Wednesday 12 March 2014

A Storyteller's Agenda

One Monday 10th March the iCAN centre - which hosts my PhD - organised a discussion seminar on 'Narrative and Adolescence', part of a series of really stimulating events on 'narrative and...' exploring the status and roles of narrative in our culture. On previous occasions the gap has been filled by 'mental health', 'food', 'visual arts' and so on, but since the theme for Monday was 'adolescence' I was given the opportunity to present, as a performance, some of my practice-based research to date.

'Findings' might always be a tricky quantity in a practice-led, arts-based PhD, but I do aspire to claim relevance, some generalisability and certainly communicability for my research.  The challenge was to find a sufficiently tentative format to present my thoughts, questions and inklings so far.

I decided to assign the audience the role of a group of teenagers, and I led them through a 'typical storytelling workshop' from start to finish, explaining to them my difficulties and observations as we went along.

I don't know whether it 'worked' or not but it was an interesting experiment for me, to give a sort of scripted performance as a means of discussing academic research.  There was, for both me and them, the relief of an (unscripted) story in the middle of it.

A key point I wanted to make was the following: while the storyteller's tenet that 'listeners will take what they need from a story' is partially true, I have come to realise that the storyteller inevitably shapes their response to it - in fact, sometimes (e.g. with a shy group who are unused to storytelling or drama) I have found that it's very difficult for listeners to get any independence from the storyteller's version of the story's moral arc.  So the storyteller needs to take responsibility for choosing and then shaping the story in such a way that difficult themes/choices/moral issues are given a context that makes them meaningful.  Whether (s)he thinks consciously about it or not, (s)he will imprint his/her own agenda on it and therefore on the minds of the listeners.

One corollary of this is that I need to develop my skills in helping groups transform stories to their own ends.  The second is that this realisation has made me a) plan my stories more carefully than I used to and b) think more explicitly about why I choose certain stories and what my agenda is in structuring them. If I'm going to lay this agenda open to challenge, I should first of all look at what it is!

So, to conclude my talk at 'Narrative and Adolescence', I compiled the underlying values I am, like it or not, consciously or not, trying to transmit when I tell my favourite stories.

A Storyteller’s Agenda
Cath Heinemeyer

These things that are inside you –
Your anger, your uncontainable longings, your lostness, and your newness to yourself –
They are heavy and good and necessary.
The world would stop turning without them.
So cup them carefully in your hands;
Do not sell them,
Or spill them on the ground for the world to spin twisted fables from.

We face terrible things and awesome challenges. You may have a poor inheritance.
So resourcefulness is everything;
Feel it resonate in others here present.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your instinct tuned,
See the human in everything.
And be persistent!
Don’t aim to please but to endure;
Don’t consume but generate…
It is these things that will enable us to prevent – or transform – the deluge.

Arrogance is a hindrance,
Prejudice is a burden.
People are complex systems but every cause has an effect.
What you give will come back to you,
What you take will be taken in double measure.
No matter what surrounds you, even in the closing moments of your tragedies, you always have these choices.
But first rise above that ‘you’, that ‘choice’,
Float high above them and view the whole landscape.
See its lofty vantage points and its sullen swamps,
Its mires and its traps set by the powerful.
But others have trod this country before and left signs.

The things that are inside you are good and true –
Even the unspeakable things –
Here in this moment we will cup them in our hands together.
After that it is up to you.

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