What can a child possibly teach adults about writing? A lot, I discovered on a dismal winter's day when my grandson was four years of age. We had exhausted Lego, painting, play dough, gingerbread men and turning the couch cushions into a fort.
‘Why don’t we write a story,’ I said in a moment of wearied inspiration. ‘You tell me what happens and I’ll write it down.’
I sat on the couch while he hung over the back where he could watch his scribe at work. A long silence followed as he marshalled his thoughts. Or sought inspiration. Or was he listening to a voice in his head?
‘Good stories often begin with ‘Once upon a time',’ I said encouragingly.
He ignored me and began in his own way:
(Next time he visited, he illustrated the story, hence the drawings. Later I made them into a book for his Christmas stocking.)
Setting established, words then tumbled out without apparent pause for thought:
Next came other characters: 'There was a police ghost who wanted to catch Noko Deko. There was also a sword fish who wanted to catch the ghost.'
He stopped, his eyes settled on the old dog on the floor and Brando was absorbed into the story too.
Then the action began: 'He was fighting with the ogre and the ogre stepped on him. The ogre ran away stomping his feet.'
Next came a very long silence. I dared to suggest a possible plot development. ‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’ he bellowed in my ear. ‘This is my story!’
More silence, and the plot took off in a completely different direction.
Now he was on a roll and I wrote furiously to keep up. '...old bones, a snake, a treasure chest...very old but empty of treasure. Noko Deko came into the castle looking for treasure. The police ghost was chasing Noko Deko. The swordfish was chasing the ghost.'
The action paused for a moment and a new and amazing character was introduced.
‘King Root Beyond?’ I queried.
‘King Root Beyond,’ he insisted.
'He saw Noko Deko sneaking around, looking for treasure. He grabbed him with one of his 16 arms and threw him out of the castle window.'
'What are you going to call your story?' I asked as he dragged the old dog off to the cushion-fort.
'Ogrelands' he replied, again without a lot of thought.
I remained on the couch, marvelling at the story he'd ‘written’. As a four-year-old, he was no more familiar with stories than most children his age, perhaps less so. Although I tried to encourage a love of books--and I knew he was read a bedtime story each night by his parents--Riley was a boy who preferred Lego to stories, doing to words.
And yet here was a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. With various settings and plot points. Interesting characters, motivations, action and conflict. And a climax. How had he 'written' it so effortlessly?
I know story-telling is innate, but I discovered it differently that day. Story-telling is in our DNA. It's as natural as eating and sleeping. We've inherited a great oral tradition from our caveman and woman ancestors who told stories as they returned from the hunt and sat around fires, and who 'wrote' about their experiences on the walls of caves.
With the development of writing and print, it's easy to get lost in 'thinking' stories are outside ourselves. They're not. We carry a wealth of material within us. Our lives are stories. And we carry the stories of those who came before. And other stories too.
As writers we are the conduit of an amazing and mysterious tradition. We just have to trust in the telling. And how amazing is that?
In summary, this is what I learned from my grandson when he was four years of age.
Have a great writing week!
'Ogrelands' reproduced with permission of the author and illustrator.