Inspired by this talk by Sean Love of Fighting Words at last years TedXDublin, I decided to try some group storytelling with my first years this week. (It’s well worth a look, you’ll just have to forgive his misconception that “we don’t have creative writing in our formal education system“)
We used this post on step-by-step storytelling to craft each paragraph (step 1 = set the scene, step 2 = introduce the characters, step 3 = dialogue, step 4 = flashback, step 5 = return to the story, step 6 = end with a twist). I realise this ‘writing by numbers’ approach isn’t to everybody’s taste but I figure let them learn the rules first, then they can break them to their hearts content!
At each stage we wrote a list of suggestions on the board and then each person in the class put their hands over their eyes (so as not to be influenced by each others opinions) and voted for their favourite.
Anyone could suggest where the story should be set, or who the characters might be, or what their motivation was and where the story should go, so it was a very democratic process. We debated a lot about how to capture where the characters were from by writing the dialogue phonetically and we discussed the fact that a short story needs to be a slice of life. Often the suggestions in the room became too convoluted and we stripped it back to keep it simple and honest. We deleted dialogue that didn’t sound believable and argued about why the story should go in this direction, or that direction. I really feel it was a positive experience for them to consider how much thought and craft goes into even a short 500 word piece of writing.
The next step is that each student in the class will now write their own short story but they CANNOT write more than 3 pages. I want them to write less better, not write lots badly.
Anyway, here’s what we wrote.
Lost & Found
As I glanced around at the chickens pecking the corn; the cow pats hard crust drying in the sunlight and the sheep dog barking like a maniac at the tiny new-born kittens, I wondered when I would see my home again. The sound of the tractor purring in the distant field and the smell of freedom, and manure and freshly cut grass filled my soul with longing and despair.
I heard the crunch of gravel behind me and turned to see my father slowly limping across the yard, a look of anxiety written in the wrinkles on his tired worn face. He didn’t want me to go, he had made that clear, but I felt I had to make my mark on the world; make my own decisions; stand on my own two feet.
“Da, are the sheep alrite?”
“Thar surely”. He looked at the ground though, he couldn’t look me in eyes.
“Grand so. Shur, I better be getting on then?” I didn’t move though, I just stood scuffing the ground with the toe of my Sunday shoes. I didn’t know what else to say to him.
“C’mon up ta the house. Yer ma made some wee sanwiches an a flask a tea for the journee”
As we walked slowly up to the farmhouse, my father limping beside me, I remembered the day my brother left. The soft sobs of my mother choking back her tears and my father’s low warning, hissed at my brother as he turned to go: “Yer brother gets the farm if you leave. So don’t bother comin’ back”. I remember the look of absolute shock on Seamie’s face. Our father never said a cruel word in his life, not even to the god damn chickens, and here he was stripping his eldest son of his inheritance, his homeland and his family in one terrible moment. Now I stopped to wipe my feet on the woven mat just inside the back door, sick to my stomach at the thought of my mother’s face as she said goodbye, this time to her last son.
I dragged my body reluctantly into the kitchen, pulled out a chair beside my mother and sank onto the cold hard seat. She sat stiffly with her hands entwined, as if she was praying for a miracle. She looked up as my Dad shuffled out into the hall and whispered “I’ll miss ya laddie”. I clasped her cold hands in mine but I couldn’t say anything because of the lump in my throat.
I stood, grabbed my tattered brown suitcase and walked out the back door, knowing it was probably the last time I’d see home. But I had to find out about my other home; my other life; the future I’d never had because my real mother gave me up for adoption at birth.