Creating stories is like falling asleep

In my son’s first year of school, I spent one morning a week in the classroom writing stories with students. This was the “Prep B Bookclub”, brainchild of teacher Charmaine Brandon, whose class always felt – in a good way – as if a circus was about to start. In Bookclub, the students sat on the floor with me in pairs or small groups in one corner of the classroom, and when they finished their stories, they worked with artist mums on illustrations.

So they didn’t have to think about spelling and handwriting, I typed the students’ ideas onto my laptop. Over time, they started wanting to type their names (in a very large font… just like grownup writers) and asked about words. Reading and writing were the natural next steps, and Mrs Brandon went there, but this wasn’t where we started. We started with stories. At the end of the year, we produced an illustrated collection.

Initially the stories had lots of poos and wees in them (write what you know is the first thing you learn at creative writing school). Occasionally I threw in narrative cues. “And then what happened?” (novelists among us might do well to ask this more often). “How about an explosion?” (another oldie but goody – Raymond Chandler said that when his stories got boring, he’d have someone walk in with a gun). The stories grew more sophisticated and happily postmodern. Green Mystery, for instance, was kicked out of the three bears’ house and went home to her grandmother only to learn it wasn’t her grandmother; it was a snake that “began to wind its snakey slimy body around Green Mystery and squeeze the juice out of her”. And then there were the four boys with tricks on Halloween, Lolly Scare Man, Mr Story, Jar-Jar and Dork-Boy, who “was tough boys with pads on their elbows and knees and no shirts on.” They got lollies “from everyone in the world.” Of course.

Working on these stories was one of the most gratifying experiences of my writing career, largely because of the students’ creativity which came so much more easily than mine. I suspect approaches that allow creativity to flourish like this in the classroom were rare even then, in the first years of prep when the curriculum was supposed to be play-based, and are even more difficult under a national curriculum, which, in Queensland’s case, has four year olds engaging with the three Rs.

Former education academic and author Sir Ken Robinson – whose presentations at the international TED conference have reached over 200 million viewers – tells us that education needs fundamental rethinking in this century, with creativity in a central role. Robinson sees the current hierarchy of subjects – maths and literacy at the top followed by the humanities, with creative arts at the bottom – as totally inadequate to the world we’re becoming. Education admits a narrow definition of intelligence and those whose talents are outside the small square are left out. Robinson gives the example of dance, which, he says, is not compulsory in any curriculum in the world. Why not? he asks. It’s a good question.

The thing I learned in Prep B was that children find their creativity almost as easily as they fall asleep and falling sleep is the closest analogy I know to the creative process. For grownups, it’s a much more difficult transition in the same way falling asleep can be difficult.

One of the first things many grownups (not me, of course) find difficult is navigating past a huge ego, which doesn’t help you create anything. Children automatically bring less ego, and have that delightful willingness to fail. For me, early morning walks in nature or swimming tend to quiet my ego. Later are the hours sitting at a desk (the man with the gun), reworking poor writing (what happens next?) and developing a skill set (write what you don’t know). That’s where the ego is useful. But without creativity, it’s worthless.

If I’m really stuck creatively, I think back to those Prep B stories, and I remember their authors, Nick, Grace, Riley, Rosette, Sam, Hannah, Harry, Dixie, Lloyd, Lulu, Otis, Nele, Bronte, Millie, Milena, Charlotte, Anouk, Seán, Georgia, Jack, Isabella, Zac, Katie and Katrina. They knew how to create stories. Loved your work, Prep B. 


First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend 23 February 2013. You can Get in touch with Mary-Rose,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter