Just Tell Me

One of the pleasures of running a story-group is in the sheer originality of the approaches which the members bring to the offering of stories. I’m an enthusiast for home-grown diversity and rarely does a meeting go by without someone providing a new and sometimes experimental “take” on story-telling. Out of such variety does the future of story-telling grow.

Recently John gave us an unusual experience – his “story” was an escorted excursion round a landscape familiar to me, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. It started as a topographical meander through the park as though we were accompanying him on a shared walk, and then branched out into historical interludes about the various historical events which have distinguished the park over the last 600 years, like the imprisonment of Lady Jane Grey. In between were moments of simple nature poetry which at the same time seem to suggest imagistic connections with the events and the whole story ended, like many a good Sunday stroll, where it began. It was fascinating and charming and repaid close attention, and what struck me about it was how it evaded the usual categories of story whilst still offering its own particular satisfactions.

What I concluded was that John had not been telling a story – he’s been offering a “telling”. In my mind then a telling was not a full-on recounting of a narrative structured classically to maximize drama and impact but a kind of sharing enacted in real time, or in the virtual time of a walk. It was episodic and often shifted perspective but we never felt, as listeners and audience, that we were being lost or left behind. John’s telling was underpinned by a feeling and a poetry. A telling is fundamentally poetic

As it happened earlier in the session I had invited all present to recount a “memorable homecoming” from their own experience and Max had shared, as part of this, the time she had experienced a deeply accident-prone return-to-base in the Far East. There were enough agonies in the account to shiver the timbers but the only point-of-reference to classical story, as with the others’ contributions, was the ending. It came home, and safely and generally well. Otherwise it was a “me” story, the very basic unit of story-sharing, and again an example of a telling. Both Max and John in very different ways were saying, – Join me on this journey.

There’s something very engaging about a telling. Sometimes with full-on performance story-telling the audience can feel quite assailed by the experience and challenged to keep up with the complications and intricacies of the sustained narrative. Outright virtuosity can sometimes be exhausting. A telling, apparently by contrast, invites and gentles us along but, if offered with the ingenuity of a John or the pained recall of a Max, is equally satisfying and more inclusive. We join the teller in their experience rather than witnessing a performance. Both approaches are valid, of course, in the growing realm of story-telling in the U.K. today but just as watercolours are as much loved as heavily-worked oil-paintings so I think we should cherish the democratic and unforced pleasures of a good telling, as well as the high drama of a big “story”.

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The Art of Stories, the Story of Art

It may seem strange to be recommending an exhibition to storytellers as a source of inspiration, but “Mayas – Revelation Of An Endless Time” at the World Museum in Liverpool (until 18th October) is just that – a storytelling source, and not just for the stories it enshrines. More than 300 objects mainly from the rich middle period of Mayan history collected from museums and historical sites across Mexico are wonderfully well showcased in this free exhibition, and, story-telling apart, I defy you not to be impressed by them. Jewellery, ceramics, large architectural carvings, representative figures, masks, burial offerings, all these make up the exhibition with pertinent videos illustrating ritual and scientific calculations (the Mayas virtually invented accurate time-keeping and astronomy), also a comparative time-line of Mayan history. It’s enough to reward several visits. I have been to the exhibition four times now and am still finding in it new things to wonder at.

If I recommend a storyteller to pay a visit to “Mayas” it’s not principally for the stories, but they are there. The Mayas may not have emphasised individuality in their civilization, and you won’t find micro-dramas represented in the treasures, as you might when looking at the Bayeux Tapesty, for example, or Renaissance paintings, but the Mayan mythology is very powerful and several episodes of the ur-text “Popul Vuh” are visible in various carvings, including the Creation Myth of the Hero Twins, which would certainly suit those who like their stories elemental and cosmic. There is also the long and complicated history of the growth and sudden decline in periods of Mayan civilization, wherein are to be found kings, heroes, abandoned cities, sacrifices, and all manner of myth-inflected epochal event. And there is the more historical narrative of the conquering of Mexico by Cortez, which is nothing if not tragedy on the cusp of absurdity (you can buy the classic account in book-form in the exhibition shop). Thankfully the Mayas are the ancient Central American civilization which wasn’t entirely wiped out and 6 million of them are to be found in Central America and Mexico today. All that is there for storytellers who want their material already in narrative form.

