‘What is story?’

Jenny Moon, one of our professional storytellers, led the first session of the ‘Medieval Storytelling: Engaging the Next Generation’ workshops. This initial session was an open discussion around the question ‘What is story?’ and sparked conversations which were continue over the course of the two days of workshops. To get the juices flowing, Jenny asked us to jot down our responses to the question on our notepads.

Twenty-three of us sat in a circle, scribbling down whatever came into our heads. And as we got talking, prompted by Jenny, ideas began to fly around the circle. Across the group of participants it became clear that we thought of ‘story’ as a remarkably wide-ranging, comprehensive term. Story was described variously as: agenda, deeds, narrative, retelling, entertainment, and escape. Particularly, story was envisaged as a “narrative with a destination” and live storytelling as “a game.” On the whole, then, story was perceived as something with a purpose, as something built from words.

As a group, we went on to counter these ideas of the story as a voiced or written thing with the notion that stories include the unspoken too. As Jenny noted, in live storytelling the unspoken can be the physical aspect of the performance. It can be an eye-roll or a clap, a shrug or a toe-tap. But, we also reminded ourselves, embedded in the story itself are unspoken connotations and references, for both the teller and the audience. As much as stories are consciously crafted entities, they also give rise to responses beyond an author or teller’s control.

We went on to think further about the things that story can do for us and for others. This theme is vital to the ‘Medieval Storytelling’ project, as the aim of these very workshops was to train all participants to engage in outreach and, ultimately, to perform their stories to Key Stage 2 primary schoolchildren. Therefore, one of the most important points made in this session was that story can encourage a sense of community. For me personally, this conjured up visions of medieval mead halls brimming with grubby Anglo-Saxons, glowing in firelight, enraptured by a tale. Social identities were (and are to this day) forged in community contexts such as these. In addition, we discussed the ways in which stories can also explicitly construct and reinforce a particular social identity – such as nationhood – for a group or for an individual.

Of course, there is no simple answer to the question ‘What is story?’ However, as a group, we were prompted by Jenny’s session to reconsider and to share our assumptions about what stories are and what they (can) do. This initial session expanded our collective thinking on story and set us up for the storytelling workshops that were to follow.

Hannah Ryley

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