Thursday 12 January 2012

What are stories ? What are stories for?

It's hard to get behind this question because we are always inside it. We are in stories (narratives), we make them up, we use them, we are in some senses made by them. It's very hard to think, talk or write for very long without starting to put things into a sequence that relates something, retells something. In a way, trying to figure out what they're for is a bit like meaning-of-life and what-makes-us-human questions: too big. And yet...there ought to be some way to distinguish 'storying' from other things. We ought to be able to say that it's different from, say, philosophy without the anecdotes, an anatomy textbook, grammar, a good deal of sensory activity...
But then a lot of things that we don't call stories become stories when you look at them closely: instructions on how to assemble a flat-pack table? The narrative voice isn't the usual one of stories - 'Place leg (A) next to flange (C) etc...' but it has all the sequencing of story, it has very clear structure (beginning, middle, end)... I guess it lacks some sense that it's not only 'itself' but that it 'stands for' something other than itself. The instructions might be typical - stereotypical even - but they are there just for that table, or chair or whatever.

My father in his great booklet, 'Stories and Meanings' (NATE publications) pointed out that there are a lot of things we say and write which are in effect residual cores of stories: if you say a proverb, it seems to conjure up a story that you don't have to tell. All you need to say is, 'Too many cooks...' and that's the core of the longer proverb which in turn is the core of a scene which is in effect a story that says something like: 'Once there was a kitchen and there were some cooks making some broth. As they made the broth, it started getting spoiled and it became clear that the reason why it was getting spoiled was that there were too many cooks.' And that is the core of a yet longer story which explains that is was what each of the too many cooks was doing that ended up in the soup getting spoiled!

So, a proverb isn't a story, and yet it seems to stand for a story, represent a story and which is itself supposed to represent many other situations like 'too many cooks'. And that's how it does its work. It generalises the situation where too many people are working on something by summoning up a story which, funnily enough, has  either never been told, or was told so long ago that we've all forgotten it.

Then again, a good deal of poetry doesn't seem to be a story. We say that it expresses a feeling, or describes something non-narrative like, say, a field or a face. And yet many poems are frozen moments in an implied story; they're freeze frames within a longer story that we could have a go at telling even though the poet hasn't.

The word 'science' appears to eliminate story but of course it's jam-packed with the stories of discovery, invention and exploration alongside chronologies of scientists' lives and the like. But what about the 'pure' science: the experiment, say. If you read a scientific paper, like the one I've blogged about in 'Books, books, books' earlier this month, there's a moment in the write-up where it goes into a narrative about what they actually did by way of running the investigation. The customary way of doing this is deliberately impersonal and without expressions of sentiment. It's the narrative of 'this, then this, then this, then this.' OK, it's not what we usually call a story but it certainly follows the pattern of narratives.

But does science have within its borders another way of doing story that is more like the customary meaning? What about the hypothesizing - the what-ifs? On just a few occasions I've been round people coming up with theories as to why, say human beings have a pineal gland, or some such and in order to get into the 'why', they throw a series of 'if' situations at each other - a bit like chess (aha, another story?). And in the iffing and butting, they imagine what might happen to things like frogs' skins if they're deprived of light or some such. As I say, on the occasions I've been around such conversations, they felt like stories to me. And there's even a representational quality about them too - the frogs in the experiment are going to 'stand for'  all frogs, which in turn are going to embody pineal glands in all creatures that have pineal glands.

Sport tells two stories: the event and the report. As the event unfolds - whether you're watching it without commentary or with the commentary (which is possibly a simultaneous double-narrative: your own and the commentator's) that's the first story. Then there's the report which is a telling of that event. It seems impossible to either commentate or report on a sporting event without explaining how it fits into or represents  other kinds of moments in life, in other stories. This means that the matches and games we watch are made mythic and many are mythic before they happen. The teams and players arrive wearing myth-kit.

But what's it all for?!

At one basic level, one way we have of saying that we understand things is to redescribe them, to say that this thing is like that thing. Stories do that all the time. In conversation we do a great deal of that. I tell you a story about the train being late. You tell me a story about a plane being late. We talk about what we did when these two things were late. We confirm and enlarge our own experiences through comparison, contrast , redescription. We make generalisations and say how 'typical' it was that this happened. Stories of a more formal kind (novels, plays, picture books, operas or whatever) do that too.

Understanding is slightly different from wisdom. In everyday conversation there's a blurry line when we feel that we've passed from this kind of sharing into what seems to us as an important truth. Quite often, people have wrap-up phrases to highlight them: 'Small world!', 'There's good and bad in all types.' or whatever which may or may not add anything to what's just been said but which indicate that what went before slotted into a an already existing category of knowledge, understanding or that person's wisdom

Even so, you know when you're in the company of something that appears to be handling something of new or great significance. It can be in any form of story - dance, folk-tale, 'true-life story', novel, poem or whatever. And it doesn't have to be in its wholeness - it can be in a moment or a segment though that moment will only have that power because of what you've brought to it from what preceded it in the story and what you've brought to it from  your life and from other stories. That moment or segment exists at the end of many narrative routes back into itself and back into your life.

The wisdom is the marriage of ideas and feeling: two spheres we've learned to keep apart when necessary. We can talk about ideas - class, say. We can talk about feelings, shame, irritation. Put the two together attached to beings that we can believe in, can think we know and grow to care about and we have the potency of story - some might say its ability to deceive, confuse and confirm prejudice and useless 'common sense' ( the kind that says everything must stay exactly as it is!). Another view is that even when story appears to be doing that, it's also offering possibilities. No matter how conventional, how seemingly conformist in what it is saying or how it is saying it, it can't stop itself from offering possibilities for action, feeling and thought.

We're back with 'what if'.

In education, I'm disconcerted by the amount of stuff we put in front of pupils of all ages which has very little or no what-iffing about it. I've been looking at the Key Stage 2 SATs reading and comprehension training booklets for example. Yes,the SATs are in May but all over the country, 10 and 11 year olds are spending hours and hours every week doing SATs training booklets. These are largely devoid of what-ifs. They are virtually all right-wrongs. OK, some right-wronging is necessary, essential, desirable. Quite a lot perhaps. But how much? To what purpose? To give them wisdom? Is there more wisdom in a Key Stage 2 SATs training booklet than in 'Carrie's War' or even 'Horrid Henry' (I'll come back to him. I'm becoming a fan.)

Or is the current belief that training in SATs-type-thinking equips children to be able to read, understand and analyse the written texts that come at them from TV, radio, newspaper and computer? Do they really enable you to do what Americans call 'crap-detecting' - getting behind what's being told you?

I suspect that SATs-training for those who read very little, are read to very little is a training in humiliation (because they are about being found to be mostly wrong) and conformity (treating story and texts as something you obey). For those who read a lot, they are not so hard, not so humiliating, but just as boring and of less overall significance. Lucky them.