I decided to just go with our final version here, the one with the Chinese translation underneath every slide paragraph. For Shiliu Education.
Creative Writing: The Key to Unlocking Innovative Thinking.
Jason Edward Harrington
Opening: Ni hao! Wo jiao Jason! That’s the only thing I can say in Chinese, although I want to learn more. Hopefully, one day some of your children will be my Chinese speaking teachers, in return for me being their English writing teacher! Welcome to my lecture! Let’s begin.
Slide 1: Question: What are Americans good at? Besides being a little too fat and eating far too much fast food?
Answer: Innovation— Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook,the Internet itself. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy in college for months. Learning obscure, beautiful handwriting doesn’t sound like an ingredient for a multi-billion-dollar company, does it? However, this creative, unusual decision by Jobs ended up being a huge part of Apple’s success in product design. Learning to think creatively is a key part in learning to thrive in, and compete with, the Western world, as well as with the world in general.
Can you think of another thing thatAmericans are generally the best at?
Slide 2: Making movies! Without doubt, American films are the most popular and influential in the world. And actually, it was movies that started my writing journey. At age 12, I bought a book on “How to Write Screenplays.” I finished my first full screenplay at age 15. It was a comedy. Nobody read it except my mother. She thought it was great, but then again, mothers think everything their children create is beautiful, even if it’s ugly as a deformed pig.
I then began writing screenplays for short movies, and filming them on a cheap video recorder my parents bought for me. After I finished making the movies, which starred such famous actors as my sister, my cousin, and my best friend, I showed them to small groups of schoolmates. I’ll never forget the moment one of my school friends said, “Oh my god, I’m actually scared right now!” when watching a short horror movie I had filmed. My creative work was actually having an effect on people, small as it was.
Slide 3: In high school, we began having creative writing months, where we would spend 2 weeks writing a story, and then, after finishing, go to the front of the class one by one to read our short fiction aloud. My story was sci-fi, influenced by Michael Crichton, the author of “Jurassic Park.” In undergrad, I double majored in creative writing and screenwriting. Both of these subjects were in the creative writing department, because creative writing can be a lot of things.
At its core, creative writing is original writing that expresses thoughts in an imaginative way. It’s the art of making things up—some authors have joked that they lie for a living!— or putting a creative twist on history (as in creative historical nonfiction). Creative writing goes outside of professional, academic, or technical forms of writing. Magazine stories can be considered creative writing, even though they fall under journalism. So both fictional and nonfictional works are considered creative writing, including novels, biographies, short stories, and poems.
Creative writing is marked by the use of entertaining literary techniques and style. I first learned about lovely literary style in university, from an old, bald, brilliant Russian man. He was a poet and a mathematician, who was prone to passionate outbursts in which he’d slam thick Russian novels on his desk to get us to pay attention.
Through him I gained a love for the great Russian writers, especially Vladimir Nabokov. And by reading Nabokov I learned that the language and scenes in creative writing can be just as captivating as those in movies, with imagery as rich, flavorful, and spicy as the hotpot in Chengdu. The old Russian also taught me the relationship between reading and writing. Being a mathematician as well as a poet, he taught me the structured and disciplined side of creative writing. “To succeed as a writer, you must have ‘stick-to-it-veness’, he would say. Stick-to-it-veness was a word he had cleverly invented: a combination of words, meaning “the quality of sticking to it.”
In other words, you must persevere, work very hard and never give up to succeed in creative writing. The old Russian taught me that creative writing is not just about running wild with imagination, or splashing emotional opinions on the page. It is also about perseverance, clever thinking, hard work, and a lot of practice.
And in creative writing, a lot of practice comes through reading— a key part of learning how to write well is by absorbing how other accomplished and skillful authors write.
The Russian taught us a good exercise for bringing reading and writing together: mimicking the writing of great authors, also called “parodying” a writer. With the help of the Russian’s parody assignments, I ended up publishing several parodies of classic authors. It’s great for students to mimic the style and voice of great authors. Then, they can develop their own style and voice, after having mastered the style of classic writers.
