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russell smith: on culture

Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen was the first book that held my infant son's attention from beginning to end when read aloud – far before he understood the words in it. He was rapt before the frightening and sensual pictures: a naked boy falling into milk, flying a bread airplane, being baked into a pie by nightmarish fat cooks. The sequence of events and the stilted, half-rhyming words are famously nonsensical. Sendak understood that dreams and patterns are story enough for children.

I try to learn from him as I invent my own stories for my little boy. He is now just old enough to understand the simplest of narratives, and to demand them, from me, after the reading of picture books, when already in bed. I am already beat and longing for a few minutes with BBC World at this point. But the improvisation must begin. "Tell me a stowy."

I started this habit with little morality tales: There are two racecars, one called Hugo is the slowest, Jamil is the fastest, Jamil breaks down, Hugo stops to help him, Jamil lets him win. That sort of thing – it's what I thought children's stories had to be. But I found that the lessons became repetitive, and the audience became restless.

Then there were stories that failed because they were surprisingly scary. A daddy and a boy find a ladder going up a tree, and from the top they hear "whoo-whoo" – and suddenly my audience is screaming, "No, no owl!" because owls are for some reason terrifying. Okay, so on to the next story – except a few minutes later comes the demand, "I wanna hear the owl stowy." He will submit to it again, even if he puts his hands over his ears during the description of the owl's house. It's the horror-movie principle: We watch through our fingers.

I teach story to creative writers. I discuss story in long plot sessions with film producers. The same intractable questions about story – What is a story? What constitutes a crisis? What constitutes an ending? – are what I face nightly now, at the limits of my imagination.

I have learned from my extremely unsophisticated audience (and I guess from Maurice Sendak) that the most fantastic stories work just as well as the most coherent. This frees up a great deal of imaginative space: I just go with whatever images pop into my head – a tunnel under the house, a helicopter flown by our cat, mummy and daddy dancing atop an office tower – and I follow them without worrying about the message. This might be useful in any fiction.

I've also found that my child wants stories about the familiar: He is very focused if the narrative involves the park or Granny or an older girl in his daycare called Katerina. I, too, tend to read novels set in a world something like mine, and also want girls in them.

He recently asked for a story about "Katewina dancing on a stage," which is alarming in a two-year-old, but he is my son after all. This is a new thing, this demanding of elements in the story, and even rewriting. He will get vocal if the instructions aren't followed. I don't like this.

For one thing, the elements he asks for are a little dull: Trying to tell an exciting tale about Granny in the park without the faintest sense of menace (no rabbit holes, or there will be screaming) is like trying to do one of those pointless literary magazine contests in which you must use the words avocado and jurisprudence.

Second, the whole point of listening to a story is that you don't know the end. This is why all the promises of interactive storytelling in the digital age came to nothing. Really, to enjoy a story, you have to shut up and listen.

That doesn't mean we don't want to continually rehash and re-embroider elements of stories we know well. This is what fan fiction does. There is a new game on Twitter, signalled by the hashtag #theonewhere, in which people humorously try to remind others of episodes of Friends that did not actually happen ("The one where Rachel and Chandler burn down Phoebe's worm farm as revenge for Ross's death"). This is both parody and fan fiction, in a condensed form.

It's not dissimilar to what my son requests, in his variations on Katerina going to the park, a familiar park in which something very strange is always about to happen.