The World Of Wonder

Umrao Jaan

I am writing up this workshop very soon after I ran it because, although it was strictly planned, so much came out of the doing of it which isn’t inherent in the structure or basic idea. Inevitably much of the interesting detail will be lost and I wrote notes on a board which I wiped off at each stage so much of that is lost too. One thing is certain, it’s a workshop which would be different every time it’s run with much depending on who is at the workshop, so if you’re interested your best idea is to get me to run a version of it for you.

The subject was “Rhetoric”, as follows, – “This week’s story workshop will concentrate on the rhetoric of Story-telling, those techniques which are like the “special-effects” which make a telling memorable and dramatic. We’ll be trying some of them out on a particular story, and considering how they work within our own story-telling style.”

I started by reflecting on a clip from the television comedy classic “Father Ted” which I had seen recently on Facebook. It’s the one where Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle takes exception to a book which she finds so offensive that she can’t help quoting copiously from it, until Ted ejects her firmly from the room. The moment is managed with such a mastery of comic timing and scripting that it had struck me as an example of what I meant by “rhetoric”, the conscious structuring of material to create strong connections with an audience.

Before we paid attention to some rhetorical techniques I commented that subjecting story to rhetorical development is an enlarging action, a kind of addition, a gesture of generosity which invites us to see even the most commonplace experience as part of a “world of wonder”. I had chosen a story which we could experiment with and it was in a very commonplace state, the summary of a film narrative as found on-line. It was short and very basic and therefore suited my needs as a story-teller in that it offered lots of opportunities for original interpretation and invention. The film is a Bollywood movie made in 1981 called “Umrao Jaan” which I had discovered during my radio programming work. The plot summary I used is as follows,-

In the year 1840, a girl named Amiran is kidnapped from her family in Faizabad and sold to Khanum Jaan, the madam of a brothel in Lucknow who teaches young courtesans. Renamed Umrao Jaan, Amiran turns into a cultured woman trained to captivate men of wealth and taste.

Umrao catches the eye of Nawab Sultan and the two fall in love, but the relationship comes to an end when Nawab reveals he must marry in order to please his family. Umrao then becomes infatuated with bandit chieftain Faiz Ali, who woos and wins her heart. She elopes with him, but is forced to return to Lucknow after Ali is killed by local police.

Sometime later, British soldiers attack Lucknow and the residents are forced to flee. Umrao’s party of refugees stops in a small village, which Umrao recognizes as Faizabad. The residents fail to recognize her, however, and ask her to dance for their pleasure.

Afterwards, she reunites with her family, who believed her to be dead. Her mother is happy to welcome Umrao back, but her brother forbids it and orders Umrao to never return. She returns to Lucknow to find the brothel looted and deserted.

The film has been remade in 2006 and its story is taken from a novel which is in turn based on a native story which may or may not be based on actual events and characters. I had longer plot summaries to hand but this basic version was the most useful to me and to the workshop. I identified various incidents or situations in the story and invited the workshop attendees to join me in applying rhetorical effects to them.

The first effect I proposed was what I called “intensification” and we applied it to the moment near the beginning of the story when Amiran realises that she is being abducted. I invited each of the workshoppers to produce a sentence which expressed that moment and we had a diversity of formulations from more abstract phrases, “persuasion and coercion”, to empathetic expressions, – “her whole world seemed bare”, involving metaphors of fabric and weaving. Each in some way represented the story-telling style of the individual. I then invited them all to consider how a physical action (gesture, facial expression, turning of attention) would add another level of rhetoric to the telling of this moment and also how the voice could be used to indicate the quality of the experience. We all tried expressing “her whole world seemed bare”, using “bare” as or keyword which became subject to all sorts of vocal colouration and pacing, to indicate how Amiran viewed her situation.

Even at this early stage it was clear that individuals had different affinities for rhetoric. David, for example, tended to physicalize his expressions naturally and Liz improvised aspects of rhetoric (repetitions, exclamations) as to the manner born. I wanted to allow these tendencies to develop so my follow-up challenge was to find a formulation for a later moment, Umrao Jaan’s elopement, using some of the rhetorical elements from the abduction moment to emphasize the connection and contrasts between the two journeys. So the fabric metaphor was extended and the description of a horse ride was subtly adjusted to allow for hope not confusion. With action and vocal intonation applied there was already in the rhetoric a world of freedom to make the story what you felt it needed to be.