俄罗斯老师教我们一个很好的结合阅读和写作的练习：模仿伟大作家作品。 在俄罗斯老师的模仿训练的帮助下， 我最终出版了几部经典作品的仿作。对于学生来说，模仿伟大作家的风格和观点是很好的写作训练。在掌握了经典作家的风格后，他们就可以发展自己的风格和观点。
Slide 4: My first publication! You can see my name underlined on this slide. Hair Trigger was Columbia University’s yearly anthology of the best student writing. It meant I was among the best of the best out of thousands of writers at my college.
I continued to get published in the annual collection of the best writing, because I was one of the students who understood the difference between academic and creative writing. With academic writing, the purpose is purely to inform, it is very structured and strict, and is targeted for a very specific audience: for example, teachers, specific professors around the world, or the people in an industry. It is giving “the facts only,” with minimal, if any, use of imaginative language, and little use of narrative.
The purpose of creative writing, on the other hand, is more to entertain, and sometimes inform. For example, historical novels and movies entertain, but also inform us about history. It is also structured, but to a lesser degree. You are free to use your imagination and be creative! And it is generally much more fun!
And wow! I had fun writing in college! I thought I was an amazing writer, because year after year, I made it into Hair Trigger. Looking back, I realize I was overconfident about my abilities. I was a big fish in a small pond, as the saying goes. But I was about to learn how hard it is to be published in the professional industry, competing against the entire world.
孩子， 我在大学里写作玩得开心吗？我以为我是一个了不起的作家， 因为一年一年， 我进入头发触发器。回首往事，我意识到我对自己的能力过于自信。我是小池塘里的一条大鱼，正如谚语说的。但我正要了解在专业行业出版，与整个世界竞争是多么困难。
Slide 5: After graduating college, I got a job with the U.S. government, in the federal security department. It was a job that did not allow for innovative thinking and so, being a creative person, I had to continue to express this part of me, somehow. So I began trying to succeed in the world of professional, paid writing. I started submitting articles to Cracked.com, a popular, fact-based humor site with an audience of millions. It took me over 25 attempts to get my first article accepted, but that first acceptance was one of the happiest days of my young life.
My favorite and most viewed article, “The 7 Most Impressively Lazy Employees of All Time,” was exactly what the title advertises: a funny article showing 7 of the laziest employees to ever make the national news in America. I noticed that most of them were U.S. government employees. Because I was working for the U.S. government, and saw how incredibly lazy many of my colleagues were, I was not at all surprised.
Another of the proudest moments of my life, up until then, was when one of my co-workers, with whom I had never talked, walked up to me and told me that he had happened to see my article on Cracked.com, as he was a big fan of Cracked. My writing was reaching enough people that strangers were now approaching me to tell me they had read and enjoyed my writing—as you can see, creative writing is also targeted for a MUCH bigger audience than academic writing. That day, I felt just a little famous for the first time in my life.
Slide 6: After having found so much success at Cracked.com, I wanted to get a piece into a more prestigious publication. So I chose the most respected online humor publication in the world: McSweeney’s. It seemed impossible to get an article accepted with them. I submitted nearly 50 pieces to them, and suffered nearly 50 rejections, before I finally succeeded.
I learned that the key to getting accepted into a highly selective publication is learning their style, what they’re looking for, and then adjusting your writing to meet their preferences. Applying for publication was a lot like applying for jobs! I published nearly 20 articles with McSweeney’s. Two of them were reviewed in The New Yorker Magazine, as recommended reading. I then moved on to my next project in life: preparing to go to grad school.
我在麦克斯威尼发表了近 20 篇文章。其中两篇在《纽约客》杂志上被评论并作为推荐阅读。 随后，我开始追求人生中的下一个目标：申请读研究生。
Slide 7: I knew that all the publications I had achieved would look good on my grad school application. One type of publication that impresses almost any type of grad school program is a book review. It shows grad school offices that you are able to analyze texts, identify the structures used in them, and then eloquently express your opinions on them, using supporting details: the exact thing that universities want students to do in academic essays.
One of the book reviews I successfully had published was about Vladimir Nabokok. I knew that this, along with all my other publications, would give me an advantage over all the other applicants. And it did: I applied to 8 graduate school programs, and I got accepted into all 8 of them.
我成功出版的一本书评论是关于弗拉基米尔·纳博科克的。我知道，连同我所有其他出版物，将给我一个优势，比所有其他申请人。它做到了： 我申请了 8 个研究生院课程， 我被其中所有 8 个课程录取了
This is why creative writing is helpful for students applying to colleges or jobs, and why they should learn creative writing. College entrance exams, especially in the West, always demand that students show an ability to identify structures in pieces of academic writing samples, as well as creative writing samples, and analyze them creatively.
