150. Hiding the Gold Coins

Hiding the Gold Coins: A Reflection on Writing Workshop by Hem Raj Kafle
(The workshop happened on Aug, 2014 at King’s College, Kathmandu)

Hem Raj Kafle

He is tall. Very tall compared to my height. He looks into the world through a pair of slightly shaded glasses. Those glasses probably let him filter all the negativity around him and help him see a vision – a vision of a teacher, a writer, and a mentor. He speaks gently and seldom smiles. He stands in the middle of the class, and with his words paints an exciting picture of characters, themes and conflicts; and walks us through the colorful fields full of metaphors, similes and hyperboles.

He is one of those rare teachers who writes a lot. His blog is a testimony of his prolific writing habit. Even his facebook statuses, usually very short poems, reflect his creativity. And I wonder. May be creativity is a verb, not a noun. One has to constantly work at it. It’s just my perception. His creativity could be as natural as breathing.

I had met him back in 2012. He taught me Fiction in my M.Ed. ELT first semester and since then I have had a renewed interest in reading, interpreting, and analyzing literature. I started becoming passionate but critical of the texts I came across. In addition to that, he inspired me to write down my own fiction works.

Naturally, I was pretty excited about the workshop. I had always wanted to be in his classes one more time and the workshop was it. Even though the focus of the workshop was “Academic Writing”, I knew he would have his own twist on it, with a few pinch of strange concepts sprinkled around here and there.

So he started the workshop by asserting that writing is not an isolated activity, but it is an activity integrated with reading, listening and speaking. “The key word is perform. Writing is a performance, it is an action of hands as well as an action of minds,” he added. And most importantly, he continued, “Performance doesn’t mean a writer’s activity alone… it is about a reader’s action also”. This made so much sense that it immediately struck a chord with me. A writer has to let readers perform too. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing at the first place? An effective writer thus leaves enough clues here and there in the text for the readers to come up with their own knowledge.

Writing is a performance because the writer has to make sure that his/her ‘authorial presence’ and credibility are visible in every word and every sentence of the text. Moreover, a writer has to make sure there are both implicit and explicit moments of communication with the reader. He/she has to constantly facilitate the reader towards understanding and creating new perceptions. Similarly, a writer has to represent his/her community and contribute towards adding new knowledge and scholarship. Therefore, writing is not merely scribbling texts on a sheet of paper, it is a performance that involves both the writer and the reader.

Next, he talked about some of the common attributes every writer exhibit in some ways. For instance, the ‘writer’s block’ which he also labeled as the ‘blinking cursor syndrome’ for those who keep staring at the computer screen searching for words to start with. Similarly, every writer has the irresistible urge to tell the background or the whole story. Next, most of the writers can’t decide on the choice of diction – whether to use big or small stock of words, or on the choice of sentence – short sentences or longer sentences.

Coming to the main focus of the workshop, he talked about the process of creating an argument in academic writing and substantiating one’s stance. He gave an instance of Stephen Toulmin’s elements of a proper argument: claim, ground, warrant, backing, rebuttal, qualifier and final claim. A good paragraph is a combination of all or some of the above elements. The concept of ‘rebuttal’ was quite interesting. Apparently, acknowledging opposing views and giving them a small space in one’s argument adds more strength to one’s argument.

At the end, he gave us eleven tips on how to improve one’s writing. I am reflecting on these points from my perspective.

  1. Write aloud.
    It helps shape the quality of writing.
  2. Speak – record – transcribe – Edit
    This is very useful when one is facing the imminent ‘writer’s block’.
  3. Toulmin uncle really works!
  4. Three is enough.
    Three examples, three explanations, three stories.
  5. Keep the big below you.
    This is quite interesting. Start a paragraph with your own sentence and end it with your own. Keep the citations and ‘big’ personalities underneath your first statement. Don’t ever start your paragraph with a citation because this just weakens your stance.
  6. Kill the subordinates.
    If your main info goes to the subordinate clause, rewrite the sentence. Bring your info to the front.
  7. Passive is lousy.
    I also hate sentences in passive voice. I always try to write everything in active voice.
  8. Let the verb stand high.
    Let the verb ‘speak’, rather than ‘be’.
  9. Do not repeat a word if there’s a replacement.
  10. Hear me between the lines
    Make your presence felt. Don’t let the reader forget about the writer.
  11. Dump me if I let you go!
    Challenge: I will not bore my reader. I will not break my reader’s heart, effort, money, etc.

After attending this workshop, I now feel the urge to go back to all my writings and scrutinize them strand by strand – to find my ‘authorial presence’ in them. I had never thought about this aspect of writing – that the author has to be present in the text. Similarly, I am going to try speak-record-transcribe method whenever I feel stuck in the rot. I will also make sure none of my paragraphs start with a citation but with my own sentence. In addition, I will use these techniques in presentations and in writing scripts for speaking as well.

Writing has always been an elusive grape for me. I feel like I am always getting ‘there’ but never near enough. I always go back to my texts, interact with them and revise them. That singer from Rolling Stones is probably right. I can’t get no satisfaction out of my writing. But just like Hem sir once said during his class, “A text is always in the making”. May be it’s not about getting ‘there’ and being satisfied after all. Writing is a process… a continuum… a journey. And our job as a writer is just to enjoy the ride.

(Written on November, 2014)

131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA

01

It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.

02

Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.

03

There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.