Our monthly story-workshop sessions (they alternate with story-shares on Saturday mornings at the Bluecoat) take many forms and cover many aspects of story. At our last I took as my starting point a quotation from a speech made by a young woman at an event I’d recently attended at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, The night was set up to provide young individuals with a platform to express their views and opinions on the world today in the manner of TED-Talks and even The Moth. This young woman chose to talk about studying literature at university. She was a writer and this led her to complain about the academic emphasis on “meaning” which had stifled her creativity and which she said she found “demeaning”. I don’t know if there was any deliberate word-play there but I empathized with her because my own three year dedication to studying literature had produced the same feeling in me and those three years, however stimulating, had been one of the most productively barren of my life, certainly in terms of creative writing.
I asked the story-group, was it possible to tell a story without meaning? The eventual answer was of course, No, because the listener will always find meaning in what we say, even when and where it was not intended. We humans are meaning machines, after all. All the same we had a go, at creating a story which was no more than a series of episodes, adventures with no particular order or significance. The Arabian Nights is probably no more than that in its sum. Each adventure, however, could be said to contain meaning, but the listener can choose to ignore this low-level significance and just take each episode at face-value. Then I suppose their sub-conscious would extract whatever significance was meaningfully to be found therein.
But the moment we started to order the tales, into “seven tales for each day of the week,” or “a month of adventures” or “A day in the life… “ or “A Thousand And One Nights”, meaning seemed to creep back in in the form of significant numbers, which implied meaning based in structure. Only some kind of randomness in the telling could evade the tendency to find meaning in a story. I was reminded of the German writer Robert Walser who in later life suffered from an extreme nervous condition which eventually led to his consignment to a sanatorium but which seemed to be evident in his writing from a much earlier stage in that he wrote stories which often avoided narrative structure and closure. His novella “The Walk” for example could be seen as no more than a meandering account of an afternoon’s walking with all of its episodic highs and lows. Walser specialized in a meaning which lay below and beyond structure.
In the end we gave up on a search for meaninglessness and after our tea-break I set an opposite task to those present, – to give an account a life of someone. The proviso was that the life should have meaning and significance for the teller. I led off with two examples; a friend whose adventurous early life was the opposite of my own and a reminder of both how I might have lived and the nature of my own life; also Franklin Roosevelt, the American president whose public administration and much of his personal life have always been an inspiration and source of optimism for me. Thereafter, although not without exception, the contributions of the group took a more elegiac turn. Friends and family members and mentors were celebrated and mourned in their passing and with profound emotion. It was a very remarkable sharing which absorbed our attentions and affected all of us deeply. From it I could only re-draw the idea which had impelled me to set the task in the first place – that when a story has meaning for the teller, and to the extent that it does, the matter of technique and skill in story-telling becomes largely irrelevant. Or, to put it another way, our best story-telling is about ourselves.