And both college and job application departments look for applications that really stand out. The absolute best way to make one’s application stand out from all the others is by using creative elements in the application.
Creative thinking is not valued as highly in the East as it is in the West. Helping children learn to think creatively—as I did when I begged my mother to buy that screenwriting book so many years ago— will create a new generation of citizens who are able to think more innovatively, on the same level as the Western world. This will make them much more competitive.
Slide 8: Now that I was able to quit my government job in order to pursue my grad school studies, and ultimately, my writing dream, I was free to begin expressing my opinions about my former government security job. There was one important thing that the American public needed to know.
The nude x-ray scanners at the airport were ineffective, and many government employees were secretly laughing at the naked images of airline passengers. The men were also being naughty with some of the nude images of female passengers, even taking photos of them with their phones. I decided to start a blog, which I titled “Taking Sense Away,” telling the world about all the details of day-to-day life as a government employee at the airport. Eventually I wrote about the abuse of the x-ray scanners, and overnight, hundreds of thousands of people visited my personal website.
As you can see on this slide, next to the celebration balloons, nearly 1.4 million people have visited my personal website, as of today. My true story of how the American government was misusing the x-ray technology was important enough to appear in several American newspapers. When the public found out that the creator of the website was also a published writer in many other outlets, interest in me grew greatly. An editor from Politico Magazine, one of the most popular political publications in America, contacted me. She wanted to bring my story to the entire world.
Slide 9: I was sitting in a grad school Shakespeare class, when the Politico article went live on their website, as well as in print. The POLITICO Magazine editor kept texting me updates every 20 minutes, telling me how many people had viewed the article: “1 million people. 2 million people. 3 million people!”
Within an hour, 5 million people had seen my article. I was shaking in my seat, trembling with excitement and fear. That evening’s lesson on Romeo and Juliet was going in one ear and out the other. All I could think about was my super-popular article, which was rampaging across the world faster and faster with every tick of the clock on the classroom’s wall.
I had to excuse myself from the class. At that moment, my viral report against the corrupt government agency I had worked for just a few months prior was a little more important than Shakespeare. I was ecstatic, and terrified. This fear was irrational, because in the U.S., the Freedom of Speech laws apply strongly to former government employees.
It took a lot of courage to stand up to the entire U.S. government as I had done. By the time I got home, every single major news TV station from America to Europe was calling my cell phone and emailing me, asking for TV, radio and newspaper interviews. Although intimidated by the worldwide attention, I relaxed when I realized I was being treated like a hero for telling the world the truth, not like a villain. By the end of that night, I felt as though my act of writing had been one of courage— as though I’d acted as brave as a lion, or as fearlessly as the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Jurassic Park movie I had loved so much growing up.
Slide 10: The Politico piece ended up getting almost 100 million views, forcing the American government to respond to my article, twice. Within 2 months, the government changed the intrusive and low-quality x-ray machines they were using for better ones. They also made new rules for employees that prevented the bad behavior so common amongst my former co-workers. My article had made a real change in the world—forcing the government to improve its policies and upgrade its technology in just a couple of months.
《政治》一文最终获得近一亿次的 浏览量，迫使美国政府两次回应我的文章。 在两个月内，政府改变了侵入性和低质量的X光机，他们用于更好的。
Having a piece of writing become this popular, this fast, quickly creates a lot of opportunities. For one, Hollywood came calling. Every major studio wanted to buy the rights to my story. In the end, I sold the rights to Paramount Pictures, after writing a 100-page screenplay of my full story. Finally, I was talking to and dealing with the world of Hollywood, as had been my boyhood dream!
Slide 11: This is why students should learn creative writing: it enables people to express themselves eloquently and persuasively, allowing them to make changes for the better in the world, like when I forced the American government to change the old x-ray scanners.
Also, it is fun, and, at times, can make people’s dreams come true. Even for those who don’t want to specialize in a creative writing-related field, it is therapeutic, by allowing people to release the ideas and thoughts trapped inside of them. Personally, it has given me the edge, many times, in job applications, college application essays, as well on the job, where at times I have been able to present very creative solutions to bosses that other colleagues could not think of.
