, Koon Hui, Huiyi, Shah, and me), selected from the list of applicants. We had to submit three scenes written (in prose, poetry, play, etc) in response to three words respectively: Abdication, Vindication, and Restitution. With that, the 12 of us ended up in the seminar room, seated around a long meeting table, facing Dr Husir, playwright and firm believer that the arts is far superior to sciences. That's a touchy issue, highly debatable, so I won't espouse or expound on that. But while Dr Husir declares that he is not an academic and that we shouldn't regard EN2271 as an academic module, EN2271 is one of the most demanding modules in FASS, as his ex students tell him. That's what I've heard too. Each week, we have to write an essay regarding a play (issued by him), along with writing an act of our own and submitting it next lesson for critique.

After introductions were made (half the class were Lit majors), Dr Husir set us a prompt and got us to work. A scene in the midst of the Queensland flood with the opening line by a character: "Why do you keep looking out the window?" Written in twenty minutes. I'll post my attempt here in a bit. Mine's in prose form, though I cut back on the details that can't be realised in play.

Once we were done, we had to read our piece aloud (and rope in the person next to us to help act out the other character(s) in the story) and let the group offer feedback. And you know, it's terrifying, having to read out your work to a group of strangers. But I received constructive feedback (how rare to have people actually pay attention to your work and offer advice to improve it!) from the group. Dr Husir said I managed to use the flood as a backdrop to a large character conflict that develops with the story, but I needed to pay attention to developing the narrative as a play and not prose. I have zero experience with plays. The only two plays I've ever read are Antony and Cleopatra (for Lit in JC) and The Importance of Being Earnest (by the ever delightful Oscar Wilde), so it seems I really have a lot to work on.

Listening to what the rest have written, though, was so much less sweat. There were several that I really liked, like Luke's and Valerie's and Nick's and (I forgot her name - sorry!). Luke wrote a piece about a battered-wife mermaid who was trapped by her husband but liberated because of the flood. Which is a really interesting take. It's unique and refreshing, exactly the way fantasy fiction should be. And Valerie's was a delicately written piece that played on words and had a sweet silver-lining ending where the character revealed she was looking for a rainbow amid the flood. It seems her writing is as delicate as she looks. She has the sort of feminine frailty and childlike vulnerability in her face that is the sort that I imagine photographers like to capture. Nick's was a funny piece between a bimbo and a neurotic boy who took every precaution not to let the waters in the house. The bimbo went on and on about Santa Claus being able to enter the house, at least, because the roof was dry, so baby kangaroos could be born because it was Santa who put joeys in the pockets of kangaroos. And the boy's yelling at her for thinking about joeys in the middle of a flood, and she said kangaroos are important and then she suddenly saw a crocodile and asked the boy if it would eat them and then to wave to it, and the boy demanded why on earth he would wave to something that was planning to eat him...

Nick's writing is typical of a male POV. I've always thought male writers are either funny in their prose, or boringly methodical. Nick happens, it seems, to belong to the first group.

And the last piece I enjoyed (I still can't recall her name, but she's a Lit major) was about a family trapped in a house while the flood's going on outside and the mother's sister, Aunt Rose, is crying to be let in because the water's at chest level. But the mother's adamant about not letting "dangerous characters in during dangerous times" despite her husband telling her to let her sister in. The scene then went on with the two children watching their aunt struggle and drown, all reported in a detached manner ("Oh look, she's going down now"). The story appeared light-hearted, even funny, but belied a sinister thread that left me slightly uneasy. Some commented on how dysfunctional the family was, and I suppose that's why it made me squirm. Dark humour is really difficult to achieve. Too little and your reader might miss it; too much and it'll prove counter-effective. But I think the writer handled it well.

So many good writers in the class. I hope I'll improve in my writing with the help of this class and the various characters in it, and I'm completely looking forward to reading more of their work. There's just so much to learn when it comes to the craft of writing! That, I've always felt, is one of the reasons why writing is such an engaging activity. There's always room to improve, always something new you learn about yourself and the way you perceive the world.

Okay, I hope this is a sufficiently long post, Gerlynn. (She's always bugging me to blog - I have to remember to thank her for that.) Till next time!

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