Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Once upon a story...
Spending time with other writers is always a huge thrill for me especially given I live far too far away from most to meet up regularly. (Yes, I know, thank goodness for social media!) Last year was good for writer pals visiting these far flung shores – starting at the beginning of the year with a visit from Claire Atherstone and Jackie Marchant, and ending the year with a visit from Nicola Morgan and Morag Caunt.
Spending time with other writers always fires up the creative and thinking juices and so it was in early December, talking to Scottish writer, Morag Caunt. Morag told me about the short stories she writes for troubled teens, and how she’s using her stories with teens at the First Floor Tuesday Night Drama at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It set me to thinking about a writer’s job and a point that I’ve made repeatedly over the years that writing is first and foremost about story. For me, stories are alive, they’re filled with their own life force and they want to be told. I don’t believe stories really mind how they’re presented to the world so long as they get out there. It’s the telling, rather than the means of telling that ultimately matters.
Stories can be told entirely in pictures (photography, fine art, illustration etc) or they can be told orally, as they originally were, or in written words. Or they can be blended together. I’ve long been struck how so many writers are intent on focusing solely on books, when there are so many other ways of telling stories – song, dance, opera/operatetta, plays, TV, film, games, apps. Every creative person tells a story in one way or another because story lies at the heart of every creative endeavour.
Don’t get me wrong, I'm not for a minute knocking writing - and I appreciate that each form of storytelling holds unique merit, that we each have a preferred way of storytelling, and likewise that the role of literature in our culture is an important one. However, in the bigger picture, reading by the masses, in terms of our overall evolution, is a very new thing - and mass produced books a relatively recent invention.
Yet, for all its newness, it has been suggested that reading is increasingly becoming an alien and specialist pastime. Should we be surprised? Probably not. And let’s face it, it might equally be said that in places with low literacy levels reading has always been an alien pastime (I’m not saying this is “right”, just how it is). What we do have to do is accept that as technology progresses, so audiences will be distracted not only by their 24/7 lives, but a multitude of other things, including other storytelling platforms. Let’s not kid ourselves, however, that the possible passing of the book, of literature, will automatically mean the demise of culture.
Rachel Cooke in a recent article in the Guardian lamented, “How are we to make sense of ourselves and the world that holds us if not by reading stories? For isn't this how we've talked to ourselves – soothed, stimulated and improved ourselves – for thousands of years?” Well, no, not for thousands of years and not by reading stories. For thousands of years, for the vast majority, stories were told or acted out. And then they evolved - from the oral form to a variety of other forms - and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to do so.
Who knows, maybe books will become obsolete (yes, I know, shock-horror-and all that), and if so what will writers do? Become an extinct breed? I would hope not. I would hope that writers would evolve along with other means of relaying story - because it is our duty as storytellers to fulfil the life and full potential of the stories that come to us. Consider, for example, the way Julian McCrae has chosen to go with his iPad thriller, The Craftsman, which is part book, part film, part game. And he's not the only one experimenting with new media.
I started my professional career as a scriptwriter and director, working in multimedia where we told stories using a variety of media. This undoubtedly influenced the way I think about story. And it has always struck me that with so many platforms available, stories could be made as rich as one wanted, either in one medium, or across a range of media.
So it was in talking with Morag Caunt that I was so struck by what she is doing – she’s taking her stories to the drama group where they are being acted out by the teens and produced as mini movies on You Tube. How incredibly cool is that? From words typed on a page, to acting and plays to “movie”. The story evolves from the written word to touch the lives of these young people in multiple ways, thereby reinforcing itself and its message.
There has been a lot of talk over the past year, especially as the publishing industry evolves and shifts in the face of both economic pressures and digitisation, about writers taking hold of greater opportunities, that is, of learning to write beyond the book – to stretch themselves to think to film and games etc. What surprises me is that it has taken this long for writers to realise how much they limit themselves by thinking only in terms of books when there are so many ways of telling a story. It’s a thrilling and exciting time, and a wonderful opportunity to stretch ourselves.
We may not always realise it, but we are in fact far more than writers, we are entertainers and edutainers. What we do, like every other artist, is to make sense of ourselves and our world through our work – for ourselves and for others. We may be passionate about books and writing, but let’s not become myopic dinosaurs.
I will be interviewing Morag Caunt in February on SCBWI-BI’s Words & Pictures blog, and I will also be exploring the concept of story later in the year in Words & Pictures.
Meanwhile, take a look at these for some alternate, less obvious ways of telling stories:
Gorgeous light painting animations from Darren Pearson
Surreal portraits of people having an out-of-body experience by Berlin-based artist Deenesh Ghyczy
Tiny people’s adventures in the world of food by Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle
There’s a story in every one of these images of abandoned places
Painted brush strokes by Jukka Korhonen
Wheat paste characters that interact with their surrounding environments by street artist Charles Leval, aka Levalet