I should also add that it became clear that the story of Umrao Jaan brought to the surface many issues of female empowerment and subjection, self-respect and education, and the nature of riches which were interesting to deal with in storytelling terms.

After “Intensification” I moved on to the rhetorical idea of “patterning” which involves arranging individual elements into a satisfying structure. For this we looked at the skills which Amiran would have learned at the brothel. We made a list of such items which included everything from singing and dancing to flattery and make-up. After that we experimented with rearranging the list as if it had been expressed by the brothel-madam as Amiran’s curriculum for training, aiming to create a verbally fluent and cumulative sentence or two which emphasized the different aspects of this life-education and what it was meant to achieve. It was a good exercise which caused us to reflect both on “patterning” and status in social relations in Indian society.

Finally before our break we looked at “addition/elaboration” (and narrative economy) applied to Amiran’s first sighting of Nawab Sultan, the rich man who is to be her first lover. We listed aspects of his extreme riches which would be apparent, creating an additive list of physical expressions, clothes, and wealth, but then reducing it to create a moment of psychological truth which was also a strong storytelling sentence. It was clear that each group-member would finalize this in their own preferred way, but this workshop was there to identify elements of the story-making process which are valuable (essential?) for creating a story which will engage strongly with listeners, which is, as I said, the real function of rhetoric.

After the break I had, as always, to move faster and I covered a number of rhetorical strategies quite quickly. I used as a focus for this a micro-story which I had created as a warm-up for storytellers to help them release all of their vocal and dramatic potential, in advance of a performance/sharing. Here it is,-

 

Imagine                                                   [Picture if you will]

a lonely wood                                           [Deep, dark]

two men waiting                                       [Waiting….}

“What’s that?”                        [What can they see through the trees?]

A princess approaching      [coming closer] [she comes into the clearing]

“So”, she says,                                         [“So?” they say]

“should it be

you, the quickest,

or you, the brightest?”                             [“Which?”]

PAUSE                                                     [EXPRESSION] 

“The quickest.”                                         [“The quickest!”]

He reaches out –                                                                            [grasps at air]

she disappears into the sun,                       [flies out of sight]  

he catches her cerise silk dress

as it falls                                                      [clasps it to him]

“Ha!” he howls                                              [HA!]  

And they never came back.                           [ever again]

 

To the left is the basic story, and I must leave to another time an explication of its many uses and nuances, but to the right are some of the rhetorical extensions which can be applied to story, either spontaneously in the moment of telling or planned in advance. You can find there instances of “repetition”, and its rhetorical cousin “echo”, of “addition” and “elaboration”, of “double emphasis”, and all kinds of cues for physical actions and vocal/facial emphasis. Having given this some re-consideration (Most of the group has been introduced to the story before), we tried out a few effects on further aspects of “Umrao Jaan”.

We tried out the variations of pace and volume necessary to create a good telling of Umrao Jaan’s escape from Lucknow after the British attack. We also speculated – in a way similarly to our rhetorical linking of the two journeys taken by Amiran – on whether there was a motif or image which might recur during the telling to hint at an underlying theme of the story (I do not say “the” theme because each will make their own interpretation of what that theme should be). One candidate for image and theme was “home” and how many places suggest themselves as home to the wandering courtesan. Another was a smell or scent which recurs in many settings as a sign that her life is taking a turn in a new direction. (Sandalwood was suggested).

There were several more rhetorical strategies we might have covered or tried out but I chose to end with something slightly different. The problem with a rhetorical enlargement of a story, I pointed out, is that it tends to soar almost without interruption and that occasional (frequently) it needs to be re-anchored to reality with a gesture which downplays not elevates the action. Where might such moments be found in “Umrao Jaan”? I asked. Nawab Sultan’s apparent initial rejection of her? Her brother’s rejection of her? The lack of recognition in her home village? Depending on how the story is developed there could be many more.

