The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

My wife and I our currently in Korea, teaching a creativity camp for tweens and teens. We’re combing writing, art, prop building, and acting to provide the students with a week of intensive creativity!

One of our opening activities was based around the idea of bottling dreams. Students brainstormed characters, focusing on their fears and nightmares. The students then “built” the nightmares by imagining that they had been bottled.

Students could be as literal or symbolic as they wished. I brought a lot of general supplies such as black sand, hair, cotton, and feathers, all of which could be trimmed or stretched to represent the negative qualities of nightmares. There were also some more “on-the-nose” objects, such as plastic bugs and snakes!

For story purposes, those bottles get accidentally opened, unleashing story inspiration!

Here are some photos of the students’ bottles and brainstorming . . .











Making magic with magazines


I just wrapped up a busy two-day creative writing camp with fellow author Kallie George. We decided to go “old school” and have the kids design and mock up their own magazines on paper dummies.

Kallie and I both used to do these sorts of activities when we were kids. We would hand-make and “self-publish” our own magazines and books. There were crudely drawn illustrations, dedications, table of contents, and self indulgent copyright pages (every job in the book publication or “impressum” was assigned to ourselves).

So, we thought we’d nudge the kids away from the pseudo-polish and falsely perceived instant gratification of the Internet and work on something a little more immediately tangible.

Over the two days, students developed a theme, wrote articles, interviews, advice columns, and product reviews, and came up with advertisements and games for the activity pages.


It was so much fun to see the kids embrace their passions and work with their hands. We had magazines on the theme of sports, some on the theme of Harry Potter, another on Greek Gods, and some on magical creatures. We even had a few magazines based on reading and overall creativity.

Some students chose to handwrite and illustrate everything in their magazines, while others typed up their stories then turned the raw text over to me so that I could print them out in columns. This is where my years of graphic design experience came in to use; I was able to quickly mock up templates for comic books, word searches, and masthead designs to allow the students to achieve a bit more structure in their magazines. They would then paste these elements into their magazines and organize illustrations around them.

Here are a few more photos from our hectic workshop . . .

That last image is an advertisement for ketchup and eggs . . . because every student who I mentor knows how much I hate those things! So, inevitably, I am attacked by advertisements promoting them.

Next, my wife Marcie and I are off to Korea to teach a writing camp on Magic, Monsters, and Mystery. And, somehow, amidst all this hubbub, we’ve found time to celebrate the holidays and even do a bit of our own writing.

Telling our family stories: the box of memories

This week, I held the final workshop in my series on creative writing told through the lens of family stories.

As part of this workshop, we created “memory boxes,” a project we started way back in Class 3. Below are photos of the beautiful boxes created by the students. They are also filled with personal items, but I chose not to photograph the insides—they are personal!


They are theirs to keep, but we also used them as a prompt for our last assignment.

In an earlier blog post, I described my own experience of opening my own memory box for the first time in twenty years. So, taking inspiration from that, I had the students imagine a distant descendent stumbling across their own memory boxes and wondering about their original owners.

They then read these stories out loud to their parents and classmates as part of our end-of-term celebrations.

Wow! The stories, like the boxes, were incredible.


Just add water . . . ?


This week, I rolled out one of my favorite classes as part of my CWC creative writing workshops: A Monster in a Bottle.

In this class, the students each assemble a prop that consists of a miniature glass bottle stuffed with monster parts: claws, fangs, eyes, fur, feathers and that sort of thing. I actually only let students pick from three different supply piles, as I feel this makes them a bit more creative and considerate.

The idea is that this bottle is something they can buy at a pet store. It then has to be “hatched” through a series of special instructions . . . which, of course, the students have to write.

Here’s some of the photos from the day’s activity. As always, I’m continually amazed at the ingenuity of the students! Some of them definitely thought outside the bottle . . .














Telling our family stories: The Boy and the Three Criminals

There was once a wealthy man who lived in a village near Vienna. He owned many businesses, including a butcher shop and a tavern. One day, while in his tavern, he told one of his regular patrons that he had to travel to the market in Vienna to buy beef for his butcher shop. Little did he know, three unsavory characters were listening in on his conversation, and overheard of his plan. They knew that the wealthy man’s pockets would be weighed heavy with gold and formulated a plot to rob him. The next morning, they waited along the forest road and ambushed their unsuspecting victim. Instead of handing over his coin, the wealthy man attempted to fight off the three scoundrels. He was murdered and the three thieves escaped into the woods.

