Saturday, 4 February 2012

Inventing stories without meaning or feeling

Here's a serious question: do you think you could come up with a way in which a group of people could come together and either talk about, or write some stories and then spend an hour, say, talking about those stories, without at any point talking about the meaning of the stories?

One way, you could talk about 'structure' - but you would have to do it in such a way as to be so abstract that you couldn't ever refer to notions of good and bad, powerful and less powerful, individual versus the rest, the forces of nature appearing to be either easily dominated or overwhelming...none of that.

And you couldn't really talk about the 'little guy' or the 'big guy', or 'boy meets girl'. And you couldn't even talk about motifs like Cinderella or the deposed king or the wicked step-mother, or the robot that gets out of control. That's all forbidden.

In short, you must only talk about such things as 'the setting' or 'characters' or the 'introduction' as if these are god-given, essential parts of every story. In fact, it's a formula! And if it's a formula you can sell it!

Yes, you can dilute narratives down until all you have is this 'structure-without-meaning', package it up as if this is some form of sacred knowledge and flog it as a solution to Writing in schools.

And it makes the marking of Writing dead easy too. Has the child done the structure? Good if she has, bad if she hasn't.

Needless to say, this has absolutely nothing to do with how writers write or how readers read. Analysis of hundreds of stories, writers' methods, motives and intentions, readers' experience of reading will not deliver you  these diy packages.

Instead, you'll hear writers talking about, say, catching a hint of something from what they've read, seen or heard. And this appeared to them to be some kind of problem or dilemma or oddity that needed solving or relating or unravelling. Sometimes writers will say that at some stage in the process they remembered things they had read and, yes, a structure or several structures appear to them from those read books or films or TV programmes or plays as they write. Or motifs from these sources appear to them, a 'search for the true king' or the 'lost child' or whatever. In these circumstances, writers are playing with the 'paradigm' - that's to say the 'syntax' of a story-form might stay the same but it's the elements that can be taken out and swapped. Thus: if you say the rom-com has a syntax - boy meets girl, boy (or girl) doesn't like the other party, they are in each other's company and sparks fly, the result is that the one or two in the relationship suddenly discover that they have a liking for each other. What a writer can do is take that syntax and change elements - the reluctant lovers are both divorcees instead of young inexperienced lovers; or there's a political element: the couple aren't of the same cultural group....that's the paradigm changing and not the syntax - a fruitful way to write but one that also involves talking about meaning. But, note, these story forms have different syntaxes - not one syntax!

These are some of the ways writers work. That's not to say they don't study or learn about 'structure', but that they learn about it in the context of trying to write stories with meaning and power. They discover that this or that structure might enable or hinder what they're trying to say. But, it's about meaning.

So how come schools, strategies, course plans in relation to the writing of stories are full of reductive crap about structure? How come such strategies demote or eliminate questions of meaning and feeling?

I believe it's a crisis in educational culture. It's a lack of belief in the human and in particular the human that is the child. It's an attempt to de-humanize narrative, purely so that these humans can be measured. And yet the thing that makes us human - our ability to make meanings and pass them on to each other -  is being demoted or marginalised or eliminated from this activity.

So what's being measured? What possible worth can be placed on such measurement if the human has been subtracted from what is being measured? After all, we're not talking about something which is of itself an abstract process - like Maths. We're talking about a process which humans invented in order to pass on meanings and feelings.

There are people out there who have become afraid of children's meanings and feelings and these 'structures'  are just right for them. Out go the tears and laughter, in come the marking systems.