Out Of This World….

moomin my

This week’s workshop was a very elaborately-worked-out session with a clear starting point and outcome. I wanted to furnish the group with material which they could draw upon to create stories out of a particular fictional world. Not everybody, I knew, would be interested in this kind of story-making but I calculated that the workshop would still be of general interest for the light it cast upon how particular kinds of story work in relation to setting and character.

My principal starting-point was a recently published essay by Phillip Pullman where he addresses story through the image of “the path through the wood”. Put far too simply maybe Pullman sees the narrative of the story as a path and the wood is the world which is sketched in to make the narrative belong somewhere in place and time. What he is insistent upon is that only so much wood is needed to make sense of the path and that there is a temptation particularly amongst story-writers to lay on more description that is necessary for the forward motion of the narrative. All this in the cause of parsimony. My starting point was otherwise. I liked the idea of the wood so much that I was interested in what else was out there in it and how far it might allow for other paths to cross it.

We started with a circle-of-sharing which would be useful later as a building-block for the full workshop. I asked people to review their acquaintance with literature, film and other cultural evidence for “duos”,-  partnered characters with a specific defining duality. Mine were Hammy Hamster and Roddy Rat from the old childrens’ TV series, “Tales Of The Riverbank”, and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady whose “beat” travels round America formed the basis of Kerouac’s book “On The Road”. Even as I celebrated these duos I realized that they were both about a shy or inexperienced individual being chauffeured about by a dynamic and capable “other”.

Everybody had a “duo” to share – “bubble and squeak”, Laurel and Hardy, two pets called Desmond and Derek, Poo and Piglet, the philosopher and Sophie from “Sophie’s World”, The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, Vic and Bob, Silly Sisters. Once we had shared these we “parked” them for future reference.

I started the workshop proper with the idea that existing stories could be deconstructed and reconstructed from a new angle. I cited Tom Stoppard’s “take” on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the play “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern are Dead”. There was also Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso sea” which is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”.

We got down to business by taking the technique to the story of the Pied Piper Of Hamelin. We looked at the world of the story, the town, the countryside, the houses and homes, the river, and then what began as speculation about the many viewpoints from which the narrative could be told – the Mayor, the Piper, a child, a rat, a visitor, the mountain even – became a freestyle assault on the apparent integrity of the original narrative. We had sequels and prequels, many of each, and time-shifts and narratives which just stopped off at Hamelin on their way somewhere else entirely. We had the Piper in cahoots with the rats, and children returning in due time to find other children installed in their old homes. We also, in the cause of deconstruction, looked at different angles on The Crucifixion and the Nativity. The point was made, I hope – if you have a wood, a reality, a Hamelin, you can make many paths through it. It can be a rich resource for stories, and therefore, I suppose, create many meanings. Later in the workshop I pointed out that some literary authors had created whole worlds which they explored in several books, writers like Trollope (The Barsetshire Novels), Galsworthy, and R K Narayan the Indian writer with his “Malgudi” stories.

We then “parked” that set of ideas and moved back to character. I asked people to tell us about an individual “other” who is always seen as a real contrast with ourselves, even though we may actually have much in common. I chose my brother, and several others in the group identified siblings and family as opposite others, although someone chose a pet dog, and partners were mentioned as well. Each time in describing our “other” and our relationship with them we were identifying a particular duality. This is where, as I pointed out, the “duos” we had named at the beginning of the session came into the reckoning. Dualities are what stories are made from. I was also at pains to point out that however opposite we think our duality is there will always be some common ground with our “other”, – our shared world (or wood) or origins.

Then we made up some dualities, taking a category of person (or animal) and adding a qualifying descriptor to them. The individuals thus created were,-

A newsreader who read “fake” news

A binman who is clumsy with big feet

A friendly mermaid

A lazy (“Witchita”) line-man

A nurse who is a loner

An unreliable wizard

A bad-tempered toddler

We then looked for complementary “others” for these characters, and came up with the following,-

A newsreader who read “fake” news – an obsessively truthful researcher

A binman who is clumsy with big feet – a very organized boss

A friendly mermaid – a reclusive dragon

A lazy (“Witchita”) line-man – an industrious and diplomatic office secretary

A nurse who was a loner – a chatty witchdoctor

An unreliable wizard – a troll who was O.C.D.

A bad-tempered toddler – a patient Labrador (dog)

And then I pressed the group, who were now working in smaller groups, to come up with another “other” who complemented the two existing characters in each cluster. So the mermaid and the dragon acquired a penguin cook who was a sharer, and the lineman and secretary a complaining customer, and the toddler and the Labrador a wise cat, and so on. Now we were beginning to have the clusters which would give us the basis for a whole host of stories.

After our break I invited the various groups to choose one cluster and look at the world (“wood”) which these characters inhabited (seashore, news office, great American outdoors) and find a fourth character to add to the cluster (which was also becoming quite family-like). I then admitted that the other hidden inspiration for the workshop was my recent discovery of the Moomin stories of Tove Janssen with their central family Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Moomintroll and Little My, a cluster which provides a focus for a Moominland full of narratives. The actual book I waved at the group was “Tale From Moominvalley” which is (in my opinion) a psychologically acute set of studies of human character disguised as a set of children’s stories.

