I went to The Story on Friday, a one-day conference about stories and storytelling held at The Conway Hall.
First, a few disclaimers: we all have a definition of story, and I suppose my one is the arbitrary application of limits to a set of events or experience that gives it structure, a certain symmetry, a rise and fall, a longing and release, and, therefore, pleasure.
It is neither definitive nor real. It can be subjective and objective. It changes with who’s telling it, and with who’s listening.
I went with a quote in mind, from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which I recently reread (or read for the first time properly – seems odd to think I’d not read it before, but really those were cartoons and films). Peter does not understand stories – he and the Lost Boys live in the moment at all times. They do not understand the passing of time and growing up, as they live in the present constantly, in a never-ending childhood. Just as Blake had done a hundred years before, Barrie is contrasting “story” with “experience”.
And here is my third disclaimer: I am currently a little past midway through writing a novel, and the only truly certain thing I know about it – where it’s going and where it’s been – is what will happen at the very end. Not the final scene, I mean the last few pages. I know I have to get to a certain point. The whole thing has to build up to it, so that it’s nor a surprise, and not expected either.
Unfortunately there is masses of stuff that has to happen first, and that’s the really hard bit. Making something appear both obvious and sudden is something our brains do all the time, but creating that effect with a little over 90,000 words or 300 pages is hard.
So, disclaimers out of the way, I am going to say that the theme that stuck out most for me on Friday was The End. Endings. Stories and The Sense of an Ending, as Frank Kermode once described and Julian Barnes recently used for the title of his recent Booker Award-winning novel.
Oh well Kat, you would say that. You’re obsessed with ending, getting to a particular ending in your book, and the struggle to get there or even motivate yourself to write in the first place.
Yes, it’s true. I think about The End a lot. So I probably noted down mentions of it a little more than others, but it seemed to me a few of the speakers suggested that a story can only exist when there is an ending. Here’s what I mean.
Matt Sheret and Simon Thornton started proceedings, and established the (my) theme pretty quickly. Thornton, a musician and producer who’s worked with the likes of Fat Boy Slim, Beats International and Freak Power, described the art of sequencing an album. Every track needs to be placed in relation to the others so that it tells a story, and he described the sometimes agonising process this becomes.
Not all are so difficult however: “the last track,” he said, “is often the easiest.” In choosing the final song, there is one golden rule: the biggest hit should never go at the end. Other than that, the final track, epic, providing resolution to the rest of the tracks, is usually clear from the start.
Anthony Owen, Head of Magic at Objective Productions, the production company responsible for The Real Hustle and Derren Brown’s TV shows, and a former magician himself, quoted Teller from magician duo Penn and Teller (and I paraphrase):
magic tricks deceive you by ending with something you want to happen.
If anyone knows the exact quote or where it’s from please tell me.
Even Tom Watson and Emily Bell (squee! we use the same WordPress theme for our blogs!), talking about the progression of hackgate from a disparate collection of evidence into a story every newspaper wanted to cover, discussed an “endgame” of sorts. Tom Watson decided he was prepared to see the story through til the end, even if that meant making enemies and being forced to leave parliament. One gets a clarity and focus, he explained, “once you know how it ends”.
In contrast, the artist Ellie Harrison seemed intent on avoiding an ending to her artwork, and its inevitable commoditisation. She is securing funding for her piece ‘Early Warning Signs’ to remain on the streets of Shoreditch, reminding us of climate change as we go about our energy-sapping business, and is seeking someone to adopt her ‘Vending Machine’.
And then, of course, Phil Stuart and Tom Chatfield discussed their philosophical game ‘The End’. By this point I’d eaten my entire dark chocolate speakers list, and was feeling slightly hysterical as a result. I’ve got it! I thought. What all this means! And here I wrote in my notepad the word ENDINGS, with three lines under it and a full stop, though strictly speaking it wasn’t a sentence and therefore did not require punctuating. But it seemed fitting to bring this single word to an end, though, if I’m honest, it was the cocoa talking.
I hope I’m not misrepresenting Phil and Tom by saying that their talk was about how the game gave a binary choice to people, a dilemma, that forced them to think about big philosophical issues: what happens when I die? Is there such a thing as a cause worth dying for? AND SO ON.
It started to seem to me that the first thing you establish in any story is the ending. One you know your end, you give yourself the freedom to browse, play, experiment, get diverted.
Then Danny O’Brien took to the stage with a energetic talk about “everything”, covering anarchists, Buddhist monks and Adam Curtis. It started with a slide of the observable universe, a picture of a mass of white dots with a red “you are here” note helpfully added.
The photo is the result of panning out until everything is homogenous and boring. This, O’Brien explained, is what scientists call “the end of greatness”. Every definition and distinction in our world is removed. To understand anything, he argued, you must pan out and zoom in constantly, and constantly change your angle, not settle on a story and stick to it. That, he warned, is to behave like you’re “in the middle of an Adam Curtis documentary”.
Small things can change big things, he seemed to be saying. They are not at the mercies of wider patterns (though they fit into them from time to time).
As all the best talks are, it was inconclusive and fascinating throughout. There is something about establishing one’s end – signalling a certain type of story – that removes its significance and lets you play. A story, rather than something to be found and distilled, is constantly to be fought against.
And so I went back to thinking about my project, my story. I find it the most elusive part of writing a novel, is pinning down that story. And now I realise that’s as it should be: a novel is not a story. Storytelling is at its heart, but it must always struggle against fitting neatly into well-trodden narratives, falling into well-trodden grooves. There is a will to and against story in the writing and reading of a novel. Good art should always fight against story.
And, as if to perfectly demonstrate my point, I have not even mentioned my two favourite talks of the day, by Scott Burnham, an ‘urban strategist’ and creative director who told the story of a Stefan Sagmeister installation in Amsterdam, and Karen Lubbock, publisher of the wonderful Karen magazine. I wrote barely any notes during their talks, just listened.
I don’t think they mentioned the end or endings once.
Thank you to Matt Locke for a great, thought-provoking day.