I’m writing this in the Scottish Storytelling Centre before I catch a train home from Edinburgh. Located partly in Edinburgh’s oldest house, on the High Street, it has a good café, a big airy storytelling space and a 99-seat theatre. I believe it’s the first such purpose-built centre in the world.
It’s just across the road from my colleague Stuart Delves’s office, an eyrie at the top of one of the Old Town’s medieval houses. I’ve been catching up with him following his performance last week at Macsween’s, the haggis maker, where he presented the stories he had gathered from staff during his residency in the company. Earlier today I had been helping the team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to imagine the story of the festival’s next five years. And running in the back of my mind all along has been the story of Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional Prime Minister of Denmark in the TV series Borgen, which Sarah and I have just started watching. I feel surrounded by stories today. I feel nourished by them, too. But what really are they? And why, as I get older, do I find them more and more important?
I’ve heard many definitions of story, ranging from ‘data with soul’ (which I rather like despite the presence of the d-word) to ‘any account of connected events’ (which I don’t much like). Although it’s by no means a definition, I sometimes explain stories like this: a journey described simply in terms of the timings, distances, places and so on is an account of connected events but not, to my mind, a story. The same journey described in the same way, but including mention of an encounter with a stranger, or the loss of an item of baggage, is a story because something has happened which sparks the listener’s interest and creates in them an imaginative, and therefore emotional, connection with the events described. At the same time the thing that has happened has changed the protagonist of the story in some way: because of that encounter or that loss he or she is not the same person who began the journey.
I believe that all stories are fundamentally about transformation, not only in what they describe but also in what they create. The teller describes a change – perhaps his or her own, perhaps someone else’s. The teller is also changed, subtly, in the telling. And the listener is changed, equally subtly perhaps, in the hearing. Change is movement and life. Its opposite, stasis, is death. This is why we prefer stories to facts.
It’s why Alain de Botton could be heard on Radio 4 earlier this week arguing, in the context of news reporting (and what is news if not stories?), that for democracy to function we have to be able to bring ’artistry and imagination’ to the presentation of dull, or obscure, but important information in order that people will engage with it and care about it. It’s why there is such a thing as a Scottish Storytelling Centre which grants the art and craft of storytelling a place at the core of Scottish culture. Stories, this building proclaims, are good for our hearts and good for our minds and they have a serious role to play in a just society.
It’s why the enlightened Jo Macsween gave Stuart license to gather 60 hours of stories from around her company, whittle them down to a 45-minute performance, and invite the entire staff in to listen to their own anecdotes replayed to them, warts and all, by an actor. It’s why the book festival team spent a morning with flipchart paper and coloured pens creating images of what their festival and organisation might look like in 2020.
And it’s why I can’t wait to watch another episode of Borgen. Each one makes me slightly rethink some aspect of my world view, and it does so because I connect imaginatively with the character of Birgitte Nyborg, I actually care about her – even though she doesn’t really exist. She changes in each episode, I am changed watching her, and the team that made the programme are surely changed in the telling of her story. This, simply, is why stories matter so much.
My friend, the Scottish novelist James Robertson, is currently involved in an extraordinary storytelling project: one story per day for a year, each story of exactly 365 words length. What a commitment. What a constraint. And what stories they are! You can read them here
And still talking of stories … there are one or two places left on The Stories We Tell, our personal insight workshop on 8&9 March. Join us for a weekend of reflection, insight and connection. More information here