The Moomin territory actually contains many other individuals and groups often quite unlike the central family. I suggested that we complete the workshop by considering the quartet we had created/chosen and think of a number of story-outlines which could emerge from and present this world we had created. I allowed that it was now possible to have cameo appearances in this “world” by other individuals, and other local sets or clusters of types who might figure in particular stories. I suggested for now just thinking up titles for episodes – or descriptions as in the TV series “Friends”, “the one where……” “the Lineman’s ex-wife turns up” (as one group suggested). So the individual groups set about that task until they had a few stories and shared them at the end of the session.

I summed up what we had done and suggested that if anyone were inclined to set about writing a set of childrens’ story-books or pitching to a screen production company an idea for a series then they had the makings of that in the creations we’d come up with, or maybe the technique for beginning that process. Otherwise I hoped that there had been some use in looking at the ways stories work.

The main comment was that this had really been the beginning of a full-day workshop cut short by time, and that we should follow up the work in another workshop. I took that on board and we probably will. All comers welcome, of course.


Story and Location

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,-

  1. 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.

  1. Places which benefit from interrogation and a digging below the surface of their apparent significance. (What’s really going on here?)

Canyon 2 SM


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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Places which are the actual location of an interesting experience of our own.

Toilet SMThe 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.

  1. 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!)


So Much To Defend

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.

I Remember It Well

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.

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” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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?

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” http://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/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,- http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/ and see if it, or “Untranslatable Words”, don’t start your story-telling off on a new tack.

Literary Folk

I’ve been to three Story Nights in the last week or so – three in seven days. That’s a lot of story to take in, but also a chance to reflect on the breadth of this thing we call telling. On one night I travelled to the Lake District, to Brigsteer Village Hall, with a small group of Liverpool Storytellers, for “Stealing Thunder”, a monthly story-night hosted by Emily Hennessey where the main offering was a long telling by Vergine Gulbenkian. The following night it was one of our own Story-nights, with two longer stories from Stephe Harrop and Clair Whitefield and on the following Wednesday, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival, Liz Weir brought together her own stories with those of other tellers and music for the first anniversary of storytelling nights at the St Michael’s Irish centre.

What struck me from this rich array of telling was that the terrain of story has been extended to encompass two very contrasting tendencies. One I shall call the Literary. Literary storytelling is very elaborate; the tellings are very sustained, the effects complex and the context often challenging. Clair’s story is, she explains, the result of a lot of detailed writing and those with ears for such things will detect subtle rhyming and poetic scansion in parts of the telling. It begins near the end of the narrative and then cycles back to the beginning of the events to explain the circumstances before passing its beginning, recovering a reference or two and proceeding to its conclusion. Vergine’s story was in fact several stories all nested within each other and involved an actual story-book which she had brought to show to those interested.

There is something of the post-modern about the Literary. The book in question has its last pages torn out, as the story, which is also one of those within the story-nest, is involved with a belief that it would be unlucky to tell the ending. One of the other stories is of experiences from Vergine’s great-grandmother, whose book it was. And in Stephe’s story one of the protagonists, well, two, just walk out of the story near the end, as though story was a straightjacket that could not contain an authentically happy ending. In all of these tellings there are filmic effects, narrative shifts and the occasional absurdity, or knowing wink at the audience. If you are a reader or a film-buff none of these effects and strategies will be unfamiliar to you. For others, weaned on traditional stories, traditionally told, the effect can be a bit disconcerting.

Liz Weir, by contrast, offers many stories, maybe a dozen in one evening and each is compact, direct and unironic. If the Literary plays tricks with time and sequence, and refers to or arrives at a familiar present, the Folk (as I shall call it) only deals with “Once”. “There was once….” This is not the historic past but the foregoing time when things were not as they are now. The Folk is about folk-memory and its components and there is a flavour in each telling of a story collected (or in one case created by a class of school-children from lessons learned from Liz) and shared anew. The stories are not nostalgic though – the past was often hard and cruel and its consequences harsh. If they end positively it is with a flourish of common humanity or a gasp of realization. In all this they come from a long tradition of which one past master is Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).

Hebel has come back into public view, outside his native Germany, thanks to the attention of W G Sebald who wrote a chapter about the writer in a recently published book. Hebel’s “Treasure Chest” is now available in Penguin Classics. It may seem odd to link Hebel’s stories with the tellings of Liz Weir since he is so avowedly a writer, but this is just the area where writing and telling converge and where many, if not most, of us pitch our story-telling. Hebel’s tales are maybe found, recovered, invented, recounted, but they always strike a chord of familiarity. Some are very short but something that is not quite a moral, more a kind of spur to reflection on life, is always the kernel of the narrative. This is what we get from Liz Weir’s tellings, a sharing of experience and wisdom, and a point of reference for moral or ethical consideration.

It may sound as if I’m favouring the Folk over the Literary, but in fact both are essential features of a wider landscape which is Story Now, as we are telling it in 2016. They are not in opposition and for listeners they invite complementary skills of discernment and understanding. Most contemporary story falls somewhere between the Literary and the Folk (and probably other co-ordinates, like Song and Epic, for example). The Literary is flourishing in the current climate as a place to experiment with the representation of hard present realities, and the folk will always be there to remind us that we always need something we may call “verities”.