It’s All In The Telling

Our most recent Story Workshop was about Poetry in Storytelling…..

Our Course Custodian Tracey wrote a commentary on the workshop as it went along and posted it on Facebook. I’ll borrow her description of the activities to start this account of what we were doing,-

“We shared favourite song lyrics, the feelings they evoked and where they might appear in a story.

We used our voices as a poetic tool, hearing how the word ‘blue’, spoken aloud by 13 different people carries a variety of nuance. Each person’s voice added a different tincture. (This is one of Roger’s favourite storytelling words)

We explored the poetry of images within stories, e.g. the bright red of Little Red Riding Hood’s coat against the deep green of the forest.

Dickens made an appearance today, as we worked with developing the beginning of a telling from the opening passage of ‘Great Expectations’. It was a way to explore how to make every word in a telling work as hard as it can.

Lots of Interesting new faces today. Our sessions are drop in and all are welcome wherever you are on your storytelling journey.”

Poetry in storytelling would seem to be a choice – do you want some poetry in your story (like honey in your tea), or not? I was keen to demonstrate that poetry is in story whether we intend it or not, and the real question, or choice, is whether to make the most of it.

Our first exercise was there, – apart from giving us all a chance to share something and contribute to the workshop – to remind us of the connection between narrative and images, the big picture and the detail, the epic and the lyric. Small phrases and single words matter in story-telling, but unlike in written stories where everything is placed within the text, telling is multi-layered and flexible. I suppose I was also trying to offer some ideas for story-writers to help them make their work more immediate and tell-able.

I made the point that the poetics of story-telling works at three levels (at least). My definition of a “poetics”, by the way, would be “the representation of experiences and ideas by images (visual, aural, tactile, kinaesthetic) in an organized manner”. But you don’t have to be too rational in your organization because images have their own way of connecting with each other.

At one level the poetry of story is in the voice, produced by the vocal chords. By allowing our innate vocal music to colour the telling we poeticize our stories. We don’t need to have a pure or mellifluous voice, but we can still give particular words in a story a special emphasis by the way we say them. And if we are using our mouths to produce the sounds we are also using our faces so the poetry is also about eyes and posture and smiling and looking serious, or any of an almost infinite number of possible facial expressions. And, while we’re about it, if we’ve gone this far then our whole bodies are involved in story-telling and can impart poetry to the telling. We don’t just tell a story, we embody it. Great story-telling is about letting ourselves be expressive in all our physicalities.

At another level poetry in storytelling is about description – the evocation of someone, something, somewhere, some feeling. [I have an exercise about this which I didn’t get a chance to use but which will undoubtedly turn up in a future workshop] I was quite strict about one thing here – that standby of the writer, the simile (“the setting sun was like a golden coin”), only has a place in story-telling if there is a person or character in the story who, realistically, might notice the similarity. If there isn’t then you’re intruding the “writer” between you as teller and your audience, and the vital relationship between audience and teller with the story as the shared concern is disrupted, actually broken. The story as told needs to contain a sensibility which is capable of simile – and it can be you if you’re telling a story in the first person. But if Jack the lad sees the beanstalk and he doesn’t have the capacity to see it as “spiralling into the clouds like a ballet-dancer” then it’s a betrayal of the directness of storytelling. In general the watch-word for description in storytelling is “Less”.

And in a wider dimension, a third level of poetry, every story is an image. There will be some image which focuses its meaning. It may be a journey, or the idea of breaking into a home (Goldilocks) or a monster under a bridge (those billy-goats), an image which gives the story a deep and often psychological power from within the imagination. It has a visual dimension, but it is more than just a picture, it’s an idea in poetic form. Long before the new criticism when we learned to deconstruct art-works (“What is this really about?”), long before Barthes and Lacan, audiences were drawn into stories by powerful underlying images which connected with their psyche – Jung’s “collective unconscious” – – and we can and should be aware of these when we are telling our stories, and experience their depth as we tell.

So poetry is woven into story at all levels and we owe it to our stories and our audiences (even if our audience is just one other person) to release that poetry, using body, mind and spirit.

And then we risked upsetting the ghost of Charles Dickens by taking his famous, and wonderfully-written, opening paragraphs of “Great Expectations” and liberating them from the “literary” into the “told” or “tell-able”. We worked on it in pairs and distilled the writing into powerful telling. This involved lots of discussion and decisions about what constitutes telling and how to reconcile that with the essence of the scene which Dickens conjured up. I was at pains to point out that if we were going to “tell” the whole of “Great Expectations” in any form we would need to shape and attune our beginning in relation to the overall story, but since some people in the group didn’t know the book, we mainly used the extract to hone our telling skills. The different responses to the task were fascinating in their diversity. I concluded with the thought that it might be possible to express that famous scene in something as distilled as a haiku poem.

Since the workshop, which was well-received and gave food for thought to all present, including me, I have tried to rise to that challenge

cold sea-wind at dusk

family graves – my shiver

cut short by his grasp

Seventeen syllables – and as much poetry as a story needs, maybe?

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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