In Search Of Purpose

I chose to call our January Story-Workshop “Storytelling To Some Purpose”. The name was prompted by a reading-scheme which I remember from my junior-school years, “Reading To Some Purpose”. It has been superseded many times over by the latest Government-promoted scheme, but the phrase sounded a chord with me when I began to consider how many of us involved in “story” would like our story-telling to be connected in some way with the wider world, to be part of some social or artistic purpose. I felt instinctively that many of the people who would come to the workshop would be interested in exploring this idea. In the week running up to the workshop I had been having one-to-one advice sessions with some of the group I’m leading through the “Crafting A Story” workshop, and I knew from those conversations that some people also want their story-telling to connect with the needs of institutions, like schools, and to derive some income from the connection. All of this shaped the workshop.

We started off by sharing stories we’d remembered from recent news reports, and already I could see how the workshop would lead naturally on from these. I began by reminding the group that the news media are interested in stories. We looked at three stories from the news, the first a quite raw news web-site post about the family of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose dead body was washed up on Mediterranean shores after the capsize of a boat in which he and others were travelling from Turkey to Kos. This was a moment which reached a global public through a news photograph which was the focus on world media reporting. The written “story” was quite raw and factual but, despite its accuracy the group found evidence in it of a “blame” culture and a failure to address the issues which led to the widespread flight of Syrians from their country.

A less “raw” story also told of the crossing, this time successful, by refugees from Turkey to Greece, but the subject was an Afghanistani family fleeing the Taliban and now living in a Calais refugee camp. The story was more crafted and focused with direct and reported testimony and it used the image of the husband’s lute-playing which had earned him the violent attentions of the Taliban and which now provided a slight dimension of defiance in the face of the current adversity.

A third news story told of the Muslim youth group which travelled from Yorkshire to help with flood relief in Cumbria. It was a positive article which emphasized the significant contribution made by the group in reaching across cultural definitions in the name of a common humanity. The story group noted the tendency in the reporting to measure the youth group’s achievement in terms of English values, also the absence of testimony from the young Muslims themselves, but concluded that such an emphasis is necessary to counter the larger trend towards demonizing or scapegoating members of the British Muslim community.

My purpose in sharing these three news stories was to raise questions about how our more generalized, less journalistic, storytelling relates to the mediated news we encounter every day. It was clear that to tell these stories to a live audience we would want to change or reconstruct the order of events and introduce ideas of point of view and agency to the telling. How much further might we go, though, – and for what reason? Indeed, at what price?

It would be possible to use no more than the facts in the articles, but the stories so produced would be neither very vivid nor engaging. Could we infer extra facts from what we had, and include these in the telling? I introduced the group to two short sections from a book by the journalist Peter Millar in which he recounts how he learned to turn raw reportage into vivid popular new journalism by just such inference. It seemed to make sense, but was anything lost in the process? Someone suggested that an emphasis on typicality and likely, rather than reported, facts took away the dimension of unpredictability from the account, and from the representation of life itself. But if more people were drawn into reading the story because it had been enhanced or expanded in this way, was it a price worth paying?

We moved on to consider the times when a news story is given a lot of elaboration, where images are emphasized, dialogue supplied, themes drawn out, when the facts are almost submerged in supposition and literary devices – perhaps in the name of some higher truth or greater reader appeal. This is the kind of thing we do when we develop a story for telling. Are we, the story-tellers, guilty of a fundamental dishonesty?

And what happens when we begin to fictionalize the story? So far, I suggested, we had been dealing with telling the story “of” something. Our purpose was to do justice to actuality. What happens when we tell a story “from”, or “derived from”, or “out of” something we’ve read or heard about? At this point we have taken it upon ourselves to select what facts and images we want, and to add to them at will, using the original information as a reference point only. We can have floods, children, migration, music, as our springboard, as inspiration, but what purpose are we serving here? Not to bring a news story alive for a live audience, surely, but just to serve the deeper (?) needs of storytelling, – interest, delight, empathy, entertainment. Is “based on a true story” an excuse for imaginative licence? If we do not seek a wider purpose for what we do, of course, these questions are irrelevant.

And then there is the story, not “of” or “from”, but “for” the world, a world which contains migration, privation, drowning, persecutions, war, violence. What can our story-telling do for that world, and what stories would we put in our story-bag to take to the stakeholders in that world, – not just Syrian and Afghanistani families and flood victims, but otherwise uninvolved individuals who only know about these situations second- or third-hand? We discussed this at some length exploring ideas of catharsis, compassion, laughter, connection, and “anecdote or antidote?” It did seem that there was some purpose, some function special to live storytelling, which we could draw upon if we wished to.

Before we took on some workshop tasks I briefly pointed out that if anyone was interested in deriving purpose, or income, from their storytelling, then serving the needs of the school curriculum or providing accessible stories as introductions to art exhibitions were areas of possible employment. There was also work as a professional storyteller, but we concluded that only a few people were at that level, that most of us probably wouldn’t reach it, and that, if you hadn’t dealt with the issues we had been discussing, you would probably never reach it.

I proposed four tasks to be tackled in groups: to retell one of the three news stories in our live storytelling mode; to explore one of those stories for its fictional or imaginative potential; to consider what stories might be told for a world of floods, drowning and war; to consider a set of photographs in a book which I had brought as the starting point for a family-friendly story to accompany an exhibition. Much interesting discussion followed.

I was, though, keen , before the end of the workshop ,to take the emphasis away from news stories for a while. I asked the individuals in the group to write on separate pieces of paper distinct images which occurred to them in answer to the question,- when you think of the world we live in, what do you think of? When they had finished we placed the papers on the carpet at random, and there, I suggested, was a composite portrayal of our world, – very provisional and impressionistic, but no less true in the moment. It was a mosaic of images, and any one of those images, or combinations of them, could be the starting point, the springboard, for a story which has as its purpose serving the needs of the world in some way, – “of”, “from” or “for” it.

For interest the images were,-

The Ocean – whales, Greenpeace activists.

A masked young man making a threat

Parched earth

Mobile phones

Supermarkets

Coffee Shops

Mobile phones/camera

Deforestation

Refugees In leaky boats

Tree – tree house, tree huggers

Rich people’s expensive food

Smart phones

British Red Cross/Red Crescent

Rich and Poor

Youth/Poor Housing

Square filtered sunsets from somewhere in the world (Instagram)

Mornington Crescent (!)

Chinese students

I would like to think that the workshop set the participants off into considerations of the processes they used in story-making and –telling, and maybe in so doing deriving a new story project from the material we had considered and the discussions it stimulated.

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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