On Friday I attended The Story, a London conference about stories and storytelling.
The stated proposition for the event laid it out as
a celebration of everything that is wonderful, inspiring and awesome about stories, in whatever medium possible. We’re hoping to have stories that are written, spoken, played, described, enacted, whispered, projected, orchestrated, performed, printed – whatever form stories come in, we hope to have them here.
The Story is not about theories of stories, or making money from stories, but about the sheer visceral pleasure of telling a story. Whether it is in a game, a movie, a book, or a pub, we’ve all heard or told or been part of stories that have made us gasp, cry or just laugh.
There have never been so many stories, never so many ways to tell them. The Story will be a celebration of just a small sample of them.
It was an interesting day which has already been well documented elsewhere, but after the event I found myself reflecting on the content and which bits I’d enjoyed and craved more of, and which less so.
Throughout the day, I was variously amused, intrigued, distracted, confused, impressed and challenged at points, but didn’t leave feeling overly inspired to create myself – or at least, no more than usual. It felt like a brilliant event showcasing brilliant creators, but with less emphasis on the audience – a room packed full of potential creators – and how they could also play, create, bring stories into existence, either from their imaginations or from life.
Without dwelling on particular contributors and their participation, I tried to think about the wider classifications of activity experienced throughout the day and how I found them, and how they fit together. As I see it, there are four potential story-related events which could have appeared under this banner:
The first is a forum for established, published authors to read their works aloud in public. This is most like “an audience with” and suffers from three potential problems. Namely: that things that work when written down don’t necessarily work so well read aloud; that authors reading their work aloud rarely add anything to the interpretation except their identity (in this situation, their fame tends to compensates for the diminished quality of a live performance of a written text); that the audience can usually read for themselves and don’t need to attend to do so. In this context, the story is subservient to the identity and presence of the author. You are in the presence of a creator. The audience is required to participate only through attention and appropriately-timed ripples of laughter. This kind of event is opaque.
The second is a platform for the telling of original stories. The identity of the storyteller isn’t as important as their ability to tell a good story, and this is only heightened by context-specific or unique stories: tales woven specifically or only for a particular time and audience. There’s a long-established tradition of doing this – think about Fray Cafes for example – and like open mic nights, they require the audience’s support and potential participation. The story is more important than the teller, and the audience tends to want something which doesn’t feel like a well-honed routine, because that makes it seem more like a rote performance and less like an act of engaged sharing. This kind of event is levelling.
The third is an event about the craft of telling stories – via multiple media – from storytellers themselves. In this sort of event, writers and creators share their thought processes, techniques and patterns of working out ideas, and secrets of their industry or approach, while exploring how and why they do what they do. This provides additional layers of context and insight into the stories themselves, as well as positioning the author or storyteller as a skilled and thoughtful creator. The audience is let in on secrets, and gains a great and inspiring understanding of how these artists tell their stories. This kind of event is inspiring.
The fourth is a more theoretical platform for discussion of stories (plural rather than specific), in which the speakers may not be practitioners of storytelling itself but come from related disciplines and fields such as academia, publishing, commissioning, adaptation and editing. They speak about the patterns and particular aspects of storytelling as it relates to wider contexts than the urge to share a particular story, and may reflect on topics such as the art of the cliffhanger, how narrative curves engage the reader, the seven basic movie plots and why the future of stories is games. The audience is challenged to make a mental leap to the semi-abstract, and in the process gains insight into the general activity. They take lots of notes. This kind of event is stimulating.
The Story was none of these events, specifically. It was a combination of several of them – some of the first, a few sessions of the third and one or two of the second with (purposefully) very little of the fourth.
Personally, I’m fascinated by the third and fourth, and would really enjoy a day of them combined with a more relaxed evening participatory cabaret of the second type described above. The first leaves me a little cold, I’m afraid – possibly because while I like hearing from authors, I mainly want to hear them talk about their work and their ideas and their approach and their stories, and less straight reading from the printed page.
I know Matt Locke, the creator of The Story, has already stated his intention to put another event on next year. I look forward to seeing how The Story develops – or, to put it in more appropriate terms, what the next chapter contains.