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” – – 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”

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,- 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”.

The Colouring Book

At our last Story Workshop session we re-joined the idea of colour in story-telling. I started the session by asking the people present to draw a cartoon of a snail on a Post-it Note. I chose a snail because the night before I had found a small doodle of a snail which I must have picked up after a meeting I’d been at. I didn’t know who had drawn it, and actually a snail was only one of a number of subjects I could have chosen for drawing. We shared our cartoons and, of course, there was a lovely variety of treatments. My “found” snail was cute and speedy but others were cheerful and full-fed, stylish and shy. We spent a while characterizing each of them. My point was that these simple outlines suggested a world of character and what we were doing was colouring them in (In fact we didn’t do any actual colouring, but our descriptions were – and this is the point – a kind of imaginative filling-out of what the lines suggested.) as our minds colour in the things we refer to in our stories.

We used a lot of Post-it’s that morning. I asked people to write words on three of them each to identify,-

– with a single word a thing which might appear in a story – we had words like “nut”, “key”, “boat”, “pencil”

– in two words a something which is made more characterful by the addition of a describing word – we had, for example, “open window”, “closed window”, “happy shoe”, “angry diary”, “iron shoes”

– in a short phrase something that sounded unique, a thing which was a world of its own,- we had, again for example, “The Land Beyond The Sea”, “The Book Of Druid Magic”, “The Last Sunset Of The World”, “The Princess’s Cat”, “The World Champion”

We stuck these notes on the wall and gave them a lot of consideration. There were a number of conclusions to be made,-

– even a simple single word can suggest an emotional colouration,  (we had “Spirit” in our first set of notes) and the simplest of things (like the snail) will let us give them character. The question will be how much character do we need to give them for the purposes of the story in which we have included them?

– when we add character to a something we define more clearly where and how they fit into a story, or what kind of story will grow around them. Take the difference between “open window” and “closed window”, for example, or consider how the idea of an “enchanted castle” limits and deepens what will happen there.

– when we create with our formulations something which is unique, that something then becomes a threshold to a further world with its own special character. So “The Last Sunset Of The World” will have a very powerful atmosphere and sense of occasion about it. (The use of the definite article – “the” – gives an immediate impact and power to a something to which we apply it) And that further world will contain many things which share the same emotional colouration. Moreover that world will be a model of the bigger world and express values. We, and our listeners, will be advised, maybe subliminally,by this “deep” portrayal what kind of world and what kind of values are possible.

– some colouration emerges from the thing named and some is what we give to it. How much effort we need to make in each case – that is for us to decide.

The key question is how much colouration, – through description but conjuring up feeling – is appropriate for any given tale? Should we go to town and lavish lots of descriptive wordage on a pencil? Can the word “egg” be enough to carry a story without further description?

One answer is that it depends how we say the words. We had already, in a previous workshop, looked at voice colouration, and this workshop didn’t stretch to trying out the many things we can suggest about, for example, “nut” by the way we speak it. The further wonders of intonation and vocal nuance will be the subject of a future workshop, I’m sure. Sound colouration is certainly one of skills involved in storytelling and something that sets it apart from Story-writing because it happens in the moment of telling which is a present moment.

Another answer to the question about how much colouration is a practical one (which also offers a different angle on story from written/read stories) – only as much as is strictly necessary. No description for its own sake. Only words and qualities which contribute to the world and dynamic of the telling. Less is more – but more can often be good.

There was much here to be applied to the stories we have in our repertoire, our story-bag, and to how we might develop and enrich our telling of them, but in this workshop I finally introduced a particular story, the text of an African story I’d found in a collection. Like the snail it seemed to be a simple outline, but it yet invited colouration,-

“Mulungu And The Beasts

In the beginning man was not, only Mulungu and his people, the beasts. They lived happily on earth.

One day a chameleon found a human pair in his fish trap. He had never seen such creatures before and he was surprised. The Chameleon reported his discovery to Mulungu. Mulungu said, “Let us wait and see what the creatures will do.”

