Learning how to write, all over again

Our household has gone a bit China mad lately. For the two youngest children, China is their school topic this term. They have been drawing dragons, writing about the artist Ai Weiwei, making kites, and such like.

I’ve been involved, too. Alongside its China topic, their primary school is trying to get its children more interested in reading stories set in other cultures, as a way of understanding how life is different elsewhere on our planet. To combine this with their China work, they commissioned me to write a “traditional” Chinese folk tale, which they would then use to spark ideas in school.
I accepted the challenge and became utterly engrossed, quite possibly obsessed – but in a good way. After scratching around for a while, I took a story-form rooted in Yugur culture and put my own spin on it. My tale is about Sheep – one day she leaves her flock to live a new life on Heavenly Mountain, where the grass is sweet and green. Along the way she meets Wolf, with whom she strikes a bargain.
The school liked the story and asked me if I’d come in and read it to an assembly of all the children. I agreed, unsure what they would make of it. I thought the older children might enjoy it, but I worried that the smallest ones – some of whom are barely five – wouldn’t get it at all.

I needn’t have worried. It went down well, especially the parts where I leapt around wielding a bamboo cane in the air – something you’re not really allowed to do in school these days.

After the reading, I took a workshop with some of the older boys, trying to get them to write their own creative responses to the story. This was hard going at first, but once they realised that they were allowed to make stuff up and have fun with words, they really got into the idea. There was a beautiful moment, about half and hour in, when they all had their heads down and were scribbling away and I really felt like I’d achieved something.

I’m not sure that I taught them to become better writers – I was only with them for a few hours. But I think I helped them to realise that they could generate ideas, and that their ideas were as good as anyone’s. I hope they can keep that thought with them.

In the afternoon, I went to read my story to the school’s youngest children. Concerned that the full story – and its themes of naivety, selfishness and redemption – might be too much for them to grasp, I had written a shorter version of about half the length, with the language simplified and the narrative complexities removed.

Sitting down to read this to them, I asked a few questions about what they’d made of the morning’s reading. I was amazed at how perceptive they were. Most of them had a good recall of the main plot points and characters; several of them could quote back sections of dialogue – well, almost.

I quickly realised that the “dumbed down” version of the story wasn’t needed. I should have had greater respect for this young audience. There’s a lesson for me there.

Amid all this creative activity, I’ve been writing about China for a client – or trying to. I’m supposed to be writing about how the global economic downturn is making it harder for Chinese companies to raise finance. It’s interesting, but I’m struggling to find my way into it – after the Christmas and New Year break, I’ve lost some of my rhythm. I want the words to flow effortlessly, but they won’t.

Really, I ought to remember what I told the boys in school: if you find it hard to write, just start; if you find you want to stop, keep going.

I had no idea what to write about when I opened the Scrivener file that became this blog post, just one word: China. Now I have 670 words. That’s how writing works sometimes – and it’s as true for me in my study as it is for those boys in their classroom.

4 replies on “Learning how to write, all over again”

  1. That’s really good, Neil. Skills that might come in handy for 26 Treasures of Childhood. I wrote a story many years ago and recently decided to adapt it for my grand-daughter. So it’s now called “Aimee’s New Year” (adaptation + change the name). We produced it as a little book and gave it to Aimee at Christmastime. I felt so proud when I got a text message a few days later from my son – telling me he’s read it to Aimee and she’d thought it was great.

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