On Monday, I was a judge for a children's short story competition. It's the second time this year I've done it - the first time was for my own Completely Cassidy story competition back in March and the second time was for the Fire and Fright contest run by Frightful Writers in association with Letchworth Heritage Foundation. And I'd almost forgotten, until I got the latest batch of stories in my hands this time round, what a joy reading stories by kids is. How unhampered their imaginations are, how unburdened they are with a need for everything to make sense, how free their writing is! Each story had at least one thing that made me smile and often I was blown away by the audacity of each writer. I couldn't help comparing them to my own writing, which is firmly governed by rules - writing rules and world-building rules and grammar rules. These stories bent the rules. Sometimes they ate them.
I'd forgotten, too, what an achievement it is to reach The End. Well, obviously I haven't totally forgotten - it's not that long since I last wrote it myself that I could legitimately claim not to remember how it feels - but I'd forgotten how it feels when you're young and it's perhaps the first time you've written those words. For some of the children who entered Fire and Fright, their story was the first piece of creative writing they had finished - I know that several of the stories came from schools where I'd run story planning workshops. I didn't write the stories with these children - all we did was plan what they might write. The onus was on the kids to turn the plan into a story and those that managed it did Frightful Writers proud. Judging was a hard, hard job because the stories were so great.
I often marvel at the process of creating a story - that you take a headful of nothing and weave it into a product that will make people laugh and cry and think. One of the nicest things about short story competitions is that it gives writers a goal - a reason to put your idea onto the page and then something to send it off to at the end. And since the National Curriculum does not encourage schools to teach creative writing, there are fewer and fewer reasons to write stories, something that makes me immeasurably sad. I have escaped into stories all my life; the thought that there might be no one who can write them in the future worries me. But judging from the competition entries I read for Frightful Writers, we don't have to fret just yet. As long as there are stories about Kev the Chicken that end with the words, Evil was dead. Long live poultry! then I think we'll be OK.