Public service - stories that matter
How’s this for a (big hairy) New Year goal; I’m going to make a pilot for a TV drama series about local government.
It’s not meant as a boast, it already fills me with an uncomfortable mixture of dread and excitement that wakes me up at night. But I’m making my intention public because I believe in the power of telling stories to make things happen and I believe I’ll be telling a story that matters.
Of course the chances of a first timer getting this type of script produced are slim to say the least – miniscule, really - but life’s too short. There’s no point waiting for a TV executive to suddenly think, “What we need is the next South Riding!” (that’s the series and film based on the 1930s novel by Winifred Holtby with its brilliant depiction of local government in those long ago days.) So I’m going to crowdfund the project, bring people together and have a go.
As a writer and facilitator of change in organisations, it feels like the next stage in thinking deliberately about the kind of stories I’m telling - and the way I tell ‘em. I was delighted to read and get a mention in Janet Sillet’s LGIU article on Telling Stories; seeing the photos and links to great novels and priceless TV spurred me on and made me itch to chip in to the debate about great stories and social change.
Over the last three years I’ve facilitated hundreds of public servants to develop their own voice and to structure their stories in a way that I hope helps make change possible. So here are three things I think are vital to telling stories that help change the ending.
Grit and hope
Like many people, I found the political environment in 2016 seriously challenging. But I drew hope from seeing first hand the difference people working in public services make; from writing and hearing stories about small and important interventions in people’s lives and the brave work of managers, policy makers and local councillors behind the scenes. I know dark stories are really popular at the moment, but the sort of stories I’m interested in have both light and shade. The hope comes from experience, not a vague belief that everything is or will be okay. The grit comes from reflecting on the harsh realities of the times we are in. As writer Maria Popova says, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety.” It’s a message for life and great story telling.
The best stories have a specificity and an authenticity about them. They are personal and connect at an emotional level. I think readers or viewers need to have the confidence that the storyteller knows about their world and cares about it, otherwise why would they spend time writing about it and why would people read it? That doesn’t mean all we need are stories that are 100% correct. Stories are always filtered by their writers and readers, but they need to be right enough to allow people to suspend their disbelief.
Mixing it up
There are so many different ways to weave a good yarn. I’ve experimented with fiction, from novels to 350 word short, short stories - flash fiction. I think first person opinion or statements can pack a real punch, while writing in the third person gives a measured distance that gives readers space to think themselves into. In 2016 a publication I worked on focused on visual imagery as much as the text that accompanied it with a series of photographs that illustrated the many, fascinating stories of life in the public sector. We asked people to take “shoesies” (www.dawnreeves.com/walk-tall-fantastic-ebook-is-launched) - pictures of their shoes – and the result powerfully represented the diversity and individuality of the public sector.
It’s about bringing a creative approach and mixing it up. So this year I’ll be exploring TV and I’m doing an evening class in narrative poetry. Who knows what a narrative poem about public services could be like - and if anyone will read it? My aim is to keep telling stories that matter in different ways with different endings.
(I’ll also be posting stories randomly from Walk Tall to show you what I mean!)