Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Read/tell/read/write

P1040754Ever feel uninspired? Empty of ideas and spirit? I hope so – but only in the sense that I hope it’s something we can all admit to. Certainly, after a week of editing work, completely uninspired is how I felt about the prospect of writing this blog today. I was convinced I had no stories to tell and nothing to say. 

Then on Thursday evening, I happened to turn up a little piece I’d written a month or two ago in the aftermath of reading a number of books by novelist and short-story writer, Ali Smith. Re-reading my piece, it made me wonder. Could I put that piece of mine on my blog?

Ali Smith has had a big effect on me. There’s daring in how she writes, a willingness to experiment and take risks. So why not, I’ve wondered since Thursday? Why not take the risk? As a storyteller, I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy going on about the powerful link between the oral and the written and how one can inspire the other. So why shouldn’t I confess to a passion for writing? Moreover, as I approach my dotage, I think I love doing it more and more. So here goes – a piece I wrote which is a bit of an experiment in visualisation, more of an idea than a story.

The uses of ‘a’

Come. Stand outside with me on a cold, clear night and I’ll show you how to experience one way to expand your sense of life. Preferably it’s cold because that makes you feel things more deeply. Preferably it’s in a part of the country, like on a small hill in Wales, like in my village of Mathri, where there’s little or no light pollution.

So here you are, standing outside my house on the hill. Now look up. As you do, notice how the sky (it’s a clear sky, remember) begins to draw you ineluctably upwards, the skyscape of stars becoming wider and deeper with every moment of seeing. Already you know from  all those TV programmes about space and the planets and when the Universe started, that what you’re seeing is endless. It’s infinite so far as we humans are able to understand what infinity is.Many apples compress

Now come inside my house to experience another expansion. Take off your coat, presuming you’ve been wearing a coat which I expect you have been since the night is cold. Next, look down at yourself, arms, hands, stomach, legs. No need to take off your clothes. You know very well what’s underneath them and as you think about the naked body, consider the fact that you’re looking at another virtual infinity now, a whole vast universe of cells. Think of the bacteria, the DNA, the chromosomes. You can’t possibly tally the numbers. It’s like the stars, way way beyond ordinary comprehension.

But the other day I thought of a way to see myself as an entity in between those two expansions. It’s a way that involves words. It came into my head when I was coming home on the bus (and perhaps it’s relevant that where I’d just been was the London Library, which has an awful lot of books). As I travelled, I was thinking about those two expansions, the space that surrounds us and the space that’s inside us. Suddenly, mind drifting on the top deck of the bus, I realised there was an idea in there. It excited me. It was an idea for how a writer might come to an understanding of a part in relation to a whole.

This is the idea I had. Try it out. It starts with you taking hold of a book – and now you’ve come inside from the cold, you’re welcome to pick any book from my shelves. Preferably pull out a fat one and, since you’re now in my house in Mathri in your imagination, I probably better warn you to avoid books in Welsh or my plan won’t work. 

Perhaps you’d better sit down in order to do what comes next. In any case, when you’re ready, allow yourself to start leafing through the book you’ve chosen. Doesn’t matter where you go, near the beginning or near the end or anywhere at all in the middle. Just allow the book to settle in an open place at random and then start to scan the lines of print until you find yourself seeing an ‘a’. Yes, I mean a letter ‘a’. Not an ‘a’ that is part of a word and preferably not an ‘a’ at the beginning of a sentence, for then the ‘a’ would be a capital ‘A’ and my exercise might lose its point.

Found one? Well, the one you’ve found is worth thinking about since, whatever the position it’s in, it actually constitutes one whole word in that book you’re holding. As a word, it’s probably not hugely important since if by some proofreading or printing error, this particular word had got left out, it almost certainly wouldn’t much matter, not in terms of the meaning of what is being expressed. Yet that ‘a’ you’ve settled on has not been left out. It is most definitely present and, moreover, it has a part to play in whichever sentence it is in. For a start, it defines whatever word that comes after it as not the only one of its kind in this instance – not the star but a star, not the cell but a cell.

apple-star[1]Moreover the word has some tension to it. It holds the words that appear on either side of it in a relationship with each other – I saw a star, I imagined a cell. So that’s why the particular ‘a’ that you’ve chosen – for of course there was a choice in deciding to settle for whichever one your eye has selected – must be seen as a material part, though tiny, of a much greater whole.

It’s the same with the cells of our body, the same with the stars in the sky. Or look at a map on my computer, this map of the UK for instance. Identify one little hamlet – here we are, Mathri. It’s in Pembrokeshire in South West Wales. Zoom out and this tiny village quickly becomes part of an expanding view. You still know where to find it but even as the view on the screen keeps expanding, you become aware you can see it no longer. Yet you know it’s still there.

So there we are. Or aren’t.  ‘I am big.’ ‘I am small.’ My brain wrestles with how to contain both these vantage points at once. All I can say is that as an ‘a’, there are so many futures for me. A child might practise writing me or an adult type me into a message on Twitter or into a PhD thesis. I could be embedded in an account of a crime or deep in a description of a life-long romance or part of an old legend that  is being recounted. Hooray for ‘a’. We can’t ignore it. We shouldn’t dismiss it. It’s infinitely useful and, I reckon, it’s a way of seeing the potential in life. 


What could I possibly use for illustrations to accompany The Uses of ‘a’? Well, a baby alpaca, a tray of apples and a star inside an apple I hope that will do. 



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