Thursday, April 23, 2015

Susan Pepper: Catching stories before they slip out of reach. 2015

When I started exploring the world of storytelling many years ago, I was surprised by the many and various guises it took. Like a trickster, the storyteller wears disguises, and changes from one to another depending on the stories demanding to be told, and who is doing the telling. 

Early on in my storytelling journey I became interested in what is known as "therapeutic storytelling", and undertook some formal study to develop my understanding of the context within which I could do this work. I soon discovered that sometimes I was the teller, but more importantly in this type of work, I was the listener, or in my most recent excursion into this area, the storycatcher.

As part of the My Story project at 5 Uniting AgeWell aged care facilities, over 130 older storytellers told their life stories to storycatchers who 'caught' them, and published them in some way. The My Story project aimed to give clients  the opportunity "to share their past history, knowledge and stories and gain a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, while family members [would] have a tangible record to keep." The final products included digital photo frames, videos, photobooks, books, and posters. Around 30 volunteers were involved, as well as two staff members who managed and coordinated the project. 

At the celebration afternoon tea held at the conclusion of the project, the excitement was tangible, as storytellers were able to share the record of their stories with families and each other - it was a celebration of engagement, relationship, belonging and support.

At this event, I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the storycatchers, and I took the opportunity to reflect on the significance of the telling, and catching, of life stories.  This is what I said:

"I have recently been reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The protagonist and main narrator, a historian, decided to write 'a history of the world...and the bit of the twentieth century to which I have been shackled, willy nilly, like it or not. Let me contemplate myself within my own context: everything and nothing.'

As I have been working with residents of Strathdon around the telling of their stories, I have been struck by the fact that everyone is also telling the history of the world, in particular the twentieth century, and their observations of it, and the role they played. 

I firmly believe there is no such thing as a small story. Short maybe, but not small, and even the shortest stories I and the other storycatchers have worked with touch on major themes - how we live our lives, and the historical and social context in which we live out our values. Yet, it's normal that as our life unfolds we usually do not realise the significance of what is happening, or what we are witnessing. 

Take Jim* for example.  His broad and detailed account of life in the British army in Egypt in the 1940s touches on major events, including significant World War Two battles.  He drove the then Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, later Sir Anthony, the Prime Minister involved in the Suez Crisis. He was just one of many significant people who crossed paths with Jim. Also during the Second World War, Bob's squadron wrote airforce history as they flew their fighter planes through the valleys and across the ranges of New Guinea.

Stories of post war migration such as that told by Ria and Alec touches on the social conditions in post war Europe and the impact of those conditions on their families. They both give testimony to the desire to provide one's family with a better life, a factor that underlies all migration stories.

John B's story touches on the early years of Australian television - he regularly played his tuba on Graeme Kennedy's In Melbourne Tonight, but he also played at the opening of that magnificent Melbourne institution, the Myer Music Bowl. 

 Eddie won an event at the Stawell Gift meeting a few years, or maybe that was a few decades, ago.

All of these stories are written against the background of the twentieth century, globally, nationally and locally, and each documents a unique part of that turbulent time.

Closer to home, I was surprised by how many stories I heard touched my own experience, or that of my family. Like Carol, my mother moved as a young child to live in Red Cliffs, albeit a couple of decades earlier. 

These stories are important. Not only for the people telling them, but for the people who will be reading them or listening to or viewing them. They are historical documents, whether they are captured in words, images, movement, as an interview.

They mainly sit as social history, but they also tell part of the broader narratives of economic, cultural, political, sporting and military history. 

As a Storycatcher, it has been my privilege to raise my butterfly net, or my gloved hands, and catch some of these inspiring and powerful narratives. 

Thank you for the opportunity."

Susan Pepper. 

* I have not included surnames for reasons of privacy.