Our workshop this week was about Location and Story-telling. I had been impelled to lead it when I recently heard Philip Pullman introduce his new novel. He began by sharing his affinity with a particular landscape, in Oxford, and I also thought of places I’d come across on my recent travels in Central Asia. I decided to use some images from that (and previous) travel to stimulate discussion and to illustrate the ideas I was sharing and so this was a rare (for me) story-workshop which used visual aids. I was at pains however to emphasize that the images were only a suggestion of various locations and we were not going to be concerned with pictures but with our direct experiences of actual places.
Our warm-up round of contributions was about strange and remarkable places away from home where we had stayed. This produced a nicely diverse range of places from Alaskan huts to Northern Irish cottages and palatial houses in the Home Counties, with some interesting anecdotal embellishment of the locations described.
In starting the workshop proper I said that I hoped it would be of use to people who wished to tell their own stories, to tell an existing story more fully or to craft an original story. I also commented that place or location does not exist separately from time and that we are most moved by “moments”, when a place and a time intersect in our lives. I said that the most interesting moments for me, and for the purposes of story, are those which stand out strongly from their content or background, often so that they are the only recollections we have of that time and place. They are particularly personal, – not something that can be reminisced about by a group – and are imbued with something of our own pre-occupations and psyche. They bear, if you like, our individual emotional fingerprint. I then began by asking all the participants to identify some of their favourite and most memorable locations and share both round the circle and in pairs. I did this for several reasons, not least to focus our minds on a great diversity of memories.
The workshop was planned to deal with Location and Story-telling under various headings or chapters. There were six,-
- Places which suggest original stories or of features of existing stories and which have an almost magical interface with reality. The three images I used were these.
The first was a hotel where I had stayed and which linked with the earlier warm-up theme of remarkable accommodations, the second a building encountered in a forest in the Loire Valley and the third a momentary encounter in a wood in St Helens. We reflected at length and in a playful way on the qualities of each and what story we might associate with them. I then turned the group’s attention to significant places of their own which they felt could be incorporated into story and had several responses. Such location-encounters can help our visualizations and infuse descriptions in our telling of existing stories. The forest building might form the basis for the cottage in “Hansel and Gretel” or suggest some other tale. This kind of imagining was, I suggested, something which might activate us to our notice places wherever we were.
- Places which benefit from interrogation and a digging below the surface of their apparent significance. (What’s really going on here?)
The image was of a Central Asian canyon I visited which only rewarded the complicated and arduous travel to reach it once I had queried its story. This at one level was about geology and an inland sea, at another level about a local and unverified story about Russian incursions to remove gold and uranium from the area, and at a final level about a young and inexperienced tour guide’s failure to research a location properly.
I suggested that there were often places which benefited from such an interrogation and thus yielded up a richer story, and the group shared some examples of their own.
- Stories which gain strength from incorporating more than one location in a contrasting or ironic way.
My images were on an ancient site in Turkmenistan which I visited one morning and the futuristic city which I reached later that day. I had been impressed and moved by both but I suggested that both were more interesting and story-worthy when seen in contrast as part of an experience of linear history. Did the ruination of one suggest the eventual ruination of the other? The narrative is then part of a personal narrative, the reflective experience of the beholder, not in the locations themselves.
- Locations which beg a question, to which there may be a factual or fanciful answer in the form of a story. (What question is this place and moment an answer to?)
How did the boat sink? What are the geese doing? We were falling behind time in the workshop by now but we found time to speculate on possible stories which “explained” the apparent oddity of the images. I suggested that such suggestive locations were all around us and were a suitable starting place for original stories, but that they might equally find a place in a telling of an existing story.
- Places which are the actual location of an interesting experience of our own.
The image shows an outside toilet in a village in the Pamir Mountains and I told an anecdote about my avoiding using it on a cold mountain night and the consequences of that. It was a short account of an incident, but I said that I thought we all had access to a lot of personal stories which related to particular places and which might form part of our storytelling repertoire.
- Places which benefit the listener when presented as an account of how they came to be in their current state. (How did this happen to be?)
The three images are of an Ismaeli Shrine, a Buddhist Stupa and a cross-border market, all in Tajikistan. This was an occasion for research and investigation and I suggested that many of our encounters with place, including some of our “favourite” places, could yield up fascinating explanatory stories which would interest audiences as well as enhancing our own experience of them. Members of the group suggested a few that interested them.
I concluded the workshop with a brief overview of what we had explored. It had been clear that location is a good focus for story-generation, whether the location is far away or nearer to home and whether it is exotic or prosaic. Story is all about registering moments in place and time, in all their richness. (And having a camera to hand may help – or it may not!)