Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Of Naptime and Narrative

A week ago, I was the designated storyteller at naptime. I decided to tell stories that I thought would be so dull that they'd lull the toddlers to sleep.

I'd been thinking about this because my nephew told a story when he was here back in September: "There once was an old woman who lived in a firehouse. She had a ladder truck, and a long hose, and a pumper truck [continue to insert as many firehouse objects as possible]. And she had an ax. The end."

That was it. No conflict. I've always taught that if you have no conflict, you have no plot--no plot, no story. When my beloved Lit professor in undergraduate school made that claim, I, in my late adolescence wisdom, declared, "Yes you can too have a plot with no conflict." My wise teacher challenged me to find one story, just one story, with no conflict. I haven't been successful, but I've been on the lookout.

When it was my turn to be the designated storyteller last week, I started with my nephew's story. When it was finished, he said, "Tell me another." I gave him another plotless, conflictless story. It did not bore him to sleep. On the contrary, he demanded more. In fact, he'd have continued to demand more, if his mom (my sister) hadn't said, "One more story, and that's it. You've had four stories, and it's naptime."

Now I know that he wasn't really interested in my stories. He just wanted to postpone naptime. Yet, he was fascinated enough to demand more details. Hmmm.

I've spent a lot of my adult life thinking about narrative and what makes a successful narrative. What keeps people reading/listening? What absorbs people? Every so often, about the time I think I have it all figured out, something happens that makes me ponder. In the 90's, it was the rise of the memoir, most of which didn't describe lives that were that out of the ordinary, but people gulped them up anyway. Now, with my experience telling stories to children, I wonder if plot/conflict/cliff-hanging events are really all that important.

For my nephew right now, it's setting. Anything set in a firehouse will thrill him--or a construction site with heavy earth-moving vehicles. In a way, he's not so different from other readers I know. Give me a post-apocalyptic landscape, and I'm in, at least for 50 pages. My friend will read anything set in Tuscany. The South of France, sailboats, the Gothic South--maybe I haven't given setting enough of its due as I've taught fiction (how to read it, how to write it).

I'll be interested to watch my nephew develop and to see how his taste for narrative changes. I'll be interested to ponder the implications for all our story telling.

1 comment:

Dale said...

My son loved to hear about firemen. They didn't have to do anything. They could admonish people to put out matches carefully, and he'd listen rapt.

And now he's 18 and attending Fire Science classes. He's never stopped wanting to be a fireman, in all those years.