Our last Story-Workshop was about Story and Memory. I wanted to explore the connections between turning our memories into Story, and how a story is memorable to us, as tellers, and to our listeners.
Before we began the workshop proper we did an exercise with the cards which are part of a Story-game given to us by our regular story-group member Max Caws. It is called “Dixit” and involves a fully-worked-out set of rules for image association with cards and counters but the cards themselves provide very suggestive and complex images which imply a story or stories. In my simple version we drew a card each and came up with a sentence from a/the story suggested by the image on the card. On the second run of this game we drew the card and had to produce a sentence on the spot. It was all a kind of aerobics for Story-telling and everybody was very inventive. What struck me was how well we knew what a story sounded like – the phraseology and narrative mode. As I so often say we have Story built into us
I began the workshop by telling a story about a project I’m currently involved in – a research project which began nearly 25 years ago and is now finally reaching its completion with a Radio 4 documentary about the arts in people’s lives. It was well received and then I said, “But the story I have told you isn’t true”. There were some sharp intakes of breath – everybody had believed what I had said and obviously wanted it to be true. And most of it was, but I wanted to make the point that in turning my experiences into a story I had, almost inevitably, edited and adjusted the sequence of facts to make it a Story. In other words, to fully satisfy my audience I had shaped the telling to fit a satisfying structure, and that structure was a classic story-structure which was a natural memory structure for both teller and audience.
It happened that we were in a big space with lots of room to walk about so I walked the structure in a line on the floor. In so doing I recalled something I had said in a previous workshop when we had been looking at another set of cards, of “Untranslatable Words”. On that occasion, to quote my blog –
“I suggested at the end that any really good story had a complex feeling within it somewhere even if not expressed as a feeling.”
In this workshop I went further and suggested that the moment of the complex feeling was at the story’s climax, and was a mixture of contradictory feelings and something which went beyond words.
I walked a narrative line which started with something simple and straightforward and led to something complex. Although most stories are in some sense circular in that they return to the original situation they are also a line because the characters/protagonists in the story pass through the complex moment and reach a situation which is both related to the beginning and changed. If stories are narrative journeys then the famous quotation from T.S. Eliot is relevant here,-
the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
The arrival and the end of the story is a kind of mirror of its beginning, but a subtly different reflection which shows what has changed during the passage through the climactic complexity.
I also referred to Chapter 3 in “Alice Through The Looking Glass” where Alice walks with the fawn through the Wood “where things have no names”. I suggested that the climactic moment in a story is where words are not enough to communicate the rich and fluid re-negotiation of experience which is happening. And I mentioned that I play Bach’s Two-Part Inventions for the piano and how each begins with a straightforward melody which elaborates into a complicated and sometimes dizzying dis-arrangement of itself before finding its way home to its original simplicity but of course with our knowledge of the complications which brought us to that point. It is as if rational connections and verbal references are not enough to get us to the other side of a story-journey Something transcends – in music, in Story, maybe in all art.
The proof of any such assertions is in the actual doing so I set the group members to recover a memory which involved a travel or life-journey and then to walk it along the floor, as a line which is also a circle, noting where the simplicity is and the climactic “untranslatable” complexity and the return. We also mapped the form onto a few classic stories like “Cinderella” and ones which we had told in previous sessions. You can try it for yourself and decide if the structure works.
My overall point was that, for us as people telling stories, the structure helps us to find those moments in a story where we need to state simplicity and where we need to find a way of conveying the “dizzy” rich moment when the irrational takes over. It helps us to edit and adjust our experiences, as I had done earlier. For a teller this can help to make a story memorable and memorisable, and for an audience it helps to them feel connected to the overall story – where they are in the narrative at any given moment – and so, maybe, enable them to remember it to tell to others.
I’ll finish with a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald,-
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
That may be what defines the rite of passage which is a story told to completion.