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Archive for November, 2011

Last week I gained a new string to my bow, thanks to the imaginative thinking of the careers advisor and tutor at the University of York’s Biology Department.  I was invited to be ‘tame storyteller’ for a writing workshop for PhD students.  They face the considerable challenge of writing up their sometimes obscure research so that it grabs the reader’s attention.  In other words…turning it into a story.

This initially can strike one as dodgy territory: does this mean ‘sexing it up’?  Bigging it up?  Playing fast and loose with the factual truth?  Surely there cannot be any greater gulf than between the uncertainties and complexities of scientific research and the simple, one-sided morality of a story? 

This might be true if we are thinking of nursery tales, with their single perspective.  But move on to myth cycles and sagas of the days before printing presses, and the similarities emerge.  These are massive works with large casts of characters, with multiple agendas and internecine plots.  Their tellers accepted the challenge of structuring them into narratives so that audiences could pay attention for hours on end – and not only that, but also find them memorable enough to pass them on to others.  They contained the cutting-edge wisdom and learning of their day, and the teller’s heavy responsibility was to reproduce them in detail for the benefit of others.  They were discussed, analysed and laboured over.  No individual episode within them stood alone: rather it was part of a greater body of knowledge.

You start to see what I’m getting at?  It’s all about structure, interest, sequence, natural drama.  We all think, remember and learn in stories and narratives, even scientists.  A PhD student working on one aspect of the reproductive biology of frogs is adding another episode to a grander body of learning about the natural world – his or her work is only compelling and important if given in that context.  The perspectives of the frog, its predator, its prey, the scientist, the pond itself might all be in there and need to be structured into a narrative.  It must stick in readers’ heads so they go on to discuss it in scientific fora.  And all the time, without losing the factual detail.  A lot to ask, especially in our times when most people don’t tell or listen to a lot of stories.

So I was asked to take two factual stories (I harvest these things from National Geographic!) and tell them very differently: one as a ‘proper’ story, the other as an assortment of facts put together any old how.  Both my stories dealt with watershed management in developing countries.  Telling really badly is actually quite hard, because it comes so naturally to all of us to tell things in narrative arcs.  But I gave it my best shot and I think I left them pretty confused….! The group’s task was then to retell the second story well.  This was a really interesting exercise as each group chose a different primary perspective and managed to keep the key facts in there while holding the listeners’ interest.

I left reflecting that being a storyteller is certainly one of the most diverse and rewarding jobs in the world!  Because stories truly are everywhere.

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