Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? Writing the personal experience article in Cambodia

By Larry Brook

“Hi. I’m a chicken. I really want to cross that road. So I gather up my courage and cross to the other side. Success!”

In a writers’ workshop in Cambodia, we begin our discussion on “writing the personal experience article” with the sample chicken story above. Seila, my Khmer interpreter, sweeps his hand in front of him in a grand gesture to show the chicken crossing the road. Fifteen Cambodian writers, men and women, young and older, listen eagerly to the story. They love stories and they love to laugh. Sokha calls out, “The chicken forgot his umbrella!”

We discuss. Is it a real story? Yes, it describes the personal experience of the chicken. But what’s missing? 

Now that everyone is curious, I point them to their participant manuals to the five steps or “writing map” of the first person experience article:

  1. Open at a point of decision or crisis in my life. Movitation is to solve a problem or crisis. What problem needs solving?
  1. I meet obstacle #1 which leads to conflict, suspense.
  1. I meet obstacle #2 which leads to conflict, suspense.
  1. Climax of the action. I solve the problem or I am defeated but learn something.
  1. Conclusion. What did I learn from my experience? 

“Work with a partner,” Seila and I announce. “Based on this map, discuss what’s missing in the chicken story.”

I love the sound of writers talking. After ten minutes or so, they report the following.

Sophanny asks, “Why does the chicken cross the road? We don’t see any meaningful motivation leading to action.” 

“The story is too easy,” Sopheap adds. “No obstacles to overcome.”

“No conflict! No suspense!” Sauphorn shouts.

Trainer Larry Brook with writers Runnath and Sopheap

They get it.

Next step? We work as a class to rewrite the chicken story, following the map. (Srong types it in a computer which is reflected onto the screen through the LCD projector.) We have fun. Chenda wants to turn the road into a river full of crocodiles. Kimhorn objects and says we should stick to the road and fill it with Phnom Penh killer traffic. Runnath offers a winning idea: “The chicken is a young woman and sees handsome Rooster on other side.” 

Now we form pairs. I suggest that we share personal experiences where God has encouraged or helped us through a crisis. Partner A shares a personal experience with Partner B while B takes notes. They switch places: B shares with A while A takes notes.

Partners exchange notes. 

Each partner creates a 5-frame picture strip depicting his or her own personal experience visually (following five steps of map). Share picture strip with partner. 

Sample picture strip/cartoon

We display a few picture strips on LCD projector with the class. In one scene, the girl chicken rejects the handsome rooster because he has terrible breath. Such imagination!

All writers write their brief personal experience article following the map in their picture strip. (The picture strip activity encourages them to write scenes and concrete action. The pictures remind them to depict the five senses. Otherwise, as with all new writers, they tend to write in abstract, general sentences.)

As they finish, we conduct group tutorials to give feedback on the articles. I am assisted by three Cambodian editors whom I have trained over a three-year period.

After one such workshop a writer exclaimed, “I knew I could talk. Now I know I can put my talking into writing.” 

Any results of the workshop? Yes! Working in tandem with Fount of Wisdom, the local Christian publisher, we have produced three or four booklets of personal experience articles, including This Is My Story, and Such Great Love. At a recent general book convention, all copies of the personal experience booklets sold out.

Larry Brook conducts performance enhancement training internationally through Innovative Learning Solutions. He has led writers’ workshops in South America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. He is a former MAI board member and considers himself part of the MAI family. Visit Larry’s blog at Free to Move about the Planet.

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