When a colleague extended an invitation to come along to The Story - a conference about all kinds of stories and ways to tell stories - I really wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to go. Before committing, I tried to do a search for further details on the Internet in the hopes that I'd get a fuller picture of what to expect but in the absence of finding anything concrete, I threw caution to the wind and bought a ticket anyway.
The day before the event, my colleague mentioned how excited he was about attending but I still wasn’t sure it was something for me.
My apprehension quickly turned to excitement when the next day, the dark and rainy skies of previous weeks had given way to bright sunshine. Plus, it was Friday. I had been to the venue previously and knew that it was just a medium sized room with a stage at one end (think Church Hall) and thought that as long as no one tried to get me up on stage and do any kind of improv, which is my worst case scenario, I’d probably be ok.
What do they say about setting your expectations low? There’s nowhere to go but up.
Now here’s the bit where I’m supposed to tell you what happened next. Except that I couldn’t really begin to explain to you what the day was like. The only unifying theme was indeed ‘the story’.
We got given a beautifully designed notebook at the beginning of the day (photo courtesy of Leonora Oppenheim) along with some background about the Ministry of Stories. This immediately made me kick myself for not bringing along my 16 year old son who was at home, probably still in his dressing gown, playing video games.
And from that very first moment, I was completely hooked in. Some of the speakers were famous in various circles – such as the engaging Kenyatta Cheese who talked about being ‘of the internet’ and others, like Bill Wasik, who, despite being Kenyatta’s age and writing a book about how the Internet is changing culture, doesn’t share the feeling of being ‘of the internet’. He retains a keen interest in what it means to ‘go viral’ and still gets a thrill out of 20 retweets despite his work being read by hundreds of thousands of people.
Some used slides to illustrate their stories whereas another, Stella Duffy, on the back of Kenyatta’s history of the .gif by way of the fairytale Snow White, used people from the audience in a totally spontaneous live acted mash-up of the story of Jesus and Snow White. Partway through her incredibly energetic presentation, she revealed how two weeks previously, to the day, she had been in an operating theatre having a mastectomy and though she might be all bloody underneath, wasn’t she wearing ‘a great frock’?
It was yet another reminder to myself to judge less quickly as earlier on in the morning, after seeing a slightly subdued, black clad pair of former Goldsmith’s students take the stage I thought, ‘I feel sorry for these guys. Following Bryony Kimmings must be really hard.’ They turned out to be filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and they definitely didn’t need my sympathetic concern. They’d only made a drama/documentary called 20,000 Days on Earth featuring the enigmatic Nick Cave and turned out to be warm, witty and engaging speakers.
Time and time again, in life and on this particular day, I am shown that we can never know to look at someone on the outside who they are, what they are going through and what their story is. Who’d have thought by her demeanor that Stella Duffy is in the throes of cancer or that the quiet approach of Iain and Jane would lift to reveal a talent I never expected to encounter when they started speaking. Tony Ageh, BBC Controller of Archive Development, sat on a chair in the middle of the stage, with no slides, no prepared speech and enthralled me with his take on the democracy of lists followed by the story of how he co-created the iPlayer.
I was encouraged to listen to Meg Rosoff, a fellow American who also studied English at university, lives in London and has a 16 year old child like me. She wrote her first book at 46 which, coincidentally, is the age I am now. And the similarities didn’t end there as I found later scrolling through her timeline cementing my belief that despite appearances, job titles, life circumstances, we are so similar and connected.
48 hours of WHY DID I AGREE TO DO THIS and then "That was SO cool." #story2014
— Meg Rosoff (@megrosoff) February 21, 2014
Meg said, ‘You can’t be a writer if you can’t tell a story.’ But I believe that we are all natural storytellers. We might not all have the ability to write them down but we all have countless stories to tell. We are walking narratives from the moment we are born and stories are embedded into our lives nearly every waking moment.
For me, The Story was an uplifting, joyful experience that reignited a creative spark that had, sadly, been lying dormant for quite some time. It also left me with a physical memory and a palpable reminder to make room for other people’s stories. Or, as Lisa Salem so eloquently put it, to ‘belligerently, persistently, acknowledge each other's humanity.’
I barely scratched the surface here in terms of speakers on the day so if you want to see who was there, click here. If you’re interested in what other people thought of The Story 2014, you can use #thestory2014 to filter results on Twitter, check out Hugh Garry’s Storify or click here to see my favourite overview of the day’s action courtesy of Giles Turnbull.
See you at The Story 2015.