For me, however, the magic of “Mayas” is in its suggestiveness and in the aesthetic of that civilization’s artefacts. Many ancient civilizations have left us artefacts but the nature of Mayan carving and their representation of character is somehow poised between the real and the artificial in a way which seems to me a parallel to that of fairy and fantasy tales and in more recent times cartoon films which at their best do bridge the gap between the actual and the virtual in an entirely enhancing way. Mayan relief carving is just shallow enough to throw the images forward without implying complex depths – they can delight children and well as adult art-lovers. The people represented in these carvings and ceramic illustration are recognizably of human extraction but fictional too, villains morphing into ogres, kings into animals, animals into gods, gods into abstract patterns. The atmosphere of magic pervades the whole exhibition. Equally impressive are the hieroglyphic letterings, so meticulously decipherable that they can be used in calendars, history markers and head-dress decorations. Each is a small, dense and fascinatingly suggestive icon, a story-microbe or atom, as indeed are Chinese written characters, the difference being that the Mayan glyphs are most often in carved relief and feel like objects not signs. They are worth dwelling on and the exhibition gives you, and your children, plenty of help in appreciating their detailed allusions.

I mention these aspects of the exhibition because they are a source of inspiration for both original and interpretative story-telling. If you have a classic story on the stocks you will find its main characters somewhere in “Mayas” and by studying them you will feel closer to them in your telling. Everything from Beatrix Potter to Satan seemed to emerge from the display cases, to this visitor at least. The Mayas resemble us in their exaggeration – if that is not too paradoxical a statement. At the same time, if you are lookig for something to start you off on an entirely new and personal story almost anything in “Mayas” is beautifully suggestive. Why not start with the tiny golden frog which is almost the first object you see in the exhibition?

In another aspect, also of relevance to storytellers, the Mayas resemble us not at all, or, to be exact, their civilization does not, and this is its wonder and its inspiration. What are we to make of all this obsessive time-keeping, of pitz, the ball-game where the ball is struck by the waist, of blood-letting, of internecine struggle, of empty cities and mathematically perfect topographical alignment? Everything, you may say, – it sounds like our very imperfect and absurd present world. Maybe, but to visit “Mayas” is to seem to peer into an episode of science fiction where even gravity, death, history and genealogy seem to follow different rules. If we are honest about the Mayan civilization we would have to say that it is strangely “other” and almost impossible to fathom. And here we have its inspirational nature for story-tellers, for those who like to create parallel universes, other worlds. Contemporary fiction-sequences like “Game Of Thrones” or Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” are just such an epic of otherness, elsewhere but powerfully reminiscent of something buried deep inside ourselves, that part of us where we may feel least at home. I would bet that many video-game-makers have also feasted their imaginations and visual stylings on Mayan artefacts. If you want to give unreality a material and human face pay a visit to “Mayas”.

All I can say is that I came away from the exhibition with a renewed sense of the power of imagination and full of ideas for story-telling, characters, style and narratives. I want my tellings to be as poetically.strange and familiar as anything in those displays. “Mayas” will soon be gone to other cities, but catch it if you can, and see if you don’t come away as fired up as me.

Growing A Story

GROWING A STORY

We sometimes take fully-formed stories to tell, from a book maybe, and mainly we learn them, memorize them, and that’s that, although they’re never quite the same when we tell them as the way they’re written down. But mainly we work on a story, sometimes shrinking it to a workable length but usually “growing” it bigger and make it our own. We fill them out with descriptions, invented incidents even, and whole set-pieces, a bit like the way the often slender story of an opera is swelled into a three hour long drama.

At the same time we can find stories all around us, not-quite stories which need to be grown into something which will satisfy us and our audiences. It might be a news item or headline, an incident in the street, an unusual object, and we think, “That would make a good story”. And sometimes we’re commissioned to find a story out of an exhibition, and have to look for the seed of a potential story in images or objects.

What these have in common is that they are not enough as they stand, – they lack the essential qualities which satisfy as “story”, which are,-

Narrative coherence

Consistency

Completeness

Imaginative depth (or “meaning”) and poetry

Without these things an audience is unlikely to feel satisfied by the telling,

So we grow our stories.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

The fragment we have here is unsatisfactory. It may be the beginning or the ending of something, but it is just a situation. It doesn’t have any context, that is it doesn’t explain enough about how the situation came about. It contains unresolved tensions. It doesn’t relate fully to a world, so it is almost meaningless.

