Madeleine Robins

May 16, 2011

Bedtime Stories

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:18 AM
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My younger daughter, a high school freshman, has hit one of those adolescent patches where she can’t go to sleep.  Given that this makes her soggy to the point of uselessness in the morning (getting her out of the house can be a little like rolling a boulder composed of Jello uphill), we’re working with her, as the jargon goes, to help her get her sleep mojo back.  Some of this involves impounding her computer at 10pm and suggesting that she do something quiet and non-screen related: read, play guitar, torment the dog.  She’s been almost cooperative, which is the best you can really expect from a 15 year old.  But she’s been demanding bedtime stories.

I loved reading to my kids.  I loved telling them bedtime stories.  Some of the stories have been enshrined in memory (if I could find an artist and a publisher for the book about the Sandman’s youngest son, or the one about the morbidly shy princess, my daughters would be happy forever).  Others have gone the way of ephemeral art: vanished.  Telling a brand new story to kids is both exciting and stressful, and both for the same reason: there is no outlining, no making a few notes and then doing a little research.  On the spot storytelling is a high-wire act (and sometimes when I was really tired, I’d start dropping off before the kid did, and be wakened by an irate 8-year-old saying “MOM! You’re not making any sense at ALL!”).

It helps, of course, if you don’t try for great art; sticking to the classic well-made-plot (character-problem-attempts to solve problem fail-solution!-resolution).  It helps that most kids don’t want a moral but they do want what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a takeaway.  In my shy princess story the princess becomes less shy–and finds her own core strength.  In the Sandman story the little boy discovers he’s not the only one in the family who ever misbehaved.  (Okay, not War and Peace, but my audience liked them.)  And it helps if you’re willing to put up with suggestions from the audience (“I hate that name.  Can you call her Crystal instead?”).

But my secret about making up stories is that I sometimes use a story I’m already thinking about, and use the panicky-what-comes-next nature of telling the story to find solutions to plot points I hadn’t even gotten to yet.  Last night I started telling my daughter the bare-bones version of a story I’ve just started, and by the time she started snoring o-so-gently, I knew a number of useful things about where the story was going.

And tonight, if she wants me to tell her another story, I’m gonna pull this one out again and see if I can get a little farther with the plot.  Motherhood is all about the multi-tasking.

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