Story Telling - full circle?
review by Elizabeth Mansutti
Annie Bolitho and Mary Hutchinson
Out of the Ordinary: Inventive ways of bringing communities, their stories and audiences to light
Canberra Stories Group 142 pp
ISBN 0 9585270 0 8
There was a time when community writing was viewed as neither 'proper' writing nor 'proper' history, but an odd activity invented as a means of gathering memories or anecdotes from 'ordinary' people about their lives and insights into the social context in which they lived. That view has changed and the cultural significance of written life experience is seen as an important addition to the records that a community leaves. There have always been diaries and letters that have enlivened biographies and histories but these were rarely written by 'ordinary' people. Proof that this form of writing is significant came with the official genre label ethnocartography.
However it seems to me that the methodology described in this book would not qualify under this label for much of the writing is filtered by the scribing process and does not seek the accuracy of audio recorded oral history or the primacy of a collection of written reminiscences.
This book has a timewarp quality. I and many other professional writers and oral history collectors have been doing this kind of work for years in a wide variety of community contexts with outcomes that include books, audio oral histories (with transcripts), plays, artworks such as murals, banners, prints and performances and more recently CDs, CD ROMs and multi media presentations.
In Out of the Ordinary the writers detail the methods they used in a number of community writing projects in Canberra to record, compile, and publish community writing. It is a 'How to..." with many check lists and timelines and examples from the participants and from the organisers' own notebooks. They talk of the writers' voices, the power of the story, its value to the audience, they even mention the dreaded word 'therapy'. There is information on the perils and difficulties of group publishing, with comments on copyright, book design and markets. It is a detailed record of some of the processes used to gather the stories and some reflections on the value for the community that tells and writes and the wider community that may read this writing. The chapter end references are numerous and clear and in an odd way make the need for this book a mystery though perhaps its strength and interest is as a record exploring the documentation of the process.
All cultures have their oral traditions and storytellers who were the keepers of the community's history. In song or story artfully constructed, they used the rhyme and rhythm of language as an aide memoire and the stories were repeated generation after generation. Some of them were written down eventually. The lament then was that in writing it down all that was captured were the words and accessibility was limited to those who could read. What was lost was all the communication cues that the teller used, the tone, pace, pitch and volume of the telling, the gestures, the facial expressions, the pauses and the silences, all of which make up more than half of the listeners' keys to comprehension. Why stay with 'books' and writing on paper as the outcome?
There is also the problem of 'whose' writing is it? I would question the use of the term 'scribing' by the authors when they actually seem to mean noting down some of what the teller says. I question whether it is a valid way to record stories "to consider chunks of meaning rather than a mass of detail." (p. 66) They admit that they "were delighted with the fleeting and fascinating glimpses into people's lives that resulted" (p. 64) (They use the word 'poem' loosely too.) So this form of scribing seems to me to be dangerous and neither respecting the teller nor the tale, and allowing the instant editing of what the person says, perhaps the omission of what the 'scriber' doesn't find fascinating and there's a whiff too of censoring, or at least, changing emphasis.
The recording of oral histories and the accurate transcription of them gives far more that the written text alone. Not to mention the need for other strategies when community members do not have English as their first language.
In a recent oral history project that I did with former management and staff of the Mothers' and Babies' Health Association of SA 1918 - 1981, the outcomes were twenty-seven hours of audio tape, (now transferred to CD), transcriptions of every word they said and a one hour CD version of selected, significant excerpts. No written copy of their stories could ever convey, as their voices do, the dedication, caring and joy of these women, for the mothers and babies they served, nor reveal the depths of the anger and bitterness of some community members when the service was taken over by the government.
As our society searches for its identity and tries to rediscover a notion of community, accessibility to these stories beyond a scrapbook, a note book or a printed publication is desirable. I think community 'writing' now needs to be presented as it really is, as told story, and the answer lies in the use of multimedia technology. It is now increasingly possible to have the audio and video of the telling, restoring gesture and all the other visual cues, and the context further enhanced for the audience by photos and other images, published on the net or on CD ROM.
All we need to do now is come up with a label for this new format, the next step in the full circle of storytelling.
Elizabeth Mansutti, writer, educator and story teller - most recent publication on CD For Mothers and their Children.
Vol 2 No 2 October 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady