Day one: 7 March 2016
I am about to leave the confines of the office for two weeks and take on the role of digital writer in residence to capture my experience of a regional tour of workshops. I have the opportunity to see if my passion for writing and storytelling are enough to transport me from town to town, building an audience and a dynamic new narrative along the way. I always wanted to live an itinerant life and working in the arts offers that opportunity.
We have promised an engaging and valuable cultural experience to our partners and now I have to deliver, move on and deliver again. It’s a thrilling prospect for me. I love to travel, am developing a real passion for the South Australian landscape. The challenge of arriving somewhere new and engaging with a complex mix of people to create new writing is something I have always considered a gift.
Tomorrow, I begin my two week journey to Ceduna stopping at eight locations along the way to work with writers, local creative practitioners, young people and a others community members to excite them about the power of literature. These ‘Dynamic Literature’ workshops employ all the techniques that I have developed/borrowed/created out of desperation to work with participants who lack confidence or motivation. I have done a lot of work with people who have fallen out of love with writing or – even worse – have never considered it a means of expression available to them. I use play, informal forms, performance, and lateral thinking to reflect every participant’s existing sophistication and skill with language. I will help participants to develop new poems and stories, each as individual as the person who authors them. I will also pass on techniques so that workshop participants can take these and apply them to their own practice. It would be wonderful to think that we are developing the participatory (or community) literature sector and arming attendees to continue to spread the word.
The other strand of activity I will be undertaking is the development of an ever-evolving local and global story, or “Jack Tales“. Jack Tales are a kind of moving and mobile folk tale, rooted in ancient storytelling traditions. With a day to go before I deliver the first workshop, I thought it might be good practice to refresh myself with a few well-known stories so I can resurrect the spirit of Jack before I face my first room full of participants. In my pre-reading, I was quickly reminded why Jack is such a useful character, especially as I try to organise a coherent journey and schedule.
Jack is beautifully lazy. The dynamic hero of myth and Hollywood blockbuster has no place in Jack’s story. (Think: ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski or Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter House 5.) Jack is shaped by events, a hostage to dumb luck. He ambles through his tale making mistakes, taking advantage, or stumbling into drama.
Jack’s morality is quite fluid. He is never hampered by accepted norms of the day and he can’t even be described as a romantic. Jack happily marries a dull, ugly princess for money and considers this his ‘happy ending.’ Jack is quite often stupid; his good fortune a product of incredible luck or coincidence. Jack prospers because he takes his chances, makes people laugh and is always willing to take risks.
I like the notion of the everyday hero and Jack is certainly this. The Jack of some of the early stories had a fluid gender. In some of the more epic tales, he would give birth to children, marry a nobleman or even sometime adopt animal form. Some parts of the story stay the same: Jack always starts a story in poverty, usually in a rural setting, and usually the child of a single parent; he then adopts a less than virtuous route on the path to improve his lot.
The idea of writing this blog while touring the Jack Tales adds a sharp contrast to the initial function of these stories. Jack Tales predate technology; they also predate the written word. The stories were told to and by people who didn’t write. Small rural communities shared their story with each other through this form. Storytellers were part creative, part envoy, travelling with the hopes and fears of the previous village and only ever as good as their last show. Stories had to entertain but, more than that, they had to capture a distinct voice to help people understand each other at a time when communication was only possible within relatively small geographic space.
The tales are always coloured by the geography of their telling and this is the reason for a South Australian tour. As part of the process, each site will experience a telling and then retelling of the form that reflects that particular community. Over the next two weeks I hope to be sharing some of these bespoke constructions as part of this blog and, alongside that, my experience of travelling from location to location charting the differences and similarities in their ways of storytelling.
I love the idea of capturing voice. I love the idea of writing stories, living with them as I move on to the next venue and watching them morph and bend and blossom. Of course, today this kind of storytelling is now all possible via technology and communities of interest continually share stories in digital forms, but the romance of the physical journey draws me to a project like this. The chance to travel and advocate for literature, stories, ideas and imagination will always be my irresistible proposition.
I feel a bit of an affinity with Jack. I started out in England a while ago and have been influenced by the cultures I moved through and I’m certainly not brave, or dynamic, or particularly smart, but I do like risk. I also am very excited about the idea of living with (and like!) Jack for a while. — David
This is a SA Writers Centre project that will take place on the traditional lands of a number of Aboriginal nations in South Australia. We acknowledge Aboriginal people’s ongoing relationship and spiritual connection with the land, and pay our respects to their Elders past and present.
Supported by Arts South Australia’s Community Arts and Cultural Development project fund