By odd coincidence I happen to have spent election night in the home of a former British Prime Minister. I am at Ty Newydd, the house to which Lloyd George retired from politics, now the Welsh National Writing Centre. It’s a glorious place perched on a gentle slope between the mountains of Snowdonia and the great sweep of Cardigan Bay. I’m running a Dark Angels course for staff of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.
I arrived on Tuesday evening and since there was no one else here – the students, having considerably less far to travel, turned up on Wednesday morning – I took myself off to eat at the pub in the village. Walking back up the drive, around ten pm, my eye was caught by something on the branch of a tree, silhouetted against the dusk sky. It was a large, fine owl. I stood and watched it for a while until it swooped off in search of dinner.
That’s an auspicious welcome for a writing course, I thought. The owl symbolises wisdom and the arts, in Greek mythology anyway. But this is the Welsh heartland. In the pub I heard no English spoken, and Ty Newydd was once the home of the only British Prime Minister not to have had English as his first language. I checked Welsh legend to find that in the Mabinogion, the owl is accursed, a faithless woman condemned to eternal night. Maybe not such a good omen, after all.
Ty Newydd is a house full of books, all of which contain stories or poems, each of which, like the appearance of the owl, will be open to more than one interpretation. And that’s the glory of it. There is no ‘right’ telling or reading of a story or poem; they are metaphors for life, ambiguous, messy and multi-layered.
There’s a growing recognition in the business world of the power of story – and rightly so. Modern organisations have to find a different way of telling people what they’re about; the conventional assertions of corporate excellence sound as false as they’re banal. But businesses are also suspicious of stories, and confused by them. How do you use them? More worryingly, how do you control them?
Again, organisations are right to be concerned, because stories are about truth and they’re only believable if they reflect human truths. You can’t fake stories and expect people to buy into them. So if a business wants to tell a good story, it must be prepared to be honest, to shed the carapace of corporate invincibility that has become the norm, and allow itself to be seen as less than perfect, as capable of making mistakes.
That takes courage, not least in admitting the possibility that people may read different things into the story than the organisation wants them to. But as with the owl and the books at Ty Newydd, it’s in that very possibility that the reader finds the freedom to make his or her own personal connection. It may take courage to offer it, but it’s sure to pay dividends.