But, as I also cautioned and as we had seen while analysing the warm-up story, too much rhetoric can be a bad thing, almost like an over-spiced meal or an over-furnished room. Enough but not too much, should be the watchword. Overall though I think an emphasis on the nuts and bolts, the maybe devilish details and physical technicalities, of making a story which works and lives up to its potential was a welcome subject for a story-workshop. As with so many of our group sessions it might repay being repeated sometime.

Advertisements

Telling It Like It Is

AmnestyI was invited by the Liverpool Branch of Amnesty International to compere (or MC, or generally introduce) their first Story-Night, to be held in a function room of a local hostelry. It’s fair to say that nobody knew quite what to expect. The call-out had been for short (no longer than 7 minute) stories which responded to Amnesty’s basic mission, “ordinary people from across the world standing up for humanity and human rights”. What this might mean in terms of stories offered was not clear. Many of our Storytelling Group’s regular members had volunteered to bring along a story – I didn’t know what these might be but was interested to find out how they would interpret the brief. We were all interested to know who might attend. As it turned out we had a good turn-out from the local Amnesty membership and their partners and friends, and I was keen that they had an enjoyable time and left the night thinking well of story as a medium for shared enjoyment. As a result those gathered received a lot of reflective observations from me between groups of stories.

The stories were extremely varied and all, it’s fair to say, had Amnesty and the troubled world it monitors in mind. They ranged from a Somali folk-tale to a first-hand account of the Calais migrant camp, from the life of local heroine Kitty Wilkinson to invocations of the situations of the homeless. Nor should we forget an allegory about international conflict told with the aid of actual vegetables. Songs were also welcome and one concluded a strong invocation of the injustices attendant on the Hillsborough disaster.

My role was in one sense to make sure that there would be a second Story-Night (and maybe in a venue where the noise of the bar couldn’t drift in from next door). So I was at pains to point out how such nights had many attractive aspects – the social dimension, the encouragement of sharing experiences with like-minded others, the chance to learn more about the world and its experiences, and an investment in the pleasures of good old-fashioned “live” entertainment (we were actually all seated round the outside of the room so it felt a little bit like the story-sharings across the world which take place in yurts and teepees). All the stories combined a sense of the wider world with the expression of strong feeling.

The storytellers acquitted themselves excellently but I was aware that Amnesty could not always count on a turn-out from our group. They would need, I thought, future contributions from their members. I therefore proposed a number of experience-areas which would yield up material for future telling. For those who might be considering a similar night in a similar cause here are my “prompts” – in no particular order,-

– “….It’s not fair!” I’m sure that we have all in our time had this to say about something that has happened to us, or people we know and care about. When we talk about these incidents, real or imagined, we are addressing issues of justice and these are potentially stories of relevance to a wider or narrower definition of human rights.

– Struggle – so many stories we hear or tell are about various kinds of struggle, at local, national and international level. These are usually pertinent to humanity and human commitments to shared causes.

– Ways of Life which are Threatened – which is nearly a variant on the above, but there is a dimension of values in these stories, of what is worth defending and what motivates people to protect and preserve aspects of their existence.

– Acts of Collective Action and Resistance – such stories are affirmative of the need for shared organization and consciousness like Amnesty International.

I also pointed out that fantasy stories, fairy stories, folk-tales, life-stories, news stories and the stories which form the focus of on-line petition appeals are all potentially important sources of stories which follow these and other themes. I did however remind budding story-tellers that not all stories need a clear moral. Problematic social relations and contentious issues are not easily resolved and if they were the stories about them would be less interesting and useful to us all. It was maybe, I said, about how we ended the stories we told. As hopeful people none of us want to conclude with a total failure or capitulation, but it would not be realistic to expect every story to end happily either. It’s a challenge to our creativity and positivity to find a way of dealing narratively with struggle and loss and life’s reversals.

One of our stories ended with a joke, another with a question, and yet another with a note of defiance. As I say it’s our role as storytellers to reach in or out for some truth and make it seem attainable. I’d like to think that the local Amnesty committee members will have found the story-night successful enough to organize a repeat. For myself I enjoyed a story-sharing which wasn’t miscellaneous but which identified a purpose and gathered enough people to lend support to it. And maybe all good storytelling is about rights after all, inasmuch as it stands up for humanity.

