As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. That place is the stage for the story, the performance space the characters will occupy.
All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?
In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?
But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page, not a world they can enter.
And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.
Is teaching a kind of storytelling?
Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.
If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)
The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to expand on the idea in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.
I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:
How will I handle time?
How will I create space?
This post originally appeared in Time Space Education