Creative writing – Creative thinking

Shanghai’s Winter is dragging on at the moment. Everyone is waiting for Spring to appear, and fast. There are these odd days that show hints of hope…where blue skies push through the dreary grey clouds…where the rain stops for what seems like seconds to let the city dry off and breathe. You immediately feel better as the sunshine beats down on your soul…clearing your mind of any chaos…making you stop and pause for just one moment of clarity. It has to be just around the corner right? Patiently waiting…

On PhD Wednesday this week, I attended a writing workshop as part of the ‘Shanghai International Literary Festival 2012’. Hosted by ‘M on the Bund’, it was part of a huge programme of events ‘celebrating ten years of literary feasting’…still running until the 18th March by the way. The talks and workshops examine a broad range of topics including cross-cultural and transcultural investigations of the self and identity, social differences between Eastern and Western contexts, “Asian Englishes”, Asian transnational experience and a variety of Chinese histories, all through fiction and non-fiction writing. The workshop was the only session I could attend courtesy of work commitments, which was a real shame…I like finding out about other people’s experiences and journeys of writing, especially in relation to investigations between the East and West. My world at the moment.

Facilitated by the American creative writer Nancy Conyers, the workshop was called ‘Before you cross that finish line, you’ve got to start somewhere***anywhere’, examining different writing exercises to fill the blank page…perfect, I thought, as my land has become so much more about words, words, words…also appropriate to help out with those PhD days when I want to do anything else but write, intimated by the blank page on the computer screen in front of me, overwhelmed by that well-known enemy of a friend – the writing fear. Nancy introduced the session outlining three short writing exercises, books of reference and exemplar texts, which backed up the exercises…she ‘remembers the moment before creativity begins as being so painful’. She stated that people focus on finding a publisher or an agent rather than the process of writing, and the final words…’in order to write you have to read, read about the genre you are interested in and about the writers lives…everybody writes at different rates…you are painting a picture with words’.

In the first exercise, Nancy told us to shut our eyes and think about the one word she was about to say…to think about what words would represent this one word and what stories it could tell. The word was “Shanghai”. After 10 seconds of darkness we were told to write our immediate thoughts for a few minutes. I wrote some terribly fractured sentences about the futuristic architectural constructions of the Shanghai skyline set against the traditional underworld of the local Chinese communities…the old versus new, the progression versus degradation. Such already known thoughts with no emotional connectivity. Needless to say, I did not read this out to the group as it was definitely not my best. I’m so glad I didn’t…some people’s contributions were so profound and emotional – “boxes…closed boxes of forgotten rooms that I can’t get into”. Not on the same level at all Rachel.

To introduce the second and third exercises, Nancy told us that ‘the true secret of writing, of finding something to stimulate your senses, is to write about cars or hair.’ How odd…and I questioned, really? But she was right. She then told us to write a story about a car, where I spoke about my relationship with my Dad’s 1980’s beige Volvo when I was a child and how I lost a pound coin down the back seat…its journey and my thoughts as to where the car was now…again not profound in any way and completely soul-less in my view, especially when set in comparison to other people’s writings. Nancy said ‘you want to evoke emotion…everyone has an emotional attachment to a car…put your emotions down on the page and the audience will respond’. I couldn’t get my emotions out that day, but I think I’ve exhausted them over the past week or so for one reason or another – my “box of trust” friends know why. One step at a time Rachel.

Anyway, the third exercise was to write about hair, trying to include all the five sense…now this really hit a nerve…I wrote about my relationship with my Mom, the ritualistic process of brushing her hair when I am back at home, the emotional trigger this brings on, the pleasure it brings, the peace for the mind, a contained, untouchable moment in time. Still not as powerful as other people’s writing though – “he had the kind of hair you’d like to walk barefoot through”. Why can’t I write that way?! I had to repeatedly remind myself that I am an academic and journalistic arts writer…not a creative writer…although on here I do write from real personal experience. Nancy also referenced the work of writer Robert Olen Butler and how he writes 400 words everyday no matter what, and not always about the same thing. This method I know works as its a little like blogging for me. She quoted his perspective on how writing happens…that I then found in an interview online.

