(A short comment for prospective readers! This is not a useful article full of practical ideas! Careful! It offers a glimpse into the difficulties which a very experienced public speaker and performer can experience. In that sense it might reassure less experienced people that it is not only them that have problems!)
I have three jobs related to stories. I tell stories like any other storyteller, I give workshops for teachers on the use of stories in language teaching and I have written two books about the use of stories in language teaching.
This article is about my difficulties in preparing for one particular storytelling session. For many years now I have been unable to prepare for an academic talk or a storytelling session in a way which results in a detailed programme. My academic sessions, at least, lead to my wanting to hand out really useful notes and so I type up, in some detail, my ideas which can guide the teachers towards trying different techniques for storymaking and storytelling in their teaching. In so far as these notes are specific and based on the workshop session then my workshop session is planned by them. Even so I cannot bring myself, necessarily, to follow the same sequence as my notes follow, nor necessarily all the examples. I want it to live and even as I am being introduced I can find myself changing how I am going to begin. Also they are two art forms, two different languages. Ordered written notes designed as a list of techniques which can be used in the classroom are not the same as an orally delivered set of feelings in fleeting time.
Storytelling sessions do not have accompanying notes to hand out. There is thus no guide for a session structure enforced on me by having to prepare notes. I knew the storytelling session in Belgrade was coming up for 5 months beforehand. It was a spec in the distance at first and then in the last weeks it began to loom like a giant on the horizon. Huge pressure on me because, for the first time in my life, I was invited to go to another country just to do one hour of storytelling and in this case to 600 people as a special treat at the end of a long academic input day. What a commitment by my employers, The English Book Company! And the cost to them: I had to be paid a fee for my travelling days as well as my working day and all the costs of travel, meals and an international hotel for two nights.
So I felt huge pressure of responsibility and for the first time in my life an element of fear of letting my client down rather than joy and gratitude that I would have the opportunity to tell and share stories.
I decided that I would take the theme of ‘we are the stories we have heard’ and to tell stories which have made me, stories from my family traditions, from my family occasions and events, from my culture and from life’s daily experiences.
The day approached, I tried to stop working on my new edition of ‘Storytelling for Children’, for Oxford University Press, four days before I left but each day I allowed myself to continue on the book instead of preparing for the storytelling. It was so nice to work hard on the book which was clear if challenging for me. The day before I was due to go I really put my foot down and made myself stop work on the new edition but then I found a hundred other things which had to be done, emails to be responded to, money demanded from the Spanish publisher (they have effectively been cheating me), and so on. The time shrank but I did eventually start to get things together for the storytelling the day before. As so often in the past I put together a collection of stories and ideas which would have taken a week to tell not one hour. I thought, ‘I will work on these in the back of the car during the journey to Belgrade…that will also give me an excuse to sit in the back of the car rather than in the front and reduce my chance of death in an accident’.
Five hours at high speed between Budapest and Belgrade, in an old car, is not a cake walk. And so, there I was, setting off on Friday with a huge bundle of story print outs or stories flowcharted in the way I like to remember them and many ideas about the idea of being built out of stories. Pele, the driver, arrived in Godollo, where I live, at 1.30 on the Friday. He didn’t want any lunch, he just wanted to set off immediately, back to Belgrade. We left at 2pm, cross country, to pick up the motorway going south out of Budapest on the endless flat sea bed of land which separates Budapest from Belgrade. Having helped Pele to find the motorway I could concentrate on my stories. I worked until about 5.30 when it began to become so dark I could no longer see anything. I had worked by shuffling through stories, leaving my choice to emotional response and minimalising intellectual guidance. My emotions have had to take second place to my intellect for decades but in recent years my emotions have begun to terrorise my intellect which can now be locked up spluttering in its cell on the left side of my skull.
A concession to my intellect is that my emotions allow it to write down bubbles of ideas on endless pieces of paper…ten or more in use at the same time. Bubbling but still not flowcharting, still not beginning to sequence, still not beginning to create a beginning a middle and and end for the session. Still no planned sequence of stories, not even though we were, by 5.30, getting quite near to Belgrade. The table flat land, and endless plain uninterrupted by hedges or fences, with some stands of drying corn, some pubescent whisps of green corn shoots reaching out for the next Spring. As it grew dark I saw lines of fires of burning the old corn. Had this any justification in terms of fertilising the soil or is it an ancient burning ceremony, trying to get rid of the old or trying to placate the god of winter so one can survive until easier times? I don’t know. All I know is that night came and the fires burned and the car hurtled forward and occasionally slalomed to one side in order to dodge overtaking cars coming the other way.
And so we arrived in Belgrade outside the International Hotel.
We were taken out to dinner and it was perfect, not the food which was essentially a huge plate of pork; difficult for me to chew, having so few teeth these days and full of potential to choke my arteries with narrowing deposits. But the musicians were perfect and in the restaurant were two large tables of girls having a hen night and they were there to enjoy themselves and could they sing! They stood to sing and sang with everything they had got, heads reaching towards the ceiling for a full throat but sometimes tempered by lowering their faces to laugh with their friends. We all loved it and I felt that this was part of what I want to be. Art at one hundred percent! Everything given and every joy received in return! What an alternative to the nasty and bloody or at best grey and bloodless events we suffer everyday. And it was what I wanted for my storytelling the next day. I wanted that same rich experience given with such power that each of the six hundred listeners would come out of their shells and raise their faces and open their hearts.
