The World Storytelling Café asked me to record a 45 minute set of stories to put up on their site. I’m flattered and slightly hesitant. 45 minutes? Recorded? Can’t I do it live? Although we have agreed I’ll do a live sharing session, with stories, songs and discussion as part of Duncan project, they wanted me to do a straight storytelling recorded set first.
Well, I have been doing more and more online – getting used to Zoom, seeing myself on screen – and my experience of telling live online has been much better than I thought it would be! I love that I really can still feel the audience there – feel the umbrella of shared space created in telling a story, jointly creating the story between storyteller and listener to make a shared world. I didn’t think it would happen – but it does.
So, here is the next challenge – recording rather than live. At first, I decided not to think too much about it, to just sit at the computer and get on with it. I know the more I think about it, the more I’ll get in a tizzwazz. It will turn into a big thing and I’ll make a pig’s ear of it. Then almost instantly, serendipitously, into my inbox came an invitation from Beyond the Border to a free ‘how to record your story’ webinar. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so up I signed and put off recording my WSC set until after the webinar.
I’m not sure the webinar was a good or a bad thing for me.
I think I’ve got the lighting set up fairly well in my shed. I prop the computer up on top of a cardboard box and my weightiest tome of World Mythology so I’m at eye level with the webcam and you don’t have to look up my nose. I like my background, even if everyone watching is going to play spot the book with bookshelves behind me. My recording plan was to sit at the computer and try to do the whole thing in one take.
Then I took part in the webinar.
The recommendations were the exact opposite of what I had planned.
Don’t use your computer, use your phone instead – the camera is better, it’s much easier to manoeuvre and to get a good shot of you.
Don’t film inside if you can help it – go outside. Wherever you are, there is bound to be extraneous noise. Outside, the noise is likely to be more natural and easier for human ears to filter out. Inside sounds that you barely notice in real life can be really distracting – for example the hum of a fridge or a computer.
That gave me plenty to think about. After all, I live in a beautiful place. And I regularly lead storywalks. If I’m going to do a video, it needs to be one on one – I want it to be informal, friendly and intimate – not big and showy, so a storywalk would be perfect.
I laid my plans. The weather was on my side, it’s been such a glorious spring. One of our daily allowed exercise walks has been to go to Sadler’s Wood. It’s magical at the moment. The bluebells are in their full glory – a proper blue carpet. The stitchwort is going over, but everywhere there are clumps of delicate wood anemones. There is archangel and alkanes, mossy tree roots with intriguing holes, last year’s beech nuts and acorns strewn underfoot. Overhead the air is alive with darting shapes and incessant birdsong. From the top of the hill you look down on the wood and the oaks that guard the entrance are in that first burst of new growth, an almost fluorescent lime green. The birdsong spills out of the wood and gradually gets louder as you approach, until you enter the wood and the song is all around you. There are rumours of a cuckoo nearby, though I haven’t heard it yet. Wouldn’t that be amazing? To tell spring stories and have a cuckoo on the tape, or a deer come quietly stepping behind me half-way through a story.
I set off on my own, with my phone and without children for a proper recce. It went pretty well though I made two discoveries.
1 – you can’t change camera direction halfway through a video. That is, you can’t introduce a beautiful view in selfie mode, then change the direction to show the view and tell people what they are looking at.
2 – tree branches are not designed for holding phones. The way they grow is the exact opposite angle to the way you need them to be to prop a phone up towards you. This is why you do a recce. The forecast is good for tomorrow, I have a tripod at home I can bring and eldest daughter is coming to film me in exchange for chocolate.
The weather is perfect, but the forecast says showers are likely (it didn’t say that yesterday), so it would be a good idea to get going asap.
Eldest daughter is concerned how long filming will take as she has deadlines at the end of the day and is worried enough to forgo the promised chocolate. Bread collection is a day early due to the bank holiday, so instead of leaving at 9.30am, I wait, pick up the bread at 11am, take it home to family and finally set off up the hill to film.
Filming on your own is hard. I try to do an introduction at the bottom of the hill. There’s a lovely green lane that leads up the hill. My arms aren’t long enough to get me in shot properly and I’m not used to holding the phone in landscape mode, it’s much more unnatural than portrait. I pick the phone up and try again. It’s the first bit of the walk, so it needs to have me in it, but then you don’t get the view of the lovely green lane.