 

Out Of This World 2 (the Sequel)

malgudi-rk-narayan

A follow-up to the workshop on characters and the creation of worlds of story was requested and so I offered it. Many people had been at the previous workshop but some had not. I wanted to move quite quickly to the process of inventing and developing so that we might reach an actual “telling” in the time available to us. To begin with though I ran a physical exercise which had a bearing on the idea of characters acquiring other complementary “others” in the service of creating story-dynamics. It is not particularly important to describe the exercise in detail here but I was introduced to it by Philip Hedley the Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East as an acting exercise for developing the use of a stage space. It involves using a rectangular space on the floor as a “balancing” plate and deploying individuals on it to create living (and balancing) tableaux which emphasize contrasts of character, posture and expression. I used it to demonstrate how clear contrasts, oppositions and complementary relations generate dramas and stories.

I had simplified the proposal of the previous workshop to,-

A strongly-developed world/sense of place

together with

a strong focus on character

provides for

good inspirations and rich stories.

We therefore indulged ourselves with a whole morning of “making things up” in groups (even though for the purposes of working as a storyteller we would be most likely to do this on our own) – a shared process is usually a pleasurable one.

Before we started creating characters I added to my list from the last session a few instances of writers who had created fictional worlds, most notably Barry Gifford whose Sailor and Lula short novels were adapted as the basis of David Lynch’s film “Wild At Heart”. My copy of R K Narayan’s “Malgudi Days” contained a map of the fictional Malgudi, and I had brought some other books of maps to show the group. Although we didn’t have the time to create maps of our ideas I do recommend it when you are creating fictional worlds. It is very likely to generate even more useful ideas for your telling.

The process we followed in the workshop was like the previous one. We invented simple characters, found their “others”, and so on, and extrapolated their world which became the context for a number of possible stories, one of which each group in the end gave as a work in progress.

The most important feature of the process was what I called “ZigZags”, a way of keeping several processes connected and working in parallel. It is best shown in this diagram where we move from one focus to another as the story forms itself,-

 

Who?

The creation of (say) two characters by using balance and opposition

->

Where?

What are the physical/topographic features of the world these characters inhabit?

And a fourth character…….. The creation of a third character who belongs with these people in this world

<-

What is this peopled world all about – what are its distinctive aspects?            -> What kinds of incidents happen in this world?
Choose a story and work on it. What stories are suggested by these incidents? (Choose some titles – “The one where……”)

<-

 

As we zigzag through this process, letting one aspect stimulate thoughts of another aspect, the story grows. In the end we had two tellings from the two groups at work. Given the time left I suggested that a telling-in-progress needed to convey a full plot, but concentrate on giving a detailed version of just the beginning and the end. It should attempt to evoke some sense of place and sketch in some connections as well as key moments.

One group had taken the “mix” of a blind tightrope-walker, an optimistic life-coach, an impoverished agent and a “ringleader” and set it all in Depression-era America with a travelling circus fallen on hard times, badly in need of a sensational act to attract the crowds. This, of course, could be a one-off story, but it could also be one episode in a continuing saga of circus life with a developing cast of key characters.

The other group had been unable to settle on just one story-world which suited them and so combined a lonesome philosopher/shallow socialite/incapacitated slug (!)/impatient taxi-driver with a controlling breadmaker/dopey apprentice/vicious environmental health inspector/concerned customer, all in neighbouring premises in a city suburb, to initiate what was destined to be a series of stories about the unfortunate demises of various baking apprentices. (I thought of “Sweeney Todd” and also the drummers in the film ”Spinal Tap”).

I was not sure that in all of our imaginings we had really let ourselves go in the creation of our worlds, but the idea of the workshop was already shaping up to require a weekend residential for its complete fulfilment (or even a week). What was remarkable was the nature of the tellings which were shared between the members of the group. We have not experimented much with joint tellings but I was very impressed by the ingenuity with which narrative, dramatic monologue and descriptive scene-setting from separate tellers were combined to create something maybe half-way towards being a play or a film.

I don’t know if any of our created worlds will generate the successes of a Malgudi, or Hogwarts, or Moominland, but I know that we had a lot of fun experimenting with this approach to story. Now, I thought at the end, it’s maybe time to turn our attention from the What? of storytelling to the How?

 

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.