I got back to the hotel at midnight and poured a scorching hot bath. I got into the bath with a selection of the stories and sets of ideas…about twenty bits of paper. My mind was becoming focussed. I know the signs so well. When I KNOW that the actual moment is imminent I can suddenly just cut through the pile, sift and sort and then hack out a sequence and hone it to some kind of reality.
I fell asleep at about 1.30am in the water and woke up through the chilling of the water and went wonkily to bed after setting the alarm.
In the morning I knew it wasn’t ready. It was too crude. It was wrong. I went to the first session given by another speaker but I knew, as I sat there, that I was being saved up as a special treat for the end of the day and each of the other contributors was professional with good things to say. I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew I did not have a clear feeling of what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to the other sessions. I found somewhere to sit near the book exhibition. I felt so sleepy. I couldn’t concentrate. Then I forced myself to start flowcharting again…sifting through the twenty sheets bubbled now with dampness from the bath water the night before. I flowcharted one page after another plotting which stories to put into the sequence plus key linking ideas. Seeing the bubbles and brief texts on paper made me face the reality of the coming session hurtling towards me like an overtaking car on the wrong side of the road. I ground up sheet after sheet. I stood up and then went outside for air. Oxygen in the brain! That’s what you need! Back inside and more flowcharts. In the end I knew I had to stop. Lunch came and went. Many, many teachers came to me at the breaks and remembered old times at my sessions and they complimented me, some in moving terms. ‘I remember the story about your mother. It will always be with me. Ever since my husband died I have felt at a loss. You gave me that hope that he is there inside me and that I can still be with him in some sense. I thank you so much. You are wonderful. I am so much looking forward to your session this afternoon.’ And I felt such a burden of responsibility. I didn’t show it…the old busker covers up.
The time came. The break before my session at the end of the day. I felt fear as the six hundred began to trickle back after their coffee. The hall filled up. A technician put on my neck mike like a fine, light hangman’s rope. I clipped the transmitter onto my belt. ‘Concentrate on telling them stories you know are winners!’ I told myself like an old friend, ‘Don’t spend painful energy constructing some kind of flimsy scaffolding about stories making you. Go for gripping them!’
And then I was on and six hundred people were waiting.
How nice it would be if I could report a standing ovation at the end of my session, if I could describe a flood of human song from six hundred sharings. I can’t. How good was it? Finally, who knows? How can I know what was in each of those six hundred heads? What reactions were manifested? There were some powerful moments of laughter. There were some utter silences when, not only was there no sound of any kind but there was absolute visual silence, no movement as if everyone was frozen in the palace of the sleeping princess. Now those were great moments. But as the hours went by and as I drove home the next day, Sunday, I began to feel that I had survived by sheer storytelling experience. I did tell some of my stories well. But I didn’t create a single experience out of the whole session which was bigger than its parts. And that left me feeling solemn, a little sad, a little worried about the future and whether I can somehow create those wholenesses which I think I have managed to create in the past.
My emotions seem to have imprisoned my reason when it comes to planning storytelling sessions and even when planning academic sessions. I have no belief in my reason being able to rationalise my way to that magical tying together of the whole concept. So I will not fight for its release. But though imprisoned, perhaps my wretched reason managed to be my downfall. Maybe it smuggled out a rational idea: the idea of a theme, the theme which sounds clever, ‘We are stories’. An arrow in my left heel.
My friend, the mime, Annie Stainer, was trained in Paris by De Krug who was also the trainer of Marcel Marceau. He was an old man, who wore an old dark suit and sat on a kitchen chair in the middle of his basement workshop in Paris. Prospective students from all over the world, queued though the door behind him, along the wall to his right and then waited at the far corner of the room for their turn. Each prospective mime walked behind a dusty and torn black curtain hanging on a fat wooden rail and then made his or her appearance.
Again and again, as the student appeared through the curtain, de Krug would stop them before hardly a movement had been made and say, ‘Trop d’idees! Allez-y!’ ‘Too many ideas! Go away!’
Annie told me that many students, disheartened, returned to their countries, to Australia or America. Some, more stubborn queued and came through the curtain again and again, hoping, with ever more desperation to get it right. Finally, broken, they would appear through the curtain only able to show pained eyes and to give a slow, hopeless shrug.
‘Pas mal!’ said, de Krug. ‘Not bad!’
For me this story has always been so precious. The rational mind is useful for the artist to have but, in the end, it must be the irrational (or perhaps it is the more deeply rational self?) which must take over. Will I be able to let this happen in this remaining time I have as a storyman?
My books, in case you are interested:
Wright, A. ‘Storytelling with Children’. Oxford University Press.
Wright, A. ‘Creating Stories with Children’. Oxford University Press.