“Art does not come from the mind; it does not come from the rational analytical faculties. Art does not come from ideas; art comes from the place where you dream, from your unconscious—what Graham Greene called the “compost of the imagination,” where all your life experiences dissolve out of conscious memory and into this deep well of self. In some ways, the creation of a work of art is as much an act of exploration as of expression. You have an inchoate sense of what the human condition is all about, and the only way for you to know what it is, much less to communicate it, is to create an object. You are destined by what you know about the world and how you are shaped as a person; you are destined to express that in some medium. You don’t choose it; it chooses you.” – Robert Olen Butler

Nancy concluded the workshop by saying ‘your senses are heightened here…you can’t take anything for granted…it is the perfect lab for writing.’ To be honest, I have found it much easier to write here than in the UK, maybe it is because of all that surrounds me here bearing influence on my words. Although the session was fruitful – I now have practical methods I can implement in my day-to-day writing, especially the idea of using one word as a trigger – I felt very slightly short-changed for the 75 rmb, just under an hour session. I would have liked it to run for a little while longer as by the time we’d got started and settled into impromptu writing, comfortably relaxed in verbally sharing our thoughts and words, the session was over. Nancy was fantastic though, incredibly down to earth, making you feel at ease throughout. Nice tableware at ‘M on the Bund’ too…especially the interior of the cups and the cut of the glass. I’m transfixed by detailing at the moment. Textures too.

After the workshop, I had more time than I thought until the evening ‘Madness’ event at the ‘Shooting Gallery‘ on Nan Suzhou Lu, so I perused the many art shops on Fuzhou Lu…mainly just touching and caressing different types of very beautiful Chinese paper whilst wondering how on earth I could get them back to the UK. I noticed one of the shop assistants staring at me whilst I was spending too much time with a off-white slightly opaque rice paper, its texture was beautiful, so delicate between my finger tips, it had the potential to tear at any moment. Once I felt the assistants eyes on me, I quickly pulled away my hand from the paper stack and moved onto the next shop until it was time to head to the ‘Shooting Gallery‘ where I met photographer Phillip Reed a little earlier as he was presenting at ‘Madness’ that evening. ‘Madness’ is a ‘Pecha Kucha’-style event where creatives from any discipline have the opportunity to “show what they are crazy about” in a very limited seven minutes. It’s an occasion where most of the Western creatives come out to play…so it was nice to see familiar and friendly faces all evening.

Speakers included Diane, Donnie and Jingqu who spoke about founding China Crowd-funding similar to Kickstarter; Roberto Gamero, Art Director at the design and advertising agency ‘Equancy’ who discussed his simplistic “illustrating letters”, typography and characters, alongside his animated short films; London actor Charles Meyer who introduced his West versus East career path from the army into acting – incredibly motivatory yet slightly cynical; then it was time for London photographer Phillip Reed who presented his recent photographic projects from China; Wilbert Kragten who spoke of his brand consultancy company ‘BSUR‘; local filmmaker Michael Beets who presented a short performance to introduce his current film project; and You Si, a Chinese painter who has returned from working in New York to live back in Shanghai…and who closed the event with his very non-verbal presentation that degraded into a complete free for all in terms of crowd-speaker dialogue. They had a huge audience that night, which was so fantastic to see…this did cause a great deal of noise on the periphery, which twinned with wine and beer, and technical sound/image difficulties, created a slightly unpredictable, dynamic, comedy in part, evening. Great to see so many diverse things happening right now…Shanghai is bleeding creativity…

Shooting Gallery -
Roberto Gamero -
Phillip Reed -


  1. Rachel, I am the person with her back to your camera, in the workshop at M ….and a friend from the UK just alerted me to your blogpost. She knows I was at two workshops at the literary festival, so she sent me the link – and here I am in your photograph!
    I also do Chinese ink painting, so I very often visit Fuzhou Lu and touch the beautiful rice paper – usually, I buy it! Much coincidence….

  2. Thanks for this write up of the workshop, Rachel. It was a great group! And, there’s nothing like Shanghai to get the creative juices flowing. Thanks again.

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