Sprezzatura – “effortless grace or an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions while hiding the conscious effort that went into them.” –
Sprezzatura in the primary school is rare, but when you find it, it stirs the soul. As a kind of learned naturalness or ‘rehearsed spontaneity’ (1) it is what you might find a couple of times a year in the work of your most impassioned of writers. It is that piece of writing that forces you to close the book, turn to the front to see who created it, and to think ‘wow’. It is the pupils’ performance that has an intangible brilliance to it.
How can we cultivate this effortless grace that hides the whirring cogs below the surface? Can we, even?
As with everything in education, we may find ourselves traipsing back to a question of knowledge versus skills; is it an advanced knowledge of the conventions of writing that allows a writer to skilfully express themselves, or is this kind of ‘studied nonchalance’ a skill that develops independently of a technical knowledge of writing? Sprezzatura refers to style – can it be learned, can it be taught, can it be both, can it be neither?
When I was in Cambridge, everyone was very aware of themselves as writers, as we had to write about 10,000 words a week (in first year anyway). Some prided themselves on meticulous detail, and could construct meandering sentences which left one breathless if read aloud, but through lack of oxygen rather than through inspiration. Some preferred to pare back their writing into the expression of an almost brutalist structure; I will introduce the point, share the context, make three arguments, address two counter arguments and then conclude. Others were more floaty, drifting in and out of convention, a formal essay stepping aside to let a few florid metaphors in or a few left field quotations. I was regularly told that my essays maintained a conversational tone that made them engaging, but that I often didn’t go into enough detail, preferring to segue into asides too willingly.
Those who held too tightly to a structure – a white knuckle grip on the delivery of a clear cut response to the questions – seemed to hit a glass ceiling. It was a very high one, well into the boundaries of First Class writing, but up above it, there was a higher echelon that few managed to get into. I didn’t, although my dissertation wasn’t far off.
This pinnacle is where sprezzatura lives; those who can express themselves with rigour, with detail, with masterful use of metaphor, with languid sentences, with an astute ability to tantalise even with occasionally quite staid conventions.
In schools – or in primary schools anyway, which I can talk about more authentically – it could be said that we equip pupils well to smash their heads into, but not through, that glass ceiling which forms the ‘floor’ of sprezzatura.
Our notion of what ‘writerliness’ looks like in a child is guided by a diagnosticisation of competence that elevates the checklist above the senses.
And perhaps this is appropriate. After all, in primary school we waver between the teaching of literacy and of English; our lessons are there to develop the functional ability to communicate with and to understand words – written, read, spoken, heard – as well as to engage children in the stories, ideas, values and thoughts of our own and other cultures. The former takes precedence in primary schools, where the teaching is so often oriented towards the narrow confines of the KS2 SATS, and where the curriculum is thought to be a stepping stone to the more advanced, more ‘real’ English study that happens in secondary schools.
But perhaps there is a real benefit in refining children’s understanding of what brilliant writing is. Perhaps it is disingenuous for us to pat them on the back because of their consistent ability to shoehorn embedded clauses into their sentences, or their ability to produce a piece of writing that hits every one of our success criteria.
Accountability nudges us into become dullards – in presenting pupils with lists of success criteria, we are hinting at the fact that knocking each one of these criterion down, like emendation whack-a-mole, is enough.
Let’s be frank with ourselves, since we have to read it. A child can write something that hits every ‘success criteria’ we ask of them, and it can still be dull as dishwater. Tick, tick, tick, well done, god this is dreck.
So if we are necessarily tied to criteria, why not drop a few in for those who are capable of hitting all the technical ones, in order that they can elevate into the lofty heights of sprezzatura?
- Does it make the reader want to read more – like for real?
- Is it funny enough to make me laugh?
- Does it use metaphorical language in an original and effective way?
- When the story is read aloud, does the reader skip to the end to see how much more they need to endure?
Let’s look at some standard criteria. These are some Y5 criteria for creating an effective story opening.
Now watch me hit all of the criteria. Get your green pen out.
My Story by Jonny Walker (age 26 3/4)
“Watch out he’s getting angry!” shouted Mrs Bishop.
Max, who is 10, looked across the library and saw the dragon was in a rage with fire coming out of him. Mrs Bishop hid the magic book in her cardigan.
“I will look after you now Max” Max is an orphan.
BANG. A shelf fell down and some cookbooks fell on the floor. The dragon was stomping around looking for Max and Mrs Bishop. BOOM. Some magazines went flying like seagulls onto the carpet.
The carnivorous dragon was apoplectic. Max felt lachrymose. Mrs Bishop, who is the newsagent in the village, bit her ancient lip, because she is scared of dragons.
The window flew open because there was a storm outside too. The wet curtains were flapping like skirts.
But all was not as it seemed.
How often do we see children’s writing that is a bit like this. Less a story, than some objectives with connectives tying them together. I did hit the objectives but in good faith, can I pat myself on the back and say that that is an accomplished piece of writing? No.
Does it make me want to read more? Does it make me laugh? Does it use metaphorical language in an original and effective way? Does the reader want to skip through to see how long until it finishes?
In the corridor of my school, we have a writing wall where every month each class puts forward one child’s work. The whole school writes to a theme. I was just wandering about when my eyes were drawn to a play script written by a Year 5 child.
It made me laugh out loud.
In conclusion, think about the objectives you set for pupils with their writing; are they ambitious enough? And if they hit all the objectives and produce a supposed ‘perfect’ piece of work, by those metrics, is it still – for want of a better word – boring?
If so, what are you going to do about it?
(1) – Il Libro del Cortegiano – Baldesare Castiglione