More Than Real?

Different people want and need so many different things from Story that it’s hard to run a workshop which interests all those who attend, but our most recent monthly Story Workshop seemed to fit the bill, not least because we all seem to be interested in how stories relate to ourselves, our selves.

Just before Christmas I’d been to London to see the exhibition at Tate Britain of the works of Paul Nash (1889-1946). It was an immensely impressive show for all sorts of reasons but what struck me most was the way in which his art explores the area between realistic portrayal and a kind of surrealism. Many of the paintings and sculptures inhabit a dream world where the recognizably actual and the deeply subconscious merge and meld in a whole range of images. Landscapes are dreams and objects are personages.

I took this idea as the starting point for our workshop. I had made some notes as I wandered the exhibition, a set of questions about areas of our experience which are somehow a portal to the unconscious, and I asked the story-group to note their answers on separate Post-it notes,

The questions were,-

– What is your landscape feature? [in all of these questions “your” is a way of asking for your favourite, most-loved, the one which has most significance for you]

– What is your time of day?

– What is your key experience?

– What are your myths?

– What is your talismanic object?

– What natural feature do you encounter which seems to have a special character for you?

–  What are the most significant images from your dreams?

– What impossible thing would you most like to be possible for you?

I had already considered my answers to these questions. For example, my time of day is Twylight, my dreams are full of the End Of The World, and my impossible is Flying.

Then I set the group to find a space for themselves where they could lay out their Post-it notes in random order and to play about with them and re-arrange them to find a narrative. I suggested that they might insert extra notes to fill in gaps in the narrative. The room was very quiet for a while as people became absorbed in this review, which was, if you like, to play with elements of their own psyche. Once everybody had found their narrative I set them in pairs to give their partner a “guided tour” – essentially a schematic telling – of their story, but I requested that they make a decision about whether this was a story to be told in the first or third person.

I had made the point that these elements they had assembled were quite “pure”, that is, devoid of realistic context, and therefore belonged in that kind of story we might call ”epic” or “fantasy”. They might, like Paul Nash’s images, acquire or embody dimensions of realism but essentially the story was a dream and needed to retain that dreamlike quality.

The sharings were useful to everybody as a way of articulating their emerging vision, or, as I later put it to them, their own “myth” We didn’t have time to share generally but I suggested that this material they had created might have an after-life beyond the workshop as an actual story, or a work-in-progress, or simply a reference-point for ruminations on the psychic content of their storytelling processes generally, and I also suggested that they might get most from the material by putting their notes to one side and indulging in a reverie, just thinking about them in a reflective moment during whatever time of day suited them best, – after a meal, before bed, in a mid-morning break, or whenever.

And so we put aside the work of the first half-hour of our workshop and after the break resumed with my presenting to the group an interesting box of cards I’d been given for Christmas, It’s called “Untranslatable Words”

and each card has a separate word on it from one of many languages, a word which captures in a single expression some feeling or experience which is complex and requires detailed description. There are words like “saudade” and “eudaimonia” and “huzun” and expressions like “Mono No Aware”, and each is followed by a short text exploring their meaning. We each took a card at random and then we went round the circle so that each individual could read out their card and we could all ruminate on how that word and that feeling belonged in Story. It became clear that each feeling or experience only made sense when you formed a situation or narrative around it. The ruminations were enjoyable and instructive and acted, I felt, as complement to our previous explorations of images from our own psyches. I hadn’t set out for the workshop to have a theme but Feelings And The Unconscious might have been it. I suggested at the end that any really good story had a complex feeling within it somewhere even if not expressed as a feeling. At that point someone reached for their notebook. I could sense that new stories might be on their way.

As a coda to this account I should add that the “untranslatable” is to be found in many curious places on the Net. Try this,- and see if it, or “Untranslatable Words”, don’t start your story-telling off on a new tack.

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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