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


Stroppy Author said...

I agree entirely that there always have been and will be many ways of making and telling stories and they certainly don't all involve writing. But story is not the main preoccupation of all writers. I've had this argument about why not all writers want to work in multimedia over many years.

'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' - well, it might be limiting to think in terms of printed paper books, but I don't think it's limiting to want to focus on words.

I don't want to compose a story that is presented in a way other than words, or not using the words I put it into, because for me being a writer means creating with language. So to be a 'writer' who made somethig that wasn't in my chosen words (allowing improvement with an editor's advice) would not be writing at all - it would be storytelling. That's an entirely valid occupation, but not writing, and not MY occupation. It would be like claiming to be a potter but not using clay - possible to make something just as nice, just as valid as art, but not, actually, pottery. Scriptwriting counts, writing picture books counts - because in these the words are supplemented by something additional that contributes to the meaning or effect. Something that replaced or ignored my words, only the story being retained, wouldn't be satisfying. We aren't all dinosaurs if we choose not to work in other media - we just enjoy language. And oral storytelling/reading aloud is fine. If you look at the methods used by medieval writers to make sure their words were preserved - by the memory enhancing rhyme, rhythm and alliteration - you can see that the excact choice and reproduction of words was important to writers long before mass reading.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Which is precisely why I say: "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."

You say, "story is not the main preoccupation of all writers" - it is though, I'm pretty sure, the preoccupation of most writers.

Yes, writing is about words and language and rhythm etc, but without a story what is writing other than lot of words on a page? (Unless you're referring specifically to non fiction, and that's not clear from the comment - but even non fiction has a storyline to it.) Story is what binds the writing, gives it purpose and holds it together. Story is what makes readers read books. You just have to look at the vast numbers of badly written books that have sold well because readers have been captivated by the story.

I don't know about you, but when I sit down to write, I'm sitting down to write a story and I'm hoping to write that story well i.e. apply the craft of writing to the story as best I can.

I believe the reality is whatever our chosen field, we are all, first and foremost storytellers. It is the inspiration of story, in whatever form, that guides creation across media.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Anne, do also bear in mind that the post is written very much with a changing, technology driven world in mind. Times are changing. Books may become obsolete. It's not that far-fetched a notion. And if we don't evolve with the times, we will become dinosaurs. This is about the big picture, not our passions and preferred comfort zones.

Nicola Morgan said...

Great discussion! Nicky, you speak much sense (and it was lovely to visit you, btw!) but I'm more writer than storyteller, and I identify with Anne's points. I struggle to find the stories to be the vehicle of my words. Writing is what I do and love. Storytelling is what I have to add in if I want to be read. And I can't read or listen to stories that are not told in the right words (for me).

So, for me it is the words that are the sine qua non. My story told in different words or ways is not my story. (It might be better, but it isn't mine.)

Nicky Schmidt said...

Thanks, Nicola :-)

I guess we each define ourselves in our own way, we each have a preferred way of "storytelling" - whether we choose to call it storytelling or not.

For me, as much as I love writing and the craft of writing (language and literature are what I studied), the story always comes first - starting with a germ of an idea and building to something greater. Words, crafted as best I can, are then my medium for getting the story into the world

Like you, I love writing - and I've written since I was a child - but even then, there were stories to be read and stories to be acted - so I've played with mediums from the start.

I don't think it's so much about loving words over story, but the fact that story is the enduring element, the thing that holds our preferred way of putting ourselves out into the world, be they words or images or dance or song.

I think though, the concern remains - and it's what informs the basis of this post - what if books do become obsolete as technologies change - how do we, as lovers of words - go on from there?

Nicky Schmidt said...

These two articles are worth looking at.
Challenges to books - stories that follow you into the real world
Digital Book World 2014 - An Industry Transformed.

Books may survive, they may not. As writers of children's fiction we owe it to ourselves to understand where our market is likely to go, and consider what we might do about a changing market, should it indeed change.

Nick Cross said...

I guess I'm fairly unusual, in that I'm someone who has all of the technology tools at my disposal, but who chooses not to use them. I even had a commissioning editor tell me recently that I should go and write a story app, because there weren't many people able to do that!