Not long afterwards, a local villager found the wealthy man’s horse by the side of the road and soon discovered his body. The authorities were alerted, a posse formed, and the three men were soon captured. Punishment was swift; the three fiends were sentenced to hang in the town square.

Before their execution, each man was given a final wish. The first criminal asked for a tankard of beer so he could blow the foam off and drink it. He was granted his wish. The second criminal wanted to spit in his mother’s face because she had not “raised him right.” His wish could not be granted, because his mother was not present; for all anyone knew, she was no longer alive. The third criminal stared into the crowd of onlookers and asked that the son of the man he had murdered to come onto the scaffolding, so that he could lift his chains and know their weight.

The boy obliged and, timorously approaching the murderer, grasped the heavy chains in his hand and knew their heaviness.

The men were executed and the boy inherited his father’s wealth and businesses. But he mismanaged his affairs and eventually fell into severe debt, and lost everything.

* * *

Well, that is a true story—as far as I know anyway. It was told by my grandmother. The boy in the story was the husband of her own grandmother. I don’t have a picture of the boy (there weren’t many cameras back then!), but I do have a picture of my grandmother as a child in Austria:


I also have this photo of her mother, my great-grandmother, who told the story to her:


Well, this is a famous story in my family, and retelling it is how I began Class 1 of the new workshop series I’m teaching this term. The program is called CWC Family Stories for the Creative Writing for Children society.

I spent the last few months developing this program. It’s designed for teenaged students, and is meant to help them explore their personal, familial, and cultural identities through a creative lens. My feeling is that when we explore what has come before us, we can gain insight about ourselves . . . which is very important when you are writer!

And, of course, you can also discover a treasure trove of new ideas. And a writer is perpetually on the hunt for new ideas!

Personally, I find the facts of the family story told above to be suspicious. It reads like a fairy tale—there are three criminals, and an implied lesson, as if the boy in the story took such heed of the chains that he took no further risks in his life, and thereby fumbled away his inherited wealth. Still, it doesn’t really matter if it’s fact—there’s a certain truth to it. (Though, it’s at this point that I must say that my grandmother—the conduit of this story—was illiterate. As such, she trained herself to survive by memorizing everything. She never told a different version of this story—or any story, for that matter. She never elaborated or modified. So, if this story was ever made more fanciful, it was by someone who came before her).

In any case, I’m looking forward to the workshop series. We’ll be tackling family stories from a variety of angles, discussing food, family rituals and traditions, family homes, even family pets.

We’ll also be reading a series of books over the course of the next twelve weeks. It’s pretty easy to find books that relate to family life; pretty much all of them do! But I developed a list that connects to the specific topic of each week. For the record, here is my list . . .

* * *

Paperboy, by Vince Vawter

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

The Flask, By Nicky Singer

Crispin, Cross of Lead, by Avi

Alexandria of Africa, by Eric Walters

The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat


The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Stones on a Grave, by Kathy Kacer

Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel

Running Wild, by Michael Morpurgo

Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen

The Green Man, by Michael Bedard

* * *

I hope to chronicle much of the program on this blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!


Making friends with Canadian authors in Seoul!


I’ve been back from a dynamic trip to Korea for a couple of weeks. I discussed some of my adventures around Seoul last week, but am finally getting round to posting some details about the exciting event I participated in at the Canadian Embassy with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el.

The event took place on Saturday, July 23rd at the Embassy’s Schofield Hall, with over a hundred students and parents from Canadian curriculum or international schools in attendance. Dan, Kallie, and are each involved with the Creative Writing Society of Canada, based in Vancouver, so our company as a whole was hosted by the embassy.

Dan, Kallie, and I had just landed the night before, so it’s safe to say we were a little bleary-eyed from the eleven-hour flight and the seventeen-hour time difference! In my experience from traveling abroad, however, I find it’s best to get right to it. And, after all, that’s what adrenaline is for!

I’ve done many presentations and workshops before, but there’s always something a little tricky about speaking to audiences with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Even though the kids attending our event were fluent in English, I knew it didn’t necessarily mean that my well-rehearsed jokes or anecdotes would connect. So I will admit to having some trepidation as I was preparing for the event. Thankfully, I had many friendly faces in the audience; since I’ve been to Korea many times before, I knew some of the students in attendance.

