When Writing Gets Creative, a Reflection on the Peace Corps Write On! Competition

Aliens. Robots. Environmental destruction. Pollution loving aliens. Secret agents. Witches. Killer friends. Dystopian futures. Birds engulfed in shadow. These are a few topics students at my college wrote about during the creative writing competition last month. I was honored to host Write On!, an international creative writing competition facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers around the world. Much of the instruction for Chinese college English majors focuses on memorizing long lists of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar to score high on standardized tests, so this offers them an alternative way to use and improve their English skills.

The rules are simple: students are shown two writing prompts (different at each grade level) and given one hour to respond to one of them without the use of any aid such as cell phone or dictionary. Their entries are judged based on creativity and overall structure rather than on grammar and spelling. As a host I chose 10 entries from each grade level (in my case, University freshmen, sophomore, and junior), and those entries were judged at provincial and national level against other students from other Peace Corps sites. Those national winners were then judged at an international level from other Peace Corps sites across the globe.

Over 170 students from my college came and tapped into their creativity. I was thrilled—and a bit overwhelmed—at such a great turnout especially because many were not my students. Even more thrilling, one student was selected as the National and International winner for 3rd year university (junior) level.

The stacks of entries for the writing competition.

I first met Celina when I told her she was the Write On! National Winner for juniors (we hadn’t yet learned the result of the international judging). I only teach speaking and listening for freshmen and sophomores, so it came as a surprise when 31 juniors attended the competition.

We sat down for a chat in the space known as the “Bookend,” an ongoing project started some years ago by a previous Volunteer. The room features stacks of books in English and Chinese, and ranges from fiction and classics to dictionaries and textbooks all available for checkout. The Bookend also functions as a daily English Corner. As I talked with Celina, a group of 20 students were already engrossed in practicing pronunciation through tongue twisters.

With Celina (陈林), a junior and winner in the Write On competition at the National and International level.

Celina said she hadn’t participated in Write On! last year, but was eager to this year after she heard about it. When she began her study in Mianyang, she wasn’t too interested in English. That changed over time, in part, to having a previous Peace Corps Volunteer as a teacher whom Celina still fondly remembers.

When I asked Celina about the thought process for her essay, she said she had considered a happy ending, but it wouldn’t have been interesting enough. When I read Celina’s essay, I was struck by the unique approach (She chose to write from this prompt: Every morning, a bird lands on your window and pecks at the glass. It is your alarm clock. One morning, it doesn’t appear. Instead, there is a note. What does it say? What happens next?). To me, her story is mysterious and haunting. Part of what drew me in to select her essay for the university 3rd year top 10 was the ending without a clear resolution, marked by two words: “Save me!”

Celina was quite surprised and humbled by the honor to be a national and international winner. Her face lit up with a bright smile as she softly spoke about her experience and future ambition.  She told me she is seriously considering earning a graduate degree. She wants to pursue a career translation, and in fact, had perused the Bookend shelves for a translation textbook before our talk.

We parted ways after taking a photo together; she still seemed a little surprised. She wants to participate again next year, and I told her I would be happy to host another competition. Until then, she will be studying and preparing for the TEM-8, another big examination for English majors.

Celina gave her permission for her essay to be published online, and you can read it here on the Write On Competition page.