The Selectivity of Storytelling

What is a story? And more to the point, what makes a good one? Within academia, there is a field called ‘narratology’ that is dedicated to such questions. There is also a growing body of popular works, such as Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell them (2013) by the British script editor and TV producer John Yorke, which consider the meanings, mechanics and social importance of story in more accessible terms. According to Yorke, ‘[s]torytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all – almost – as breathing’ (2013: xviii). He also suggests that in ‘stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs – the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within’ (2013: xviii). While both of these claims may be true, it is also important to acknowledge the selectivity upon which stories depends, which reflects and informs the various power structures within which we live our lives. As the world’s first Professor of Story, Bambo Soyinka, put it in her keynote speech at the NCACE launch event back in 2021: ‘Knowing that data can be formed into different narrative shapes enhances our understanding of complexity, social discourse and diversity’ (2021). If storytelling provides a form through which to give meaning to our lives, it can also alert us to the slippery, often fragmentary nature of this endeavour – particular when the story one wishes to tell contains so many possible perspectives. The journey into the woods is a not always a singular one.

Suffice to say that my role as a Story Associate, which involves telling the story of NCACE, is riven by this tension. Whenever I sit down to write, I flick through the pages and pages of notes I’ve made on materials ranging from interviews to research reports to case studies to Zoom chat-boxes, filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How am I going to do justice to all of this? I wonder. What are the parameters for inclusion and exclusion? Of course, this quandary is as much a privilege as it is a problem; most writers have experienced the agony of writer’s block, when inspiration dries up, and sentences are as patchy as a lunar landscape. My situation, by contrast, is like being caught in a raging current. The river of possibilities, carrying me towards the stars.

They say that when you’re floundering, it’s good to go back to basics. What this means, in practical terms, is: Look for something to cling to – an object; an idea; the very paradigm you eventually want to leave behind. Within the dominant three-act structure of story proposed by Yorke among others, we find a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal, the success or failure of which will leave them invariably altered. The crucial element of this trajectory is change, indexing the development not just of plot, but also character. Theseus escapes the labyrinth. Dorothy realises that “there’s no place like home.” How would this structure look if we mapped it onto NCACE? Is there a narrative throughline – passing through the familiar checkpoints of beginning, middle and end – that holds the organisation together?

There are number of details that could be included in such an account. For instance, the fact that NCACE is the brainchild of Suzie Leighton and Evelyn Wilson, who, in 2020, secured funding from Research England to nurture, promote and showcase Knowledge Exchange within the arts and culture sectors. Or – as a kind of overarching plot arc – that NCACE’s work covers five key areas: Brokerage, Collaboration Support and Networking; Skills and Capacity Development; Evidencing and Impact Development; Showcasing and Communications; and Evaluation. The problem is that the three-act structure tends to focus on the “hero’s journey,” privileging inward-looking transformation and growth over plurality, indeterminacy and entanglement. What about the community and cross-sector dynamism that suffuses all of NCACE’s work? How to account for the myriad stakeholders, connected through interaction and by shared purpose, who together comprise a collective that is far greater than the sum of its parts? Another thing to consider is the fact that NCACE grew out of The Culture Capital Exchange (TCCE), which in turn grew out of the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange (LCACE). It’s not always easy to distinguish between endings and beginnings.

Indeed, NCACE as an organisation is well aware of its own fluidity. As one member of the team has put it, ‘the bigger picture of NCACE, and what we’re achieving. Sometimes that feels like still being a little bit missed’ (qtd. in Spyriadis 2023: 38, emphasis in original). This sentiment is echoed by other members of the team, one of whom describes NCACE as an ‘ongoing conversation’ that is difficult to ‘keep track of’ (qtd. in Spyriadis 2023: 41, emphasis in original), and another who suggests that ‘we can’t really capture’ that conversation, not even by ‘walk[ing] around with a microphone and a recorder’ (qtd. in Spyriadis 2023: 44, emphasis in original). In line with these reflections, I’m quickly coming to learn that the story of NCACE is a complex one. The organisation’s boundaries are at once porous and ever-expanding, encompassing a garden of knowledge exchange that is as rich as it is overwhelming. My job, meanwhile, is less about “capturing” that garden than exploring and narrating some of its less visible hinterlands.

I spent my first couple of months as a Story Associate finding my way through the NCACE Collection: an impressive source of NCACE-originated case studies, research reports, blogs, essays and toolkits geared towards collaboration support and best practice. I’ve since moved onto the organisation’s audio archive (snippets of which I am incorporating into a short story set in space…), as well as conducting interviews with some of those that NCACE has collaborated with. And yet, despite my attempts to order the material in this way, I am tracing an ecosystem that resists linearity. As an example, I recently co-conducted a series of interviews about the Knowledge Exchange Framework narrative statements. The findings from these interviews, particularly with regard to KEF’s imbrication with the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework, led to a deep dive into the publication ‘Careful Collaborations: Ethics and Care in Cultural Knowledge Exchange and Trans-Disciplinary Research’ (Ed. Leighton and Barrett 2024). The question of ‘how we can make our partnerships and collaborations more equitable, ethically thoughtful and mutually beneficial’ (2024: 5) was suddenly catapulted to the front of my mind. From there, I was transported back to an encounter at a recent NCACE Ideas Pool, when a visual artist spoke to me about the inequalities that exist between academia and the creative sphere. The conversation stayed with me on the bus home, soundtracked by Nick Cave singing about particles and the apocalypse. It affected me, I remember thinking. But at which point does affect become Impact?

A model of storytelling that is to my mind better suited to NCACE’s work comes from the sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Building from her premise that early civilization’s most vital invention was not the weapon but rather the container, Le Guin rejects the idea that ‘the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! Hitting its mark’ (1988: 34, emphasis in original). Instead, she proposes that ‘the natural, proper, fitting shape’ of narrative is that of ‘a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us’ (32). While NCACE cannot be reduced to a mere container, its role in shaping and supporting living relationships points to what I think Le Guin is getting at: a more capacious vision of story – a story about stories. Within such a story, you will find heroes, no doubt. But you’ll also find knowledge being co-produced, shared and celebrated, surpassing the aims of any single individual. You might even catch a glimpse of a story associate, finding his own way through the garden of knowledge exchange.

As you will probably have gleaned by this point, my method for navigating this labyrinthine space blends critical and creative writing. On the one hand, I am eager to eke out and foreground the concrete material effects that emerge through NCACE’s work. This includes bringing people and organisations together, promoting best practice and affecting policy change. At the same time, however, I also want to give a sense of the affective, often intangible forms of provision and inspiration that I have witnessed first-hand at NCACE events, and which have also been crucial to my new sense of belonging within both the NCACE team and the sector more widely. Sometimes, the facts alone are simply not enough. It is story – generously and imaginatively conceived – that brings the facts to life.

Dr Josh Weeks, NCACE Story Associate (Josh is part of the StoryArcs Programme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC))

Image credit: Andy Holmes, Unsplash