Yet, somehow, I remain reluctant. Like Anne and Nicola, I love the purity of using language and the challenge it offers. I've been having a lot of fun over the last year playing with the form of the story and exploring potential developments in technology - yet right now I'm choosing to do that within the confines of linear, word-based storytelling.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Nick, of all of us, you really are best positioned to write a story app - and I'm imagining a place in the future when the rest of us are a pile of bleached bones,lost for finding ways to tell stories, and there you are, way ahead of the pack with the editor saying, "See, I told you this was the way to go, Nick!" :-)

As I said to Nicola, and like you, I also love using language - and as I said to Anne and in the post, every creative person has their preferred medium through which they put their stories into the world. For all of us, who call ourselves writers, that preferred way is words.

I think the difference in arguments comes from the words for words sake, as appears to be supported by Anne and Nicola, and the story via words approach.

Words for the sake of words without story, is far closer to poetry. But writers of fiction, for children or adults, can't possibly work with words without having a story to tell. Because words without story are simply a jumble of shapes on a page. To argue that one can write a novel without being "preoccupied" with story is, to my mind, a fairly indefensible argument. Words need story as much as story needs words - if that is the medium through which it has decided to take itself into the world.

Which kind of brings me back to the my point that story is alive. As we are always told, there are no new stories, only different and new ways to tell the same stories.

The line in your comment, Nick, that sets you apart from Anne and Nicola is that you happily acknowledge you are working on a story - through the medium of words - which is how you've chosen to do your storytelling.

It all makes for a fun discussion, don't you think! :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

"Words without story are simply a jumble of shapes on a page" - I strongly disagree! A story badly told would be; or words without other meaning or purpose would be. But telling a story is only one thing to do with words. For me, story is a vehicle. I'm not denying it is a very important vehicle but I do not put it top of any kind of hierarchy.

Of course if you are writing fiction, a story element is crucial, but there are other things to write, too.

Don't get me wrong, I very much understand the importance of story - I even do lectures about what it (or the absence of it) does to our brains and selves. But writers are many other things than story-tellers and when they are other things they are still using writing skills and purposes as strongly and importantly.

I'm not a story-teller. I'd like to be a better one, though.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Spoken like a true artist, Nicola!

The trouble with story is that it's pervasive - badly told or not - it attempts to get itself out there. Which is why there are so very many badly told bestsellers. And that's perhaps where one draws the line between art and, well, the "other" stuff.

The questions that must arise then are: do we use words for in order to create literary art, or do we use beautifully crafted words with which to tell a story? Which form of writing is then more effective in helping us and others make sense of the world and our place in it? (Of course, I accept that this begs the primary question as to the purpose of writing in the first instance.)

We could, as an example, contrast the mass appeal and commercial success of The Da Vinci Code with the literary achievement that is Finnegan's Wake. And quests for literary accomplishment aside, writers, like everyone else, do need to eat...

The other point is this - and I keep having to make it, the writer's ability to adapt in a rapidly changing world must surely be critical - particularly when recent stats reveal that almost half of all teenagers don't read for fun. If they're not reading, what are they doing. They are, after all for many of us, our target market. How can we, assuming we even should, reach them? It becomes a bit "mountain and Mohammed", don't you think?

I guess we have to ask ourselves whether we are first and foremost word artists, stuck in our lonely garrets, removed from and looking down on the world (I'm being extreme here) or are we communicators and tellers of stories which help with an interpretation of the world around us?

In writing this blog post, I was very much considering writing in the form of fiction. The very notion of story implies fiction rather than non fiction in writing terms. I'm not interested here in non fiction (though as I said earlier, even non fiction has a storyline of some sort)but in fiction aimed primarily at young people - who, I have to say are probably more interested in story than they are in literary artistry.

You say "writers are many other things than story-tellers" - I think this needs clarification, please, as I would hazard a guess that writing is the primary occupation, so I'm wondering what the other things are and how they are necessarily relevant to the discussion.

It may be, of course, that you and I will just politely need to agree to disagree in this discussion. However, I will still be sure to have bubbles and cake on hand next time you visit! So long as you promise not to throw cake at me!

Thelma Hartnady said...

Nicky you have inspired me. I love having coffee with you but have now decided your words touch my soul. Writing is about sharing, teaching, friends to the lonely, hope for the desperate the list goes on and on. Thank you.