The men started making fires., They set fire to the bush so that the beasts fled into the forest. Then the men set traps and killed Mulungu’s people. At last Mulungu was compelled to leave the earth. Since he could not climb a tree he called for the spider.

The spider spun a thread up to the sky and down again. When he returned he said, “I have gone on high nicely, now you Mulungu go on high.” And Mulungu ascended to the sky on the spider’s thread to escape from the wickedness of men”

There was much to discuss and reflect on with this story and we will no doubt return to it in future workshops, but my question on this occasion was, what would you colour in/ describe in more detail/add words to/emotionally enhance in this story to draw out its meaning? I think there was no option but to work on the story as it raised so many questions and suggested so many values and qualities, but how would we do that? People worked in pairs and came up with a lot of ideas. They speculated on the spider’s role in all this. They wondered why Mulungu couldn’t climb a tree. They offered various descriptions of the spider’s thread. They queried what order of being was Mulungu.

The answers to these speculations will determine how we tell this story, and the answers will be expressed in colouration, – description, intonation, qualifying words, and so on. “Mulungu And The Beasts” could be told as an epic, extended and episodic, or turned into an opera with extended numbers where music does the colouring-in. On the other hand it could be a short parable for discussion, or a medium-length nature-myth. You can be sure that the African tellers from whom it originated would have given their own colouration to their telling, but what does it mean to us, and how can we build that meaning into our telling?


This is an address which I gave as part of a session at the Beyond The Border 2016 Festival at St Donat’s in South Wales. The invitation to speak came after the Festival Director David Ambrose had seen me give a keynote speech at the Storytelling Symposium in Cardiff the previous year. That speech was “Storytelling and Activism” and a full transcript of it can be found on the Liverpool Storytelling blog. I refer to it in this address which is dedicated to the connections between Gender and Myth (although I actually refer to a wider range of story than myths). The gender connection came about because one of the Festival’s themes was Transformation and because, as a practicing transgender artist for whom this might be considered my Special Subject, I was invited, for the Cardiff Symposium, to address issues of transgender relative to activism. (In fact my transgender other and I have created a transgender epic “The Mandayana”) Although there are some issues and themes in common this is a different speech.

I warned the St Donat’s audience that I realized I had taken on two huge subjects in Gender and Story and expressed the hope that I might, if I did nothing else, raise some pertinent questions and help them to find a focus for discussion and further reflection. This was recorded for transcription but what you have here is worked up and slightly embellished from the notes I prepared in advance of the address.



I want to start by speculating on why we have gathered together to consider gender in relation to story. It’s always possible simply to celebrate the relationship between the two, and we will do that today, but I suspect that many of you are here this morning because gender is something contentious. Why is gender an important aspect of story? Is it something to do with the exercise of power? Gender has a role in delineating power, or hegemony, and if we see power predominating in one area of gender rather than another it is because we so often define gender in terms of opposition, and a clear divide between masculine and feminine. We feel that we live in a world of imbalance and that imbalance is endangering us. Gender has come to be the deepest principle of division in our lives. Once we have passed beyond the distinction between being and not-being, – once we begin to be – gender is a fundamental definer of ourselves. And that definition is binary.

The Binary concept is apparent everywhere in our contemporary lives. It dictates the way our computers operate and therefore everything digital. On or Off – they seem to be our options, and gender is required to follow suit. Masculine or feminine? But the Gender Binary has been subject to question for some time now and we are challenged to present an alternative. When I have lectured groups, quite often students, on Gender issues I found myself using the idea of a line, a line stretched across the space, and I say that gender is a continuum and that everybody in the room is somewhere on that line between an absolute masculinity and an absolute femininity. Then I see individuals pondering their position on the line.

But gender is a complex thing and I was never very happy with the one-dimensional line. It made it hard to reconcile the many aspects of gender into a single point. Then I came across QR codes, the square signs which are a new form of barcode and have been used in shops and advertising. A QR code seemed to me to offer a richer two-dimensional combination of differences which was nearer to our experience of gender. The question became, How much of what? not, How far along the line? And then I realized that we all had an even more refined and inclusive code inside ourselves, our DNA, and since our DNA pattern is unique to each of us the best definition of gender difference is that each of us is unique in our gender-profile. And that would be the end of the matter were it not that gender opposition is already so far encoded in our cultures that we can’t make a clean start in defining ourselves.


