We were a small group at today’s Story Workshop so, by agreement, I abandoned my planned workshop and we spent the morning exploring story in relation to our social situation in various ways, led by our experiences and concerns. It made for a deep and, for us, relevant time together.
There was in the group a prevailing sense of unease about the current political situation and I decided that we would start by listening to two songs from Chris Wood’s new Album “So Much To Defend”. Chris’s song, “One In A Million”, written with story-teller Hugh Lupton, has for some time been a touchstone for us as storytellers, and the new songs didn’t disappoint. The first was the album’s title song which offers a view of Brexit Britain as a series of vignettes of people who are living with the challenges of 2017, all couched in that combination of social-cultural reference and non-judgemental humanity which is Chris Wood’s calling-card as an artist. This occasioned a lot of discussion, appreciating the economy and truth of his portrayals and the sometimes distressingl panorama of contemporary life which it offers. We agreed that it was important to show how lives connect and how we all have a shared stake in the present which can lift the often dominant mood of individual isolation. The multiple social meanings of “defend” and defensiveness were present all the while.
The second song “Only A Friendly”, a story-song about a football match and the events surrounding it, gave us the chance to enjoy story’s ability to resolve contradictions through a wider social panorama. I suggested that it was Chris Wood’s genius to concentrate on life as it is lived and to leave us as listeners to infer the wider political situation. His abstention from ideological comment is an act of generosity and open-ness not neutrality. How do we, I wondered, convey the sheer multiplicity and inclusive diversity which is the redemption of our common life? One answer, it seemed, was to invite people with whom we have contact to tell us their stories
We then turned to the concerns of Diane about the situation she saw vis-à-vis the situation of women in her home street in Blackburn and this challenged us to consider what about the present situation is worth defending and what is unacceptable, and how we are currently being subjected to so many stale and empty formulations about our society, a kind of narrow (yet wide-seeming) generalized conservatism, as opposed to ideas about conserving the real qualities of our shared lives. I invited the group to speculate on what kind of a story might include Diane’s image of the young woman in the burkha seated in the backseat of her husband’s car. We began to map the possibilities – the possible points of view, the generational aspect, the resilience which is forced inside us by oppressive circumstances. Later in the session Trish told of her work with a reading group of young Muslim women in Blackburn, and it was clear that only time and acquaintance allows us to fully understand and appreciate the personal experiences of others across a cultural divide, and to detect and therefore narrate positive developments. If we do not have that closeness and rapport then we must perforce include ourselves and our ignorance in the story as one of its elements. Since many if not most of us are separated from each other by experience and circumstances it seems that many of the stories we need to tell will be about our journeys from ignorance and separation to understanding and connection.
We also had a discussion about how stories are shaped round positive conclusions when the life they are based on carries on in a roller-coaster ride of triumphs and disintegration. In a kind of seasonal pattern we move through story from winter to summer (comedy) and summer to winter (tragedy). With this in mind we may need to be telling stories of unfortunate outcomes as well as positive ones. By implication we need to undertake both kinds of storytelling with that attention to veracity and humanity exemplified in Chris Wood’s songs.
The other major element in our session was my shared concern about “making the unbearable bearable”. I explained how my life-long aversion to horror (films and books mainly) was part of my need for stories which lift us above raw anguish to a poetic, parable-like telling where time and events move us on through adversity and struggle to resolution (and of course in a roller-coaster way back to adversity again, and so on) and do not dwell upon suffering as a singular human state. I had been reading a novel in which a subsidiary story in particular related personal agony in almost unbearable intensity. I found that, as sometimes in life as in reading and art, I could not process that much grief. I needed a particular kind of story – maybe that genre is “epic” or “parable” or “legend” – which would help me integrate that suffering and grief into my life with an manageable level of psychic disruption. In the brief discussion which followed the group concluded that we have to push on though the darkness, the “unbearable”, the “horror” of it all, in the confidence that we will find the light which is inevitably there, somewhere. Story is the “magic” which helps us on that painful journey.
As the session drew to a close it seemed that we had travelled a long way in a short time and had considered story within the context of some of the biggest of questions. Although the political situation was there outside the door to confront us at our departure it’s possible that we all felt a little more able to engage with it after our time together. I hope that this brief summary may do the same for you.