Illustrations from "All because of a Toothbrush"
Inspiring Writing through story telling
Scribing is a good example of using story telling to inspire creative writing. The Collaborative novel, "All because of a Toothbrush" is another. Below, is an article published around the time of the publication of the book.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of both designing and delivering a project to create a collaborative novel with ten and eleven year olds from County Longford. Around three hundred children from around the County were to be involved and the project was to be completed within six weeks. It was therefore, quite an organisational challenge.
The project was divided into two main stages. In the first stage, every fifth class child was invited to attend one of eight library-based workshops. During this time, eight scenarios and eight sets of characters were created from the initial premise of an unusual visitor to County Longford. The book was also intended to promote pride and interest in the children's home environment.
In stage two, seven classes, from each area of the County were selected to create a chapter of the novel, which would eventually form the completed continuous narrative. My role was to act as facilitator, and to be available for them as recorder and transcriber.
The book "All Because of a Toothbrush" is now finished and will be published in October. I am delighted at the results. The story is both highly entertaining and imaginative whilst the characterisation shows surprising depths. These children have shown that they are indeed capable of creating a professional product. They have successfully undertaken every stage of authorship from plot and character design and the planning, drafting and crafting stages through to editing and illustration. The book is a most enjoyable "read" quite able to stand alongside many an adult written children's novel. Of course, I have no intention of giving away the plot line in this article, but I will say that when the book is launched it should appeal to a wide age range.
My purpose in this article, however is not merely to draw attention to the publication but to examine the process that produced it in such a short time. I am not specifically a professional writer, although I write regularly and run classes in creative writing. I am firstly a storyteller and am committed to the promotion and development of the Oral Arts.
Throughout the project, the creative methodology employed oral skills. The children were encouraged to become, first and foremost, story makers and tellers. In stage one, after initial warm up activities to set the scene, each group of children brainstormed possible characters and plots developing ideas through role-play. These sessions were all recorded on minidisk and the transcripts were invaluable to me when I came to create simple character and plot cards.
Again in stage two, once the children had used the first of the four two hour sessions to verbally brainstorm the chapter outline and had been asked to write up a draft of a section of the chapter story, we were ready to continue on, in week two, using oral techniques. Constant use was made of discussion, and role-play activities based on the children's written drafts. I interviewed characters, imagined television and film crews at the scene, thus encouraging descriptive work and much more. When the children were happy with each scene it was recorded on tape. At the end of each two-hour session an almost continuous narrative had been recorded. It then became my job to type up the transcripts and present them back to each class for their comments.
I have outlined the process of the creation of the novel as briefly as possible but there are a few observations that I feel are pertinent. During the project I encountered children who could write with confidence and skill but none could have sustained the enthusiasm required for the constant redrafting that would have been necessary to create the story by conventional methods. There were many children whose ideas in plot development and characterisation far surpassed their ability to write. My attention was drawn on several occasions to the enthusiasm of children whom I was told showed little so called "academic ability." Once the children were accustomed to speaking with a microphone present, and they soon forgot it was there, they were free to allow their creativity full rein, confident that constant tedious re-writing was not going to be expected of them. Every child, whatever his or her ability level, was actively involved. Their reservations as to their ability to be authors vanished and the quality of their work improved dramatically. Each group began to work in a genuinely collaborative manner pooling ideas and supporting each other. Each discovered ownership of the whole chapter, not just the section that had been individually drafted.
Incidentally, towards the end of the sessions I asked for written character studies in the form of diary entries from the characters. In each case the writing was of a more thoughtful standard than earlier work produced.
I have used the above as an example of how Oral skill development can support and enhance the creative process of authorship but I use drama and role-play techniques extensively in creative writing and personal development work with all age groups and in a variety of settings.
Spoken language is our first "art form". It gives structure to thought, shape and meaning to the imagination and the ability to communicate our perceptions and feelings. It allows for the communication of creative thinking. In a very real way we create our world through language.
Spoken language is an "art" that we tend to take for granted after all most of us became proficient as young children. But it is an art form, capable of both playful exploration and depth of meaning. Like all disciplines, the skill of Oracy can be enhanced and developed by practice. But it is not always appreciated that ability to communicate logically and effectively must include development of the imagination, (the art of thinking beyond the known,) as well as a variety of memory, and visualisation skills.
In the distant past the skills of reading and writing were known only to the minority (this is unfortunately still largely true on a global scale,) and regarded with a sense of magical awe. But in the essential focus and goal of Literacy both the personal skills and the art forms of Oracy have shown a tendency towards devaluation.
Authors of written works of fiction are celebrated and rewarded whilst storytellers are frequently regarded as merely entertainers of children. Even story telling by parents and teachers has dwindled in importance. Yet story telling and story sharing have an intimacy and an active inter-connection between teller and listener that film and television, however visually magnificent, cannot provide. Only the minority now values radio drama. Even common phrases reflect devaluation of the currency of the Oral Arts. To "tell a story" is used as a euphemism for lying.
The old Seanachais knew a thing or two about imagination. They certainly knew how to carry an audience into a state of thinking beyond the known. They also knew a thing or two about community development. They were valued as far more than community entertainers regarded as keepers of community lore, and mythic cartography, as well as monitoring community self-awareness. The role was not that of dry record keeping but was alive, flexible and interactive, an art form. The storyteller had a story to dignify every family and community occasion.
There is a sad story recorded in "Celtic Heritage" (Alwyn and Brinley Rees) of an old storyteller speaking his stories alone to an "unresponsive stone wall" rather than lose his now unwanted skills.
Most teachers will agree that over the last twenty years the ability of children to sustain concentration, to listen, to visualise and creatively memorise has not improved yet the need for quality inter-personal communication skill is recognised as being essential in today's world. Whilst modern methods of communication require these effective language skills so many adults feel dis-empowered by their perceived low abilities in this area.
Perhaps this perceived paucity is a by-product of the long slow under-valuing of Oracy. During a personal development course that included a module on public speaking, I observed the behaviour of one participant whom I knew to be terrified at the thought of giving a three-minute talk. Having summoned enough courage to stand up she then talked with confidence and eloquence for more than three minutes about the reasons for her choice of subject. However when she began to give the talk, her head went down, she began to stutter and all confidence fled. I have often wished for a video of this that I might have reassured her of her innate skill.
I want to close this short article with a story, an imaginative stretch into the world of what if. What if, without the loss of the written, Oracy still held a prime place in academic achievement? Imagine a parallel world where, instead of examinations, which frequently seem to reward short-term memory and the ability to write rapidly, intelligence was tested through oral methods. The areas of expertise required both by examiners and candidates would change dramatically. The ability to order thought, and to mentally structure an argument would become paramount. Quick and creative thinking might supplement rapid writing. Broadband memory skills would be held in high regard and personal presentation would be of great value. I wonder how the demographic map of intelligence would be altered?
What other ramifications might follow?
The Longford children's collaborative book project has been an opportunity to begin to explore this "what if". The written form has not been ignored; the end product is, after all, a book. But by through the process of Oracy, results have been achieved that would have not otherwise been possible. Opportunities have also been forged for effective collaboration and co-operation between children from throughout the county, their teachers and myself as scribe and facilitator. This has been a real exercise in Creative talking.