Story-telling – Food For Thought


After our recent session of story-sharing I was thinking about how stories belong to families, and how we respond to them depends quite a bit on how far we recognize to which family of stories the one we are listening to belongs. Mary’s story of Betty Mouat, for example, the story of a woman who is inadvertently is cast adrift on the Northern Seas and who makes her way home with strange difficulty, is a story of true events and so has to follow those events mainly faithfully, even though the events complicate the narrative arc, and we have to ride with the swells and troughs of her adventures to the end – because they are true. The storyteller is bound to the spar of the story and we can accept the diversions and episodes once we know that the point is that this is the way life has been and that is its power as a story. The storyteller can re-build the story as myth or legend, by streamlining the narrative, drawing out images to create depths of meaning and significance and crafting the ending into a closure both moral and emotional, and then Betty Mouat’s adventures become self-sufficient and “poeticized”. or they, the storyteller, must adopt the tone and demeanour of the reporter or curator of history. If the telling hovers between history and myth/legend it may confuse us and leave us too preoccupied with what it is to pay attention to how it is.

By contrast John’s telling of Carol Ann Duffy’s children’s story “The Lost Happy Endings” offered us a story which begins in classic story-fashion but eventually plays a number of meta-narrative tricks on the listener/reader. We can be comfortable with it once we’ recognize that it is a writer’s story which is aware of being a story, and where the writer with their golden pen is hovering at the edge of the telling to nudge us into thoughts about what stories are and do. In that sense it is a very 21st Century story, just as Betty Mouat is a very 19th Century story, the century which brought us Grace Darling rowing out to the sinking ship, and Greyfriars Bobby the faithful dog. Carol Ann Duffy’s story belongs in the tradition of Borges and Calvino and Danilo Kis, offering its self-awareness up to us in a way that a 19th Century audience might not have appreciated. (although devotees of Lewis Carroll might have got the idea). Once we realize that we are hearing a “knowing” story we can be comfortable with it, and it is the storyteller’s job to allow the knowing to be present during their telling.

David’s story, an original creation and destined to be an inset episode within a personal account, is both a “My Life” story and a structural device to deepen our understanding of a person’s life. So far we have only the “My Life” story, told in the first person by a pigeon, and the rhythms and the eventualities are those of autobiography. People’s lives rarely follow a classic narrative arc (or if they do, and all those episodes and complicating diversions, are streamlined away, it is usually to prove some point about human nature – many celebrity autobiographies are very moral and self-justifying) so when they become autobiography it is for their anecdotes and vignettes that we enjoy them, – once we realize that this is what they are. Novels in pseudo-autobiographical form, however, like “Great Expectations”, can achieve a coherence and depth which eludes, for example, Katie Price in her series of self-accounts or even Paul O’Grady in his, much more entertaining ones. David, anyway, has set himself to use a pigeon’s episodic account of his life to give depth to a boy’s singular account of his situation. It will be great if he can get the two kinds of story to play off against each other. and I’m sure he will. For now think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the ”Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe”.

And what was Decima’s tale? Ostensibly it was an original fantasy about a ping-pong ball which had lost its “ping” and as a story does not yet have an ending. This prompted a lot of suggestions from the listeners as to how to complete the story but everything will hang upon what kind of story it is. If it’s a micro-tragedy in Calvino-mode then it will end when the creator/teller has exhausted the series of fruitless remedies to the situation. If it is a fable or parable it will end when the ping-pong ball finds a new perspective on its loss. If it is a lexical whimsy it will end in a flourish of pings and pongs and smells and balls and word-play. However it proceeds and ends we will study the ending to finally make sense of what we have been listening to, what we should think about the world and to what family of stories it belongs – and Decima will have made all her telling consistent with what kind of a story she thinks it is.

Four stories and four story-families, and in our workshop a fortnight earlier we addressed urban folk-tales and Chinese ghost and monster tales, different families of stories, both trading in the sensational and often horrific, but the former needing a resounding punch-line ending grounded in the quotidian and the latter mainly refusing any kind of narrative closure while the monstrous apparitions continue to resonate in our minds in ways which maybe were even more powerful for their original audiences.

My advice is to know what kind of story you are telling and help your audience by crafting your telling to help the audience know too. If you do want to play with narrative types and even subvert them you still need to help the audience know which inter-story-family contrasts you’re invoking. And as a final reflection, I have just finished reading Neil Gaiman;s “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane”. At first I was unsettled by it but once I realized that I was experiencing not a boyhood memoir or a tale of adult  angst but a profoundly metaphorical account of elemental forces like Ursula LeGuin’s “Earthsea Quartet” or David Almond’s “Skellig” I was happy to allow its pleasures, and pains, into my soul.