This is a way of dealing with such a fragment,-

1) Rumination

First of all we just dwell upon what we have, and for a while if we want. No judgements, no rush to repair or fill it out. What is it possibly about? What interested you in it in the first place? What is the key thing which makes it want to be a story through you? What other thoughts does it set off in you? What questions does it raise about itself? Taking time over these questions allows us to explore its potential and prepare ourselves for some practical work on the fragment which will grow into a story.

2) Resolution.

There are number of unresolved aspects of the situation (underlined).

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Some will be more important to you than others. Choosing the ones which matter to you enables you to shape a resolution to the story, The things that are important to you need to go through a transition to be resolved. How would you like the food, or the dwelling, or the ‘not knowing what to do’ to be resolved? Other things can stay the same – they are the “givens” in your story. The idea of living in a shoe may not matter to you, or the lack of bread.  What has to undergo change in your story before it feels complete and coherent?

So we jump to the end and conceive of how that will be. We can almost say the last few sentences already. And not all conclusions are happy ones, of course.

3) The World Of The Story

You want now to hurry up and join the beginning situation to its ending with lots of incident and description, but pause a moment to consider the world which is suggested by the fragment. Every story creates its own world, some very different and separate from the everyday world we live in. If this fragment was all we knew of the world, what would that world contain? What kinds of people? What kinds of living? What kinds of incident? And what kind of a world is it? Happy? Conventional? Limited? Disturbing?

Now there is the question of whether, and what, you might want to bring into that world to resolve its tensions. Is it a big enough, adequate enough world so that you can use what’s in there already to produce your ending/resolution? Or do you need to bring in more people, more places, magic, the supernatural, a helpful advisor, an unusual event? Will the resulting story be more magical or more material? More realistic or more fantastic? How near is it to what we call reality? What makes it different?

4) The Journey

Or we could say, The Transition(s). Now you can start on the process of getting from the opening situation to its conclusion. You will already have ideas, and it is entirely up to you how you fill all that out, but there are, in the great world of stories, many kinds of transitions which have been used and it’s quite likely that yours will be like one of them. There is,-

The Labours – a set of difficult tasks which must be accomplished before all can conclude.

The Pact (or deal) – an agreement which makes the conclusion possible, but at a price which has to be paid before it can happen. This often takes the story into deeper emotional waters than were apparent at its beginning.

The Test – some personal challenge which an individual must pass before they can bring about the situation which resolves everything.

The Revelation – something which is not suspected but which makes things possible through new knowledge or awareness.

There are other classic transitions, but whichever you use it will help you to notice the structure which underlies it.

So you go ahead and take the journey of making the narrative of the journey.

Tonalities

How you tell a story depends on your character as a storyteller. How you tell this story will be influenced by this character, although it might develop, extend or stretch your range in the process. Here are some questions which may help you to pitch your storytelling to match style and content.

Are you a Gossip or a Bard?

A gossip shares the story in a knowing and relatively intimate way, based on the idea that it is something personal to them and new to the audience.

A bard declaims the story to a wide audience, sometimes wider than the people in the room, with an implicit understanding that the story belongs to history and is already at least partly known by the audience.

Obviously most people are somewhere between Gossip and Bard but their storytelling is affected by where they fall on the range between.

Are you a Bearer, a Sharer or a Medium?

A Bearer delivers the story which they have received from tradition or established accounts.

A Sharer offers their story or version of a story as though from their own experience and recreation of it

A Medium presents the story (or seems to) as though intuited from the ether in the moment of telling.

Again most people are, or can be, a mixture of two or all three, but their telling will reflect this, and parts of a storytelling can draw on any of these.

First Person or Third Person?

You may tell your story as though you are involved in it or as something reported by others. Many things beyond the words, including tone of voice and descriptive colour, will be affected by this

Detail or Parable?

You may be story-teller who relishes detailed descriptions including sensual evocations, or you may feel more attuned to events and incidents.  A story which depends on incidents and events is often what we call a parable. All stories contain the possibility of both. How far you emphasize one or the other will depend on your storytelling style and the content of the story. (A shiver or a taste may be important to what happens).

ROGER HILL – March 2015