Tiny stories is a technique used within the practice of creative writing workshops. Nanofiction or microfiction are terms given to writing exercises in which the length of a story is arbitrarily determined to perhaps absurd lengths: Stern’s microfiction model for example states that micro-stories should be no more than 250 words. The World’s Shortest Stories (Moss, 1998) is more stringent: stories should contain no more than 55 words (excluding the title which must be no more than 7 words long) and each story must contain the following four elements: 1) a setting, 2) one or more characters, 3) conflict, and 4) resolution. Snellings Clark (2008) refers directly to the term tiny stories and whilst offering another set of limits on length (100 words) also directs the writer not to use the same word twice (albeit making an exception for contractions). She also offers a set of aesthetic criteria which describe how the tiny story might most effectively function:
Little stories that are larger on the inside than they appear on the outside.
Stories that leave an aftertaste, that linger.
Special nod to stories that include elements of the fantastic.
Little things with big effects: lost keys, a scrap of paper, a chink in the armour, a missing screw.
The inexplicable in the definable, the fantasy in the reality, the uncommon in the everyday, that something under the surface.
The secret little things….
The results of the Closing Schools for the Future project are written as a series of tiny stories which conform to the Snellings Clark model: no more than 100 words in length, in commemoration of the age of the school at its closure. 78 tiny stories were written, each one representing a child who would have been on the school role had it been kept open in September 2008.
Whilst this constitutes a small ethnographic project where n=1 and where the characters, narrative, dialogue and critical actions appeared to inhabit a microworld with microscopic movements, cataclysmic change was felt widely, resonating out across the landscape in which the school is based in ways not fully understood or predicted.
The soundscape of the territory was a microcosm of silence. Resistance had been purposeless, directionless if not completely futile. Questions remained unanswered, under investigated, under challenged: the assumption of logic, incontestability was all pervasive. In this world of tiny stories, teachers identities were sometimes subtly, sometimes seismically challenged: John, a class teacher of some 15 years in the school had decided he just wanted to continue to teach in any school, despite being offered extra pay for taking on enhanced management duties. But he just wanted to teach; and unable to play the job interview game refers in an observed class to the on-looking new head in a throwaway aside as an old witch which didn’t enamour him with her – so he failed to win the job in the new school and had to revisit his cv, his approach, his understanding of how he did what he did. No longer a respected teacher for 15 years who had taught at the school classes across the range – he was now back in the market place with a label of as being a bit of a trouble maker.
These tiny stories were not part of the building schools for the future meganarrative of secondary schools; no bright new shining vision of educational pods for sophisticated young people who are able to opt for down loading content from their mobile phones over the attendance of a master class by an overperforrming uberteacher who would be performing ballet steps one minute an entertaining the visiting private sector funders the next.
These stories had no shine, no brighter picture of a future but were stories of a quiet, seeping desperation which was prevented from turning into a collective madness by the efforts of teachers and children who continue from day to day as if nothing was about to happen. This was not a indignant narrative about the alleged lack of consultation of the authorities, an ironic parable about administrative dysfunction or a moralistic tale of performative brutalism – although each of those narrative genres emerged in the fabric of this story of school closure as it unravelled in its last few months. It’s a collection of tiny stories of a tiny school told by tiny narrators.
Behind these tiny stories, more complex narrative compete for attention and recognition as sources of authoritative voice. The bigger narratives pull at the microscopic texture of school and community and family relations and the unravelling of that texture pulls on deep seated threads which pull elsewhere in our civil fabric: echoes and rumours of closure and melt down permeate the rest of the community. The loss of a name is mirrored close by with the demolition of a local church and the slow seepage away of local sights, knowledge and identity: the local Centenary Vic Working Men’s Club has to announce it’snot closing in a letter to the press, perhaps indicative of a microscopic flaking away of community of which the school is part of. These microscopic actions have macro effects which are unpredictable, chaotic, complex and still only partially understood.
Closing Schools for the Future is to be performed at Tête à Tête Opera Festival, Riverside Studios, London, 4 – 5 August.