Work and play

PEN TO PAPER CHALLENGE AMBASSADOR FIONA MCFARLANE DISCOVERS STORY STRUCTURE

My nephew, who’s two years old, has started making up stories.

His mother will start: ‘once there was a boy called Rowan who…’; then Row will say two sentences, and then the story will be finished. The first sentence completes his mother’s: ‘Once there was a boy called Rowan who was sick’ or ‘who was sad’ or ‘who was hungry’. The second sentence provides a solution: ‘His mummy and daddy took him to eat fish and chips’ seems to solve most problems (in real life, that’s only happened to him once).  He then makes sure to say, ‘The end’, which he always accompanies with a short, sharp nod – a crisp gesture of finality.

I love watching him do all this, not only because he’s my nephew (and is, of course, objectively adorable), but also because it reminds me that we understand storytelling from a very young age. Rowan’s stories meet every requirement of basic story structure: introduction, conflict, resolution, and the almost bodily sensation of a satisfying ending. Writers have complicated and played with and abandoned this basic structure in all kinds of wonderful ways, but it remains rich and rewarding and deeply pleasurable. I love watching Rowan take pleasure in it.

When you spend a lot of your time at your desk squeezing out paragraphs and shifting commas, it’s wonderful – it’s necessary – to be reminded of the joys and satisfactions of telling a story.

The pleasures of storytelling become complicated when you decide to devote your life to it – or when you decide to write a novel, which can feel like much the same thing. I’ve been rereading the French writer Roland Barthes lately, and I rediscovered his idea that the pleasure of writing ‘does not contradict the writer’s complaints.’ I didn’t just recognise this idea, I felt recognised by it (and the writing I love best is often writing I feel recognised by, although the form of that recognition frequently surprises me). Writers like talking about how hard writing is; I think this is partly because people often think of writing as something that’s easy and fun to do, when actually it requires discipline, finicky attention, and perseverance in the face of frequent discouragement.

When I’m asked for writing advice, the first things I always say are: read a lot, and write a lot. Basically: work hard.

But none of this contradicts the pleasure of writing, which as well as being a kind of work is a kind of play – complicated, serious, fastidious play. I’m reminded of this when I see Rowan take pleasure in telling stories. I’m reminded of it, too, when I walk into the Sydney Story Factory and see the evidence of play everywhere. I’m reminded of it when I know that everyone else taking the Pen to Paper challenge has spent some time at their desk today, just as I have, and we’re doing it because we love it – even though it’s hard work. I’m reminded of it when I finish something and think – with a crisp little nod of my head – The End.

I look forward to that nod of the head at the end of the month, when I finish the story I’m working on for the challenge. And I look forward to thinking of everyone else taking the challenge and nodding along with me – The End.

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