Slide 12: After the enormous success of the Politico piece, I felt happier than a man on an all-paid, two-week vacation to Hainan Island.One of the other opportunities that came after the POLITICO piece was Time Magazine. They wanted me to tell them more about my experience working for American government security.
My mother and father used to have a yearly subscription to TIME magazine, and I grew up with those magazines spread all over the tables like giant playing cards. I immediately jumped at the chance. I was ecstatic to be able to tell my parents “I have an article in TIME Magazine today.” Their faces lit up with pride, brighter than a pair of Christmas trees.
Slide 13: Although the world wanted me to write about my experience with the government, I was determined to prove I could write about much more. I decided to give the New York Times a try.
I was living in Chicago, the most violent city in America, when the famous filmmaker, Spike Lee, decided to make a film about the gang violence there. I took the opportunity to visit the film set, spend time in the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, and interview the residents of the city about the violence. I submitted a proposal to the Times, for a creative nonfiction piece about the upcoming movie, and the epidemic of violence in the city.
Writing for the New York Times was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had a 7-day deadline to complete the piece. After writing one draft of the piece, the New York Times editor told me it wasn’t good enough; I had to start over again.
I wrote a second draft. Again, the Times editor told me it wasn’t good enough. I had to delete half of it and rewrite the other half. It kept going on like this, until finally, my draft was accepted. Then it was run through the rigorous New York Times fact-checking department. They verified and checked up on almost everything in the article.
I thought I would fail, with the clock ticking, and with the various editors and researchers at the Times being so hard on me. But finally, my piece was cleared for publication. I had done it. Writing for the Times made me realize just how hard creative writing can be, and how much research, hard work, and analytical thinking you have to exert in order to get into the most respected publication in the world. As my Russian teacher had said so many years ago, it required all the “stick-to-it-veness” in the world.
Slide 14: Here are three book recommendations I can provide, for three different learner levels. First, for beginners, “A Sound of Thunder.” A quick read by the great science fiction author Ray Bradbury—it always stimulates imagination in youths, whilst introducing a simple, yet thought-provoking philosophical concept that will stay with readers for the rest of their lives. And it includes a giant, terrifying dinosaur!
Second, for intermediate learners, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper’s Lee’s classic drama, told through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl, has been a part of middle school children’s lives for over 50 years. Its amazing insights and powerful messages are inspiring and timeless.
And finally, for advanced learners, “Black Boy”: the harrowing and, at times, heart-breaking autobiographical tale of Richard Wright’s escape from the oppressive South in the 1920s, to make his way to the safer, “promised land” of Chicago.
Slide 15: I will wrap up today by telling you why I’m suited to teach your kids creative writing. First, I have a lot of experience in the professional publishing world, as you can see. I have also been taught by some of the greatest living authors today.
Also, I have a lifelong passion for this. It is fun for me. So I am always happy to spend extra tine with students to help them with their writing pieces. I get true joy out of it!
Additionally, I understand the difficulties of speaking and writing in another language. I taught myself Spanish, so I can sympathize with the challenges they face. I have also been teaching online ESL and writing to Asian youths and adults for 5 years.
These experiences have given me a deep understanding of what it is like for your children, as they try to express themselves in another language. And finally, one of my greatest strengths is building genuine relationships with students from other cultures, which promotes enthusiasm in the classroom. I love to make learning fun!
Slide 16: Thank you everybody! Any questions?
1. Some students write very boring essays which read like a routine list of his or her life. How can they write interestingly?
Perhaps the biggest problem for beginning creative writers is that they are so used to writing academic essays that they attempt to use the same formulaic template so common in academic writing (opening paragraph with thesis, three supporting paragraphs, concluding paragraph). One of the first things I teach creative writing students is the creative writing version of the 5-paragraph academic essay structure: the three-act dramatic structure. This has been used in the vast majority of all creative writing since the time of the Ancient Greek drama writers, and for a very good reason: keeping this basic dramatic structure in mind while writing will tend to make for exciting pieces, in which the reader will constantly be asking him or herself, “Oh my god, this is so interesting! I want to know what will happen next!”
