Saturday, 19 April 2014


In his talk at the 'Storytelling and the Voice' symposium (see previous post) Prof Mike Wilson explored Walter Benjamin's distinction between 'reading' and 'copying', from his 1928 essay 'Einbahnstrasse' ('One-Way Street').  This idea generated a lot of discussion.

Reading, according to Benjamin, is like soaring over a landscape in an aeroplane - you might miss an awful lot of detail, as well as what it actually feels like to be in that landscape.  Copying - say a notable quote or a poem - is like walking along the paths of that landscape on foot - feeling its scale and texture, noticing everything.  I do a lot of copying out of texts myself for the same reason.

Mike suggested, and we discussed, the similarity between this 'copying' form of close experiential reading and the retelling of a story - which involves re-walking the whole path of the story.  You feel the story a different way in retelling than in listening to someone else tell it - you are listening to it in a more dynamic way - because you both know and don't know what's coming next.  And as most storytelling is retelling, most storytelling is therefore, also, close reading.  Of course, in this form of reading is a personal transformation of the meanings in the story - or maybe better put, the reteller adds their own layer to the story and passes it on in this new form.  This is how all stories passed from one person to another (whether orally, digitally or in writing) contain many voices, not just that of the current teller.

In workshops I lead with teenagers, I almost always follow my telling of a story with an 'assimilation' exercise which is very akin to this copying process.  This might be retelling the story in pairs, passing a ball or stone between you - or round the circle, if it's a small or confident group.  Or it might be drawing images, writing key words, in a free-association process, and then reassembling these into a group poster.  This poster might be a chronological retelling of the story, but more often it isn't.  Groups usually choose to group the images and words thematically.  This process is a sort of group negotiation of what characters, symbols, places and themes are most important in the story.  Here's one from a group of young teenagers with additional learning needs:

The story is the true one of William Kamkwamba, a 14-year-old Malawian boy who helped his village during a famine by using rubbish from the scrapheap, and his own engineering skills, to construct windmills for electric light, water pumps and mobile phone batteries.  The most important themes, for this group, appear to be William's large and hungry family, the rubbish tip and the windmill itself.  That is, William's problem, his resources, and his ultimate achievement.  Other groups might home in on something else - the bullying William experienced, his expulsion from school for not being able to pay the fees. 

On finishing it, the group immediately wanted it to be put up on the classroom wall, and the teacher cleared another display there and then to accommodate it.  I will make use of it as a starting point when I return to work with this class soon.  Returning their story to them is the next round in the retelling game, and then we can layer other stories on top.

This poster is a group retelling, which is also a reshaping, of the story.  It is absolutely a form of literacy.  I started out this PhD feeling anxious about having to be seen to develop pupils' literacy through my work in secondary schools.  This anxiety is now much diminished - as I see (by walking the path, you might say!) how much pupils' sense of agency seems to be boosted from mastering a story by retelling it.  

Friday, 18 April 2014

'Storytelling and the Voice' symposium at George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling

Since I began this PhD back in October I've been searching for the 'storyteller-academics' - those who are storytellers themselves, but are studying it with open minds from without as well as within.  That is, those who are exploring and challenging the boundaries of storytelling, yet always keeping at heart the understanding of what it is and feels like. 

It has taken me a while to find them because they are in various different disciplines in their various universities - English Literature, Media, Health, Theatre.  But their 'nest' is undeniably the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of Glamorgan, where among many other projects they hold an annual symposium.  Hamish Fyfe, Karen Lewis, Patrick Ryan, Mike Wilson, Emily Underwood-Lee and others involved in organising the event - thanks for a wonderful and stimulating weekend. 

The incredible currency of the words 'storytelling' and 'narrative' at present make it hard to focus on the value of the storytelling exchange.  Anything from newspaper articles to Hollywood films to letters to problem pages can be defined as storytelling and often is, but the effect of this can be to deny the special status of A Story, told to A Person (or Persons) by Another Person.  Yet over-reaction against this tendency can lead to zealous policing of the boundaries of Proper Storytelling and perhaps fossilisation of certain habits and customs which have accreted in the storytelling revival.  You can see this in the confused reaction to 'digital storytelling' - either there is a wholesale, postmodern acceptance that we are in a brave new dawn where everyone is a storyteller, or a deploring of the loss of human contact and community bonding.

This symposium was, in contrast, a wonderful exploration of how the kernel of storytelling is now situated in the digital era.  Prof Mike Wilson's keynote on the multiplicity of the voice gave me a new way of looking at the storytelling act itself - and pricked me to think more about listenership and the voice of the listener.  His and Karen Lewis' work on Project Aspect (engaging the public in climate change debates through digital and conversational storytelling) was particularly interesting in this regard.  Hamish Fyfe's provocation suggested that the digital era might have the potential for new forms of storytelling to emerge, but that a cacophony of individual voices telling their own emotional and personal experiences does not necessarily add up to this.  Instead, this 'new vernacular' needs to engage with the power structures that permeate the internet as much as any other place - and perhaps seek formats which enable a 'collective howl'.

Just to mention a couple more: all filmmakers seem to describe themselves as storytellers, but Chris Morris really is - or rather, he is a story-convenor.  His work over the past few decades has genuinely given voice to deprived children, and student sex workers, among others.  His stripped-down style allows for modern storytelling that packs a punch - and it was chastening to hear that the BBC is losing the appetite for his stories, which do not always fit into their preferred narrative structures.  And Lisa Heledd Jones' work was interesting for having travelled from digital storytelling to oral narrative, and back and forward again exploring their various possibilities - storying landscapes as as to serve her community and others.  Her presentation was as much a performance as a talk, which brought to life her community initiative which sought to rewrite a narrative of decline in her native village. 

For me the common thread in all this was that Proper Storytelling can be digital, multivocal, multimedia, personal and many other storytelling-movement-custom-violating things, but it must be about a community and not just an individual.  Sending subjective impressions and emotions out into the ether may be cathartic, but the voice must contain other voices, and have the listener in mind, to count.