Turning to Story now I want to ask if it has a gender. Can gender be encoded in individual stories? I often find myself, in speeches, referring to the work of Ursula Le Guin, the eminent fantasy and science fiction writer. In her book of essays “Dancing At The Edge Of The World” she devotes two essays to gender issues and in one in particular she very clearly defines a gender-distinction in story. She looks back to early societies and distinguishes between hunter-stories and gatherer-stories, between stories of the swift precipitate killing of animals and the slow accumulative gathering of provisions, between the heroic story and the life story.

We haven’t time now to explore the deeper gender-implications of that distinction but I would encourage you to read the essays. For Ursula Le Guin stories are sites for gender difference. And stories of gender difference are clear in our origin myths. An origin story which depicts, as in the Bible, woman as the product of a spare part of a man, differs from the origin myth of the African Dogon people who conceive of each new human as containing both a male and female soul.

But is story itself gendered? Story is of course an account of change through time, and change can imply progress and progress can be seen as a masculinist concept of human development. But time can also contain process, which can be seen as a female quality, and so story is implicated in another gender continuum, between progression and procession.

Is gender also encoded in the activity of story-telling? If we look at a whole range of human activities we can see that some are considered more the province of men or women. Road-building? – men mainly do that. Bridge-building? – the same? Cooking? -traditionally woman’s work. But now, as our traditions evolve and change, and when we can know more about cultures across the globe, the situation has become less clear. In some cultures it is the man who does the weaving, and in others the woman. But however complex the distinctions it is clear that stories are gendered, story itself is gendered and story-telling is gendered. Hence our need to consider the relationship between Gender and Story.


Here we must be more specific because there are different kinds of story. If story is giving an account of things, there is yet a difference between what I will call Consumer Stories and Shared Stories. The Consumer Story we perhaps know best from the news-media, where an account of things is considered as Information and exchanged or provided for profit, In this it is Communication, something different from Shared or Community Stories where a form of communing prevails. Of course the situation via a vis story cannot be rendered quite so simply. If the commercial consumption of story is aligned around profit not truth, what happens when I buy a novel? Or read a history-book which I have borrowed from a library? And Story as information is not always about a physical commodity. What about internet news sites? Or my blogs?

Whether physical or virtual, the selling and buying of stories is implicitly capitalistic and mercantile and this situation obtains where story is produced as text. If capitalism is intrinsically masculine then texts are the subject of consumption, and, in this, they do not differ entirely from the spoken stories of the historic balladeers and African Griots. Where there’s an exercise of power and patronage then story is in a sense objectified and we may be justified in suspecting that its potential truth has been compromised.

Now told stories have a life of their own. They are subject to growth principles. There are stories which I would call “wild” or “free” stories and these tend towards negotiating a truth between teller and told-to. They also mutate (the modern idea of memes is akin to this) and they grow and even decay. Stories can restore the truths in themselves, can heal the untruth laid upon them, but some untruths linger on. Like established foot paths, like legislation (Section 28, for example), like libel, like political accusations, stories can become enduringly fixed in form through the action of cultural habitude.

If story can be corrupted and co-opted for the exercise of power, and if telling can be commodified and monetized, and if this results in a significant imbalance in our lives then we need to do something about this. Gender is where we feel that imbalance most. Hence we can consider story as a cause, a way of addressing the imbalance and restoring balance, and gender is where we can make that attempt.

It is an attempt which we are making already. In story as in theatre we experiment with regendering familiar stories, like Cinderella or the plays of Shakespeare, We can re-inflecting existing narratives to cast new light on them. In my Cardiff address I spent some time explaining how I had taken one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – The Man Of Law’s Tale – and re-inflected it to represent the point of view and authentic experience of its female protagonist. We value the work of story-tellers like Clarissa Pinkola Estes who have deconstructed many traditional stories to uncover dimensions of gender which we had previously ignored. We have come to value personal accounts of real situations and narratives of actually-lived experiences as alternative histories, and, above all perhaps, we continue to gather in circles and share stories in the traditional way.

