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The Write Way: Pitt Creative Writing Professor Fiona Cheong Champions a Fresh Approach

A group of Pitt creative writing grad students have signed up for a creative writing course. But today, they're not meeting in a Cathedral classroom, critiquing each other's work. Instead, they’re on a boat in the middle of the Allegheny River with an eclectic group of participants—a few MFA alumni, an English department staff member, residents from city neighborhoods like the Hill District, and representatives of the urban nonprofit, Find the Rivers!

A meditation bell rings. The professor instructs the group to be quiet and pay attention to their breathing. Be silent, but fully present—on this boat, in this moment, she says. Pay attention to the city as a sensory experience. She hands out magic markers and writing prompts for participants to complete during this quiet time. The exercises can be done anywhere on the boat.

The bell rings again. University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor of English Fiona Cheong gathers her troops and turns the session over to the grad students who are ready to lead a group exercise. The premise is simple: everyone shouts out whatever words come to mind, and then they all write a story together using these words.

Cheong is teaching an innovative, graduate-level course, Studio for Creativity, for the third time now. She’s taking a fresh approach to the standard writing curriculum by starting at the most basic level. What happens before writing can even begin? What puts a writer in a productive, creative frame of mind? Why do students (and professional writers, for that matter) become blocked? How can writer’s block be overcome? Cheong’s course tackles these tough questions and more.

Writing a New Way

“In the university, when we’re teaching writing, it’s all about craft and form. We don’t deal with what happens if students are blocked,” explains Cheong. “We assume we can or should only work with the material once it’s generated.”

Studio for Creativity turns this notion on its head, exploring the sources of artistic inspiration and troubleshooting when the words aren’t flowing freely. The course also gets grad students out into the local community, where they teach writing to children from Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods.

“It’s very energizing for the students,” Cheong says of the teaching component of the course. “(It helps them) to realize why they came to writing in the first place, what the thrill of it is.”

Finding Inspiration

A native of Singapore, Cheong knew she wanted to be a writer since she was nine years old. The news wasn’t well-received by her father; he considered writing and reading fiction a hobby, not a serious profession. But with her mother’s firm support, Cheong pursued her goal, receiving both a BA and MFA in creative writing from Cornell University. She went on to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for seven years before coming to Pitt in 1995.

It was here in Pittsburgh that she learned the valuable lesson of envisioning writing more as a process, less as a product. It happened seven years ago, out of sheer necessity.

“I was in a horrible block,” recalls Cheong. “I couldn’t write; I wasn’t sure if I even    wanted to write.” She was introduced to the then-fledging organization, Find the Rivers! (Find the Rivers! was founded in the Hill District to engage Pittsburgh communities and
neighborhoods in river-related planning and development.)

“I also got introduced to some of the musicians in Pittsburgh,” Cheong says. “I’d sit and watch them practice for a gig, and then perform. They’re not making money, they’re not being judged by peers. They’re doing it because they love it… and they were really good.”

Refreshed by the idea of art for art’s sake, Cheong overcame her block and decided to share some of the things she learned in the process with her students. Studio for Creativity was born.

Nurturing the Spark

As a professor, Cheong always teaches both a graduate and undergraduate course each semester. She’s devoted to all of her students’ well-being, to helping them each find their way as writers.

In fact, when a group of Asian American students came up to her in 1996 saying they needed an environment where they could talk about writing issues specific to their culture, she and a colleague responded by creating the Asian American Writers’ Forum. (It has since evolved into the Writers of Color Workshop, and welcomes participants of Asian American, African American, Latino, and other cultural backgrounds.)

She also takes to heart the challenge to teach the curriculum—the craft of writing, the skills needed—“but still encourage students to nurture that spark, follow the flash of something special, take that risk of failing.”

Cheong inspires her students by example. Her published works include two novels, The Scent of the Gods and Shadow Theatre, as well as contributions to the anthologies, Tilting the Content: Southeast Asian American Writing and Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Literature. She also won a $10,000 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship for 2007, based on her manuscript, “Chinese.” She is currently at work on her third novel.

The Case Foundation recently selected Cheong as a top 20 finalist in its Make It Your Own Awards. This grant program supports projects nationwide that utilize a grassroots, citizen-centered approach to make a difference in their own communities. Cheong’s project, “Re-Imagining our City,” was awarded $10,000 in seed funding to help involve area youth in planning a green space for the Hill District. Project partners include Find the Rivers!, Hill House Association, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, University of Pittsburgh, and Winchester Thurston School.

For more information about Cheong, visit her faculty Web page at www.english.pitt.edu/people/faculty/cheong.html

To learn more about Find The Rivers!, visit www.findtherivers.net.

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