On Thursday I taught a class of 10/11 years olds how to structure and create stories. They’d all been writing stories since they could hold a crayon but a new face, with a couple of new approaches is always welcome. They listened patiently as I enthused over structure, character and plot development but were getting sore bums by the time I’d begun to expound upon the virtues of brainstorming ‘What if?’ scenarios.They wanted to get down to the business of writing and sharing. They’d listened and now they used the writing exercise as a basis for oral storytelling, with each other but mostly with me. A couple of sentences on paper and they’re up on their feet, flapping their paper around and ready to reveal the intricacies of their plot orally.
Writing is such a difficult way to express your thoughts and ideas. Why should you have to go through the misery of selecting words, checking punctuation and grammar and exposing yourself to repeated criticism and deconstruction? It’s so much easier and less time consuming just to adopt an expression, establish eye contact and take your listener through the labyrinths of your imagination, constructing a drama with endless possibilities and characters that are vaguely reminiscent of parents, teachers and friends. You can also do a quick volte face when the lure of the bar wins over your epic narrative; shovel in a blood-soaked battlefield; kill off that heroine that bleated too much and create a comic side-kick. You are there, reading your audience and can turn on a dime. These Homers did just that. They read my face and body language and if they thought I wasn’t sufficiently sold on a plot, they’d adapt it. But however much we want to cling onto our oral history and cherish the sit-us-down storytellers, we have to have wordsmiths. These stories, which were told with conviction and boundless energy, were raw, unformed and unedited. The majority of the class weaved the ancient themes of lost love, singular heroes, sacrifices for the good of all and escapes from hideous monsters. What they needed was the time and consideration of planning, structure, twists, reveals and character to turn these memes into something that would merit more than just a grading.
It made me think about whether I was writing for pretty much the same reasons. I had written my first novel to prove I could, and to play around with scenarios and characters that pleased and intrigued me. The cold reality is, that as soon as you want someone to pay to buy these thoughts, you’d better be all over the structure, punctuation, twists and authenticity. I chase reviews, positions in the kindle sales ranking and brood endlessly on my progress, or lack of. For all the time spent creating a novel, the same is spent selling it. So, as I contemplate Thursday’s brief return to the classroom, where I distributed knowledge and experience like manna, I wonder whether the learning didn’t go both ways.