At the top of the hill, I can’t resist. From up here, you can see lots of Shropshire story sites. It feels like being on top of the world. Bishops Castle nestles at the bottom of the hill. Turning in a circle, there is the long brown wall of a hill that is the Long Mynd where Wild Edric roams in the shape of a black dog with fiery red eyes. Continuing anti-clockwise, you can just see The Stiperstones and The Devil’s Chair – I can see it today, which means the Devil’s not sat upon his chair, he’s only there when it’s shrouded in mist. Then comes Corndon Hill, blocking out Stapely Hill and Mitchell’s Fold, the stone circle that pens in the witch who milked the fairy cow dry. My eyes pass over the border, into Wales to see Roundton Hill and then, just down the hillside is Sadler’s Wood.
In hindsight, announcing my intention to tell stories about the fair folk at the threshold of the wood was probably a mistake.
I walked into the wood and while it was still full of birdsong, the wind was carrying some sort of work sound that involved shearing through resistant screaming metal. It would stop for few moments, just long enough to think I might be able to start recording, only to then start up again. I left the place I’d earmarked the day before and wandered through the wood, looking for somewhere where the sound might be less intrusive and considering whether to give the whole thing up as a bad job.
At last the noise faded and I made my way back to the original spot. I found a helpful tree, wrapped my gorilla tripod grip around it and eventually got it in about the right place to see my face in the small screen. The problem with bluebell woods is that all the local ones are on hillsides, so it did mean that my hamstrings were well stretched while telling a story to the camera.
Then it started to rain. Not heavily, but enough to coat everything in a fine delicate film of dampness. Then the sun came back out. So did the midges and other various species of biting things. There were no lovely deer to appear mysteriously in the dappled sunlight. They were all too busy hiding from the biting things. I sighed and carried on.
While I was starting to mightily regret the whole idea of recording outside, I battled on and suddenly there are was a perceptible shift. I’ve always walked to practise stories. I’ve always told stories to the trees and in rhythm with my feet to get into the world, rhythm and vision of a story. I forgot about pining for an audience at the other end of the camera and told to the place and the trees. The story began to breath and expand around me. Trees listen in their own rhythm. Stories connect. The act of telling a story is an act of connection and hope. Time is both endless and irrelevant in a story – the story exists in the moment and always. In some ways it doesn’t matter whether a story is recorded – you are still telling it live, the storyteller and listener exist in the story at the same moment, even if they come to the story from different points in time. The tapes that I have been listening to of Duncan are a time machine. We exist and share the same moment as the story unfolds, we both walk by Jack’s side, no matter that the telling and the listening are 40 years apart. I put away my doubts and technical worries. Telling the story of Auld Cruvie, beneath oak branches, surrounded by bluebells, I was with Jack beneath the Auld Cruvie in the story, I was with Stanley Robertson listening to the story beneath Auld Cruvie and beneath the Oak King of my own wood reaching out across the world to this amazing new network of storytellers and story-listeners that suddenly feel so close as we join up online during lockdown. Like the bluebells all around, the stories are fragile, perfect, ephemeral and eternal. They bloom gloriously for a short moment and are gone, but they return in their cycle each year, recreating spring again and again.
I recorded until my phone battery ran out…
At last I arrived home, itchy with insect bites; gifts from the trees in strange places – leaves down my back and in my hair, damp from the rain and my hair wild from getting wet and drying again. I watched the recordings. The storywalk idea was out. The wind overpowered the sound from all the recordings apart from those in the wood. I hadn’t realised how scraggy my hair looked after the rain.
I find it hard to be objective about recordings. I can accept that live is what it is. It is the feeling created in the moment, only meant to be watched once. I expect recorded to be perfect, but of course, it never will be. Nothing ever is. And if you try too hard for perfection, you lose the spark. I need to put a lot of work in on the technical side – at the moment it’s getting in the way, distracting from the storytelling instead of supporting it. And yet, the stories are the stories. The joy and fun of them is still there. If I wait until I am technical whizz, I’ll never do anything! This is a starting point, rather than an end. So, with trepidation, I have pressed ‘send’. See what you think. https://worldstorytellingcafe.com/amy-douglas/
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