I am not alone in thinking that all this is not enough, not adequate to the imbalance which we are feeling in our lives. The situation vis a vis Gender and Story needs attention. Recent events have suggested that we need a lot of rebalancing. Story can be fundamental to this, so we should continue our explorations this morning. After all for many of us at the Festival it’s our Special Subject.


So let’s look at trans, – transgender. It is, as I say, my special subject and transformation is a theme of this Festival. Does a trans perspective help us to address story as a rebalancing?

I should offer here, as background, the thought that many experiences are represented by transgender, itself a partially useful term to bring together a range of terminologies– trans-sexual, transvestite, drag, cross-gender, hermaphrodite, gender-queer, intersex, androgyne, and many more. All this brings with it category issues, issues of status and presentation – and raises questions about the outcomes of desire

It is a complicated situation and therefore complicating. I think that transgender is a usefully complicating – maybe I could say queering factor in modern culture. It is, for a start, anti-binary. In this respect trans presents as a useful problem for cis-gender others in society and for the Binary. Binary is categorical and an excess of category can lead to polarization and conflict. It is certainly an indicator of decline. In the Song Dynasty of China history tells us that one room in the Imperial Palace was subject to so many protocols of use and behaviour that they filled two 11,000 page books. When your civilization is as categorical as that you know that it is headed for the rocks.

While I am dealing with the complications offered by trans I’d like to mention the individuals I call Gender-Jokers. They offer themselves as provocateurs, (and I am using the word “Joker” here in the sense of a challenging intermediary, akin to the Trickster in Boal’s Theatre Of The Oppressed) Perhaps the most prominent Gender Joker today is Grayson Perry, the ceramicist, designer and prominent transvestite media icon, but I might as easily refer to another artist I saw recently performing at the Hackney Empire, the American, Taylor Mac, Taylor Mac comes onstage like a distressed Christmas fairy but he (and he disputes the pronoun most inventively) has had considerable experience in community theatre, and he, like Grayson Perry, uses his public prominence to reinforce the need for mutuality not division. There are many Gender-Jokers in the world offering dislocation to a world crucifying itself on gender and division

I’d like to look at the stories which have gathered around the experience of trans and to point out the importance for storytelling of prepositions. There are stories by, for, and about transgender. Stories “for” transgender are welcome and offer ways of strengthening our community often by reflecting us to ourselves. Stories “by” trans individuals are also welcome. They contribute to cultural diversity and, if accepted into the canon,- a significant “if”- can help to shift the centre of gravity of cultural discourse.

Stories “about” transgender are more contentious – questions arise as to why should these stories be heard? and if they are heard are they falsified or skewed? In Cardiff I took those gathered through a series of newspaper reports which appropriated trans experiences and subjected them to different levels of bias and disinflection. Although I haven’t the time to do that this morning, I would suggest that everything, as so often, depends on who is recounting these stories to whom and in what circumstances.

And here I should say that there is the trans experience that doesn’t want to be a story. When I was in Hong Kong – and this is replicated in many places – I found it difficult to make contact with trans individuals because their lives were based on a simple physical gender conversion. Once they had transitioned they wished to merge into the background in society and achieve invisibility, or at least anonymity. For these individuals there is no trans story. Equally there are non-trans-stories or trans non-stories. For a period New Zealand had a trans MP, Georgina Beyer, something that might not have merited the attention it received. Thankfully for Georgina and all of us it became a story that succeeded in belonging to itself. Nor can we forget that stories change through eras and across cultures.

If there are to be trans stories we need to consider whether they are unique in form and content. If trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures, are conventional resolutions enough? Can conventional stories do justice to the truth of transgender? Here are six instances of conventional story tropes to consider.

