Last weekend I went to a workshop run by the Ministry of Stories, an organisation that helps children to develop skills and self-esteem through storytelling. In the workshop, we – a group of amateur and professional writers – had to collaborate to produce our own story, complete with cliffhanger, all in the space of 45 minutes. It’s what the kids at the Ministry do every week – how hard could it be for us?
We started out in a suitably surreal and promising place, with a badger called Daisy on the run from the government. We added minor characters: the Prime Minister (named Pamela Peterson), a secret agent whose heart just wasn’t in it any more. We were pleased with our imaginative prowess. But our workshop leader stopped us – apparently we adults were doing something that children never do.
We were rationalising our story right from the start. Once we’d established our government-thriller theme, we shaped all the following elements to fit – the prime minister, the secret agent. Children, however, see no problem in introducing a cowboy into their undersea adventure and teaming him up with a ballet-dancing beefeater.
It made me think about how we writers can overthink things. In the Ministry of Stories workshops, children keep their minds open – they leave themselves open to outrageous, ridiculous, hilarious opportunities that could actually make theirs a great story. We, however, start to end-game. We start to think about what people expect us to say. We’re so busy doing all this that we can forget what we’d actually like to say. It’s like the train company that is so worried about sounding professional that it decides to ‘apologise for the inconvenience caused to your journey’ – probably the most hateful, inhuman apology-of-an-apology in history – instead of telling customers that they’re ‘sorry we made you late today’.
What happened to Daisy the badger? Well, I guess you’ll have to wait for the major motion picture to find out. In the meantime, I’m going to try and go back to a time when I was smaller, and start thinking bigger.