I did have the unenviable task of speaking first. Though, in retrospect, that was probably a good thing. My colleagues Dan and Kallie gave such amazing speeches, I didn’t have to fret about trying to outshine them. (If you have ever seen Dan Bar-el in action, you know that he is particularly difficult to outshine.)

Two other speakers were interspersed between myself, Kallie, and Dan. These were two of my long-time creative writing students, who each spoke a few minutes about the power of creativity and how writing has played an important role in their lives. It was pretty humbling to hear their words to imagine that I had played some small role in their exploration of creativity. I plan to post the transcript of their speeches in future posts!

After the speaking part of the event, the students in the audience broke into three groups and Dan, Kallie, and I each led one in a short creative writing activity. I had carefully packed and transported my dragon egg prop all the way to Korea for this very event and asked the students to imagine what would hatch out of it—and how. As you can imagine, there was quite the variety of descriptive responses!

This was also an opportunity for me to show the students some of my brainstorming journals (which, of course, go everywhere with me).


The final thing was to do a book signing. Here’s the three of us busy at work!


After the Embassy event, we were chaperoned to the KF Global Center where we were hosted by the Korean Reading Foundation, and spoke to a second audience of parents and students. This group was not fluent in English, so we had to deliver very different types of presentations, with each line being translated for us. Of course, so much about presenting is about timing, but when you need to accommodate the translator, it can really throw you an extra curveball or two! Still, I’m happy to report that everything mostly went without a hitch.

Dan, of course, made sure to greet the audience in Korean and then demanded that the translator translate his words into English! That’s Dan, for you. He can make anyone laugh!


It was a real honor to get to participate in these events, and I am really thankful to the Canadian Embassy for hosting us.

Note: All photos featured in this post were taken by the Canadian Embassy.

It’s a jungle out there: Danger Island

Imagine you and your crew have braved a turbulent sea only to, at last, crash on the shores of a tropical island.

But it is no haven! As you and your gang of intrepid survivors make your way inland, it is only to discover that the isle is infested with one particular creature . . .

Such was the writing prompt I delivered yesterday at our creative writing camp on the theme of safari, which I’m teaching Yangpyeong, Korea, with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el.

To help the students visualize this activity, I had them pick a creature from a sack and then  make a map of the island. Then it was up to them to write the story and see if their characters could survive the island!

Here are a few photos of their maps . . . deadly AND spectacular!













It’s a jungle out there: the scene of the crime at Safari camp


As part of the creative writing camp I’m currently teaching with authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el in Korea, we created a scene in the “jungle” where some hapless safari explorers met their demise.

The idea behind the activity is to let the kids come examine the site and then imagine what  occurred. Here’s some photos, showing cannibal spears, a hand reaching out from a quicksand pool, a scattered treasure, and a mysterious egg . . .





Of course, Korea in the summer is super hot, so no one had to imagine the blistering temperatures of a safari adventure. Add to that grasshopper, millipedes, and swarms of ants, and we really had ourselves quite a scene!

After the students were done examining the area and taking notes, it was back to the classroom to ruminate upon their findings and craft a short story.

Welcome to Danger Island


I like assigning my students story prompts with built in problems. Otherwise, it can be a whole lot of pages of characters stretching as the sun comes up, brushing their teeth, going to breakfast, running to school, hearing the school bell ring go BRIIIIIING! and onwards and onwards. (If you’ve ever taught creative writing for any length of time, then you know this story all too well).

The Danger Island story idea revolves around the idea of a constrained location that has experienced an overpopulation of . . . something. So, imagine an island that has been infested with the creature you fear the most—snake, spider, lizard, etc. Then imagine that you’ve just been shipwrecked on it!

For this activity, I actually don’t assign the students the critter they are the most afraid of (though that would certainly be one way of doing it). What I normally do is bring in a bag of rubber creatures and have the students blindly pick. This is not only rather a fun moment, but also makes the danger seem that much more real to the students.

With their creature beside them for inspiration, the students then craft their maps, which gives them their basic settings and inspiration for the story. How will their characters survive?

Below are some of the photos of the activity in progress and then some final maps.




What’s the key to writing?


How about a . . . key?

In my recent creative writing class, I had my young writers “pimp” some keys by adding some ornamentation to them and then creating key tags that could go with them.



The idea is that a character in a story finds the key and the cryptic message and then needs to work out the mystery of what the key opens. In some cases, students have written riddles, while others have just written the name of what the key might open (for example “Monster World”).

Here are some of their final key designs . . .

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