Trans as destination – In this order of story trans is looking across a line or a divide. There is another place or state where they wish to be, In conventional resolutions a protagonist sets out to reach that destination and achieves some kind of fulfilment. For a trans individual, however, such a journey is often not possible, and the story becomes a tale of futility, wish-fulfilment achieved at a price, or a perpetual state of longing. In “The Bacchae” by Euripides the king who cross-dresses to get close to the Bacchae is destroyed by his foolishness. In a recent memoir by Susan Faludi about her father who transitioned later in life we are faced with a story of someone who wished to erase their past. For the trans experience there is no Promised Land and no easy crossing.

Trans as process – in this story the individual undertakes a journey and the journey is one which they may have to struggle to join, or be very brave to take. Along the way there will be challenges before they return to the original location with a developed attitude to life. W H Auden expressed the relativity of this story in his portrait of Southern Italy.-

“the myth of an Open Road, Which runs past the orchard gate and beckons Three brothers in turn to step out over the hills And far away, is an invention Of a climate where it is a pleasure to walk And a landscape less populated Than this one.”

A journey like this, inflected towards a Northern European morality, is rarely the transgender experience. For the trans individual there may be no return and none may be wished for.

Trans as outsider – In Cardiff I drew a distinction between the “excepted”, individuals who are forced to the margins of society and beyond, and the “accepted” whose lives define society’s norms. Beggars, outcasts, travellers –so many familiar from Arabian Tales – these are the excepted of traditional story, but their story-fate here is to become enriched, empowered, elevated. The surrounding society is not transformed and social forms are not amended. This may be the transgender experience but it is not the resolution needed.

Trans as magician or seer or shamen – we can think of Tiresias the Greek seer who lived as man and woman and we can think of witches and wizards with gender-ambiguities but such figures are always outsiders, and they appear as an interlude in some-one else’s story. For most trans individuals it is not enough to remain an outsider.

Trans as disguise – This is the story of “I am not what I seem”. We are told of girls who go off to be soldiers and sailors attaining prowess if not power, and occasionally men who attain beauty and sexual influence through disguise. These are conventionally about presentation rather than Identification and this permits the release of alternative energies, but such stories conclude with the disguise being stripped away. Trans, needless to say, is not about simple reversible disguise.

Trans as an Interlude in myths and the big composite stories – we hear of the warriors in the Mahabharata taking time out to experience the “other” gender, and characters in Sidney’s “Arcadia” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron” experience comparable respites for learning and character formation. These are culturally fascinating stories, susceptible of many levels of analysis, but they are not, essentially, transgender stories.

If transgender experiences don’t fit the stories we have they challenge us to create new stories. I asked, can trans can be fitted into conventional story-structures? are conventional resolutions enough? I believe not, because gender is of a different order to living somewhere or lacking status or enduring oppression or lacking opportunity.  We are not born into gender, we are born with it. What complicates us at birth is the “Other”, the difference within us and my consideration of that difference will lead me to my conclusion.


I have already concluded that we need new stories and new story structures which point towards the future. I’ll suggest some, but before I do let me just indicate two trans concepts or dichotomies which underlie our lives. One is concerned with the difference between Performativity – the definition of Gender advanced by Judith Butler in “Gender Trouble” in which gender is the active road to Intentionality – and Being or simply becoming. The other dichotomy of concern to trans individuals is between a change of status (the road to influence) and trans as sufficient diversity.

In Cardiff I distinguished between the diversity of the wild-flower field and that of the sea’s edge. In the former something of everything is contained in a given area. In the latter every individual has a unique and singular position on the edge of being, and it is this latter which I believe best identifies Transgender (and maybe other) diversity – living on the edge but belonging. The achievement of such a diversity is one of the new stories we need, the story of the creation of an authentically new society, rather than an individual destiny. This is an idea about “the trans which we would like to have” and it requires us to envisage the emergence of a world beyond conventional gender. Ursula Le Guin envisaged such a world in her science fiction novel “The Left Hand Of Darkness” and you can read her account of what she thought she was telling us in the book of essays I mentioned earlier.

