Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

No Short Story Writing Please, We're in High School

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I help to run a short story writing contest in a town in southern Ontario. It has been very successful since its inception about five years ago. In fact, I'm guessing that it is one of the most successful of its kind in Canada - we get about 250 to 300 entries in a single year. Another author and I go into the schools each year and pump up the kids and really push them to be creative. We also have the support of a wonderful children's librarian and the Public Library itself. But two years ago, we decided to do something different. Instead of just inviting the students in elementary grades, we decided to open it up and bring in the big boys and girls ... high school writers.

Well, that, I must say, has been a bit of an eye opener. The first year we had about a dozen or more entries and last year it dropped to just under ten. But it wasn't simply a lack of interest on the students' part ... it was the teachers who were our main stumbling blocks. While one excellent high school teacher provided us with a large group to speak to and a number of his students entered the contest, the other two schools had to be pushed and prodded to even allow a professional author into their institutions. Finally, a few students were cobbled together in one school, and a remedial Math class was found in the other. Thus a nationally-recognized and critically acclaimed author who normally charges a large, well-earned fee, who was offering his services for free (paid for by the library), had to almost beg to be heard and then appeared before these paltry crowds.

But that isn't all of ... the story. As the contest neared its conclusion and hundreds of interesting works poured in from the elementary schools, one of the principals offered us a rather long list explaining to us how we could get his students interested. His suggestions? Let them write graphic novels ... or songs ... or something else that met their fancy. My reaction? Is he serious? Is he so afraid of his students that he can't get them to write a short story? Does he have to bow to their sense of "cool" like this? Would he suggest that they give up Math for playing a little stud poker with each since it involves complicated addition and subtraction?

We were not running a graphic novel contest, or a rap contest, or a comic book competition. This was, and is, a short story contest. Students will write creatively, regardless of their age, if you ask them, if you demand such excellence of them ... instead of giving in to whatever whims they may prefer. Not that a writing graphic novel is simply a whim. There are great graphic novels out there by excellent writers, but we weren't asking for that. We were asking for short stories, long works of prose narrative. And that, in my opinion, is NOT too much to ask. Again: ask them and they will do it ... suck up to them, and they won't. In fact, they never will, ever again.

2 comments

It’s hard to say exactly why the interest in short story writing has declined in high schools. I don’t have a definitive answer. But it may have something to do with the fact that there are just so many other platforms for telling stories now, and many of them are visual, and considered “cool.” You can tell a story on You Tube, on your IPod, in a graphic novel, and all of those things are faster, and don’t take as much concentration. We live in a sped-up world, for better or worse, and many kids don’t have the patience to either write or read for long periods of time, or even relatively short stretches! But another source of this problem, if I may use that word, is the teachers, or at least adults of this generation whose philosophy of how to deal with the younger generation dominates in schools - many have decided that you can’t force students to do things they don’t want to. If I were a high school teacher, I’d simply make them write short stories … but given that, maybe nobody would hire me!

Why do you think high school teachers and students are so unenthusiastic about short stories these days? It wasn't like that when I was in high school in the early '90s. What's changed?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Shane Peacock

Shane Peacock is a biographer, journalist, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He has received many honours for his writing, including the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Eye of the Crow, the first of his Boy Sherlock Holmes series.

Go to Shane Peacock’s Author Page