也许对于刚开始写作的创意作家来说，最大的问题是他们太习惯于写学术论文了，所以他们会尝试使用学术论文中常见的写作模板 (首段提出论点、三个支撑段落、以及最后的总结段落)。我教创意写作学生的第一件事就是五段式学术论文结构的创意写作版本:三幕式戏剧结构。从古希腊戏剧开始，这种结构就被广泛运用于所有的叙事类写作。记住这基本的戏剧性结构来创作激动人心的作品, 当读者读到时，他们便会不断地告诉自己说,“天呐，这真是太有意思了，我想知道接下来会发生什么!”
In essence, students then begin thinking about how to create and maximize dramatic tension in their stories—constructing compelling plots– instead of thinking about how to deliver boring, “facts only” information in a 5-paragraph format. The three-act structure is very informal, and can be interpreted in many different ways, making it a very flexible “structure” that allows for a LOT of creativity.
Also, most beginners are unfamiliar with the concepts of character and setting development, and with how to use poetic descriptions to bring characters and settings to life on the page. I help students with this by assessing their creative assignments, finding places where there is a lack, or a complete absence, of setting or character description, and then get them thinking of ways to add intriguing and unique descriptions. All of these things quickly make students’ pieces much more interesting.
2. What common problems did you find students have with writing in your teaching? How did you help students overcome them?
In creative writing, we have a very important principle called “The Passover Question.” This means that before you choose to write about any given time in your, or a character’s life, the very first question you should ask yourself is, “How was this day different from all the others in this character’s life?” Many students all over the world fail to ask themselves this question before beginning to write a piece of creative writing. Once students get into the habit of asking themselves this question, they realize they have been choosing boring chunks of time from their (or their characters’) lives— time periods which really weren’t all that different from average days.
在创意写作中，我们有一个非常重要的原则，叫做“Passover Question”。这意味着，在你选择写你自己或你塑造的人物的某个生活片段之前，你应该问自己的第一个问题是，“对于这个人物来说这一天和其他日子有什么不同?” 世界各地的许多学生在开始写文章之前都没有问自己这个问题。一旦学生们养成了问自己这个问题的习惯，他们就会意识到，他们从自己塑造的人物的生活中选择了一段乏味的片段——这些时间和平常的日子并没有什么不同。
Asking themselves the Passover Question before even beginning a piece will help them choose days from their or their characters’ lives in which the most unusual and interesting events occurred. Usually, the pieces will then be centered around the unusual event that happened that day, week, or year, allowing the young writer to begin using techniques of dramatic tension in order to make it even more interesting. For the most part, people want to read about the MOST amazing and unusual thing that has ever happened to a person, not about an uneventful day!
Also, beginning writers tend to be unaccustomed to using metaphors in their writing.
What I do to help students add this crucial tool to their creative writing arsenal is give them metaphor and simile exercises, in which the students will be given homework asking them to think of and list as many metaphors and similes that they can think of for actions or emotions that they have recently experienced. I then assess their responses, choose the best metaphors and similes that they have thought of, and share the best examples from each student with the rest of the class, and explain to everyone why the student’s example was a good one.
Then, in private, I explain to the students why some of the metaphors and similes they thought of were not of good quality, and why. In this way, they get stronger and more accustomed to spicing up their writing with poetic language.
3. What can students get from the study of creative writing?
First, creative writing is usually the student’s first experience with writing that can actually be fun. The experience of having fun while writing will get them to start to enjoy writing a little (and in some cases, get them to love writing a lot), as opposed to hating it, or thinking of it as a tedious chore. This will in turn make them feel less dread (and hopefully make them feel confident) when faced with all types of writing assignments, including academic ones.
Second, creative writing will give them the drive to write more, which means more writing practice. And as we all know, “practice makes perfect.” One thing that both creative and academic writing demand is proper use of grammar, spelling, word usage and vocabulary, so the increased practice will help them improve in all of these categories, an improvement which can be carried over to every category of English writing.
Finally, it will help them on their college applications, as well as in language proficiency exams. For example: I worked as an ESL test grader for years, grading the answers to academic questions on exams. One major thing we looked for was the students’ ability to use complex, beautiful sentences, and to answer questions in creative ways that were different from the other 1,000 essays we saw every day, which almost all contained similar, uncreative answers. To give students the highest grades, they needed to respond to the academic exam questions in imaginative ways— the kind of answers best learned through creative writing.