There are also ideas of duality. We have, and need more, stories of two sensibilities in one body. We have the Shamen, and Tiresias, and also the Chinese bodhisattva Kuan Yin. In contemporary fiction we have Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. All in different ways communicate a release of new energy, the exercise of a different kind of power. We need more such stories. We also have a small number of stories about individuals who belong in two worlds. I can think, for example, of the transgender protagonist in the Hop Ciki Yaya detective novels set in contemporary Istanbul. Such figures offer a kind of magic mediation in society, like Gender Jokers but without the public prominence.

And after Diversity and Duality there is Singularity. We need stories about the power of separateness and difference, which is in some senses a new power, useful in a world of transition. The American writer Gore Vidal wrote an essay on the passing of Eleanor Roosevelt which concluded in this way,-

“Now we live in a society which none of us much likes, all would like to change, but no one knows how. Most ominous of all, there is now a sense that what has gone wrong for us may be irreversible. The empire will not liquidate itself. The lakes and rivers and seas will not become fresh again. The arms race will not stop. Land ruined by insecticides and fertilizers will not be restored. The smash-up will come.

To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep at what we have lost……We’re really on our own now.”

For Gore Vidal in 1962 this was an expression of loss but to be “on our own now” in a post-Binary world, not devoid of relationships but not dependent on them for our self-definition, may be our best hope. In Cardiff when considering Constance in “The Man Of Lawe’s Tale” I made much of the idea of Pity and “choosing what must be and in choosing it changing it”. It is not about “can do”, but “will be” and it is an exercise of singularity. Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” invokes the line from Cowper’s “the Swimmer” – “We perish each alone” to capture the sense of isolation each of her characters feels. I wonder if we are now ready to adventure with the obverse idea – “We flourish each alone.”?


These are in the nature of challenges to story derived from the needs of the trans situation. There is one further challenge which trans offers, to something beyond or beside story, to the idea of a unified sensibility. Is there such a thing? Can we have a  resolved centre? The Iron Law of Mental Health is, Thou shalt not be conflicted

(or to use the words of William Blake,-

“Reasoning upon its own dark fiction

In doubt which is self-contradiction”.)


Yet the great psychotherapists of the post-war era, Bowlby, and Winnicott, for example, did not see a unified sensibility as a human “given” but as a state of being to be achieved and maintained. Most of us live in such a state beset by personal irresolution.


Is transgender a way of dealing with – by accepting – the internal disunity most people experience? To be conflicted does not obviate your being what you conceive of yourself as being. There seems to be a kind of disunity, an existential dissonance, in our lives which is not altogether unproductive. Recently I began a reading of Proust and was reminded by a comment on that writer by Walter Benjamin that there is a joy that can only be apprehended from the perspective of profound unhappiness. My Cardiff speech concluded,-

“We’re reaching inside for our own “inner transgender” if you like, or, to put it another way, we are reaching for our problematised souls and we’re bringing them out.  And if we can do that then I believe that we can prevail and I would say that – well, I know that – the Activist’s Tale is in all of us.”

Is this the basis on which we can transform ourselves out of the present situation? If so, to do so, we need new conceptions of ourselves – and our selves. We need a two that is not a binary, not excluding. We need complementary energies which run in parallel or intertwine on a journey together. We need Duality in Singularity.

And modern science and technology have recently offered us two such Promised Lands. One is quantum power, a conception beyond binary which will offer multiple attachments and simultaneous existences, and transform the ways we compute and relate. The other is Nuclear Fusion. We have lived a long time with Fission – I think of the fearsome Warp-spasm in the old Irish Epic “The Tain“, and of Robert Oppenheimer at the inception of the atomic bomb quoting the Hindu epics, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Fusion, though, the application of energy to create more energy, like Quantum power, may offer a way beyond the Binary and categorical difference.

And mentioning the great Hindu epics, – like “Kali” which has been told at this Festival –also the Greek stories especially as re-inflected by Roberto Calasso – and I could mention our own transgender epic “The Mandayana” in this connection – leads me to conclude that the greatest stories allow for a kind of universal equivalence, in which gender (and power) is as fluid as our lives together need it to be, – and these stories are essential to our troubled times.