Tuesday, 15 June 2010
And then...and then...and then... Meg Harper
My Creative Partners project is all over bar the shouting – I have to attend something called a wash-up meeting next week! Don’t you just love modern management jargon?! I have learnt a great deal from the project and could rant at a few politicians about a variety of educational and social issues as a result. But as a writer who works in schools I am fascinated by what I observed about little children and what, for them, constitutes a story. Tomorrow I will be working in a different school and will work with gifted and talented children from years 1-5 but the teacher, although she wanted me to work with year 1 and 2 wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me to do with them – something about writing stories and having fun – but she wasn’t sure what. And suddenly, I didn’t know what to suggest. I explained that from what I have observed, small children have nothing like such a strong sense of the structure of a story as adults do. This ought to be obvious, I think. We presumably learn the structure of story gradually over the years as we read and hear more and more of them. Some of us enjoy stories that break the rules, where the basic structure is experimented with and the ‘rules’ are broken – I do myself. David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ is brilliant in my opinion – Sarah Water’s ‘The Night Watch’ is less successful but I admire the attempt to subvert the structure. Others hate all that – many are the moans I have heard about the ambiguous ending of ‘Atonement’. But when I was 5 or 6, I was still absorbing how stories worked – I certainly couldn’t have explained that a story had a beginning, a middle and an end, let alone that there was something we could call a ‘build-up’ and a ‘resolution’. I know I wrote stories that went on until I got fed up with them and then they just stopped. And why not? Stories are entertainment and for little children, lots of action is entertaining – so they make up stories which go ‘and then...and then...and then...’ and that’s fine. When they get a bit older, they start noticing that things have got a bit ridiculous and so there are a lot of ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ endings. To me, all this is a natural part of the process of absorbing a norm of our culture.
So why on earth are younger and younger children having ‘story structure’ drilled into them? I am part of the process because I am frequently asked to talk about story planning and I co-operate because I am always happy to share my experience of my craft and to try to meet the needs of those employing me. I can do a good, fun and memorable workshop on story planning and story structure and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for children who have had a rich and lengthy experience of story. But for younger children? No – surely it is better to let their idea run riot, their imaginations roam freely, for them to enjoy the glories of ‘and then... and then...and then...’. My 5-7s youth theatre group is devising a delightful little play this term in which Monkey meets the Emperor Master in the jungle and is taught Kung Fu because he is being sent on a quest to save the moon which is being eaten by the Astro Rat. On the way he encounters the Crocodile King, Howler Monkey and his friend Marmaduke, a mad Scientist and some helpful Stars. As you do. My adult brain has been much challenged by encouraging them to bring this amazing quest to a satisfactory conclusion which makes sense! I don’t think they would mind at all if it didn’t! They are simply enjoying the journey, adding in more and more adventures for Monkey.
So that’s what I think I’ll be doing with the Year 1s and 2s tomorrow – enjoying a story journey and not worrying about structure. How much does a story need it anyway? Do I only enjoy the satisfaction of a story that sticks to the traditional structure because that’s what I’m used to in my small corner of Western civilisation? I wonder. What do you think? Anybody out there an expert on the theory of narrative?