Making sense of life with stories

24th October 2008, 1:00am
Raymond Ross


Making sense of life with stories

Storytellers we usually associate with school groups, with traditional arts festivals, with clubs in the back room of a pub or with paying audiences in an arts venue.

But traditional storyteller Tim Porteus has a different kind of client group. They are mostly young men with drug and alcohol-related problems; they often have violent and chaotic backgrounds and lifestyles.

To begin with, the idea of telling or listening to stories is one that is met with a string of colourful expletives at the drop-in centres in Edinburgh and Fife, where Mr Porteus works. But he is not a man easily put off. "The one thing these guys can do is tell a story," he says.

"They have their own, which may be violent and peppered with colourful expressions, reflecting their unsettled lives. But they are telling stories of how life is for them, and their tales perform the same function as any storyteller's - to entertain, inform and create a sense of identity."

Their tales may smack of bravado. Facts are embellished. Exaggeration may be the order of the day. The mundane might be pepped up to make it more interesting and exciting. But all of this involves a degree of imagination and all these characteristics belong, in any case, to the traditional art of storytelling.

"The idea of using stories is not to entrench their social reality, but to help them build a path out of a chaotic lifestyle," says Mr Porteus.

"They are young men, mostly in their twenties, who are traditionally excluded from expressing their view of the world - put down, not listened to and labelled. What we are trying to do is to use storytelling to bridge that gap of exclusion."

Mr Porteus has been a member of the Storytelling Network for some 10 years; but it is in his role as a community education worker with the Bethany Christian Trust that he is putting his skills to work to help these vulnerable young adults.

His work was recognised in September when he was awarded the Nancy and Hamish Turner Bursary Award, set up last year to encourage innovative storytellers. The previous recipient is Botswanan storyteller and educator Kelone Khudu-Peterson, for her pioneering work with children in the Eastern Kalahari.

"The dichotomy in what I'm trying to do is to make positive use of the negative and often violent perception of the world which these young men express," says Mr Porteus. "A lot of these guys don't read or write well, but they need a medium in which to express themselves without feeling inadequate. That's the role storytelling can play - and it's important to remember that storytelling has always been an art form practised by marginalised communities, especially the travellers."

Within a few weeks, after countering the negatives (from distrust to scorn), Mr Porteus realised he was getting somewhere when six of the men were waiting in the drop-in centre to tell their stories. This they did to camera. None liked themselves on replay, but they encouraged each other. One went away to "re-write" his story; another took to putting his down on paper as a poem.

Out of a target group of 30, Mr Porteus hopes around 15 will come to the fore; and he plans to put them in the public arena - live or on video - at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh in the summer.

The objective is to get them interested in the "story" as a form; or, as Mr Porteus puts it, "to get them into storytelling for the hell of it". Visits to the forthcoming Scottish Storytelling Festival are planned.

"I want these young men to use stories to reflect on their lives and society, to link them to other tales, and to learn from them," he says. "I want them to feel listened to, perhaps for the first time in their lives. This is storytelling for personal development and social change."


"The guys come into the drop-in, a safe and welcoming place, for a snack and a coffee. Listen in. You'll get tales of what happened at the weekend, what they've all been up to. Get them to tell these stories.

"The response might be 'But it's no' a story - it's true!' and you're already discussing what the nature of storytelling is.

"They'll often quote lines from films which you can use. Or you can build on stories of gangsters, drug runners and violent crimes, which they like because they reflect something in their lives. You try to create a fascination for learning something and you harness that process.

"Urban myths are another fascination that can get them going, get them thinking if it's true or not. They'll compete a bit, maybe wanting to be the centre of attention - like us all - for a while. That's good. That's positive.

"They're jostling now to get their story in and you have the beginnings of a storytelling session. Only, you don't call it that. Not yet!

"The facts of one guy's story might be challenged by another - 'It didnae happen like that: I was there!' You talk about how to make the account more interesting while being true to the tale - the difference between embellishment and lies.

"You're moving now from the content to the form, to the meaning and uses of storytelling. The arguments can be quite animated, quite fierce. They're getting into it. Well into it.

"It's exciting. It's working."

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