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What I took away from The Story 2016

The Story 2016 has ended, but a number of thoughts seeded by the speakers stayed in my mind.

When people passionate about words write, you can hear the emotion in the air.

That’s how I felt when I listened to poet, journalist, musician and ex-lawyer Musa Okwonga as he spoke about freedom of expression in the age of social media. He compared his experience as a black LGBT person, to the experience of women online: ‘fury against women is too often the lava that runs under the surface of social media’. He spoke about journalists being restricted from writing what they really think, and I was cast back to recent events in India, where a student leader was arrested on charges of sedition, amongst many many other acts by the administration against journalists in the country in recent times. As Mr. Okwonga said, ‘This is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to cover the most pressing issues of our time’. He ended with a rallying cry for us: the only way out is to ‘expose those wounds and write even more’.

Science writer Gaia Vince took us on a journey of climate change, and I learnt about Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer, who is creating artificial glaciers in Ladakh to act as a source of water in an otherwise arid area. She also spoke about the importance of integrating migrants into the city instead of leaving them to their own devices: Rio’s gondolas link favelas with more prosperous areas, instead of ignoring them, for example.

Documentarist and photographer Daniel Meadows presented the fruits of his decades-long journey to capture England on film, starting in the 1970s. His work is a thing of beauty.

I have now got on my agenda one more to-do: visit the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Electronic Superhighway exhibit. Two of the speakers, academics Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, took us through their larger body of art work and mentioned that one of their projects is currently on show there. It was amusing: spam emails as art. I’m sure there are plenty of us who have laughed at the inanity of some of the emails we get. As the speakers said, ‘The craft that goes into making a successful spam email is a honed skill’.

Cartoonist C.Spike Trotman warned us off the nostalgia for the old days of the internet. Her entire career, and that of many like her (us), has been built thanks to the web, which gave them the opportunity to side-step publishing houses and middlemen and go straight to their fans. She spoke about her journey over the past decade or so, where she was warned by some of the then-famous cartoonists not to back platforms like Kickstarter as it was akin to destroying their livelihoods. I felt her pain when she talked about the ‘disappointment of meeting your heroes’ – when they didn’t believe in the Now as much as she did, and were fearful for their careers over what they could learn from the increased connections they were able to make. That’s no good today, because really you can run but you can’t hide from the internet anymore if you make work for (what you’d want to be) a public audience. She closed with ‘Don’t be that person who pines for 5 years ago, because 5 years ago was terrible. I was there.’

TV presenter, writer and actor Dallas Campbell brought a real astronaut’s suit, opened it up with drama on the stage, and told us about how he’d always wanted to be one – and how the suit was constructed. It was very cinematic, the energy that went into his talk – I can imagine watching it on the BBC!

Born N’Bread was a nice wake-up call for those of us who think the internet is the be-all and end-all. In as much as C.Spike Trotman advocated for the Internet of Now, Born N’Bread, a collective of young London women, advocated for the Print of Today also. Their zine exists only in physical form, though they have a wide social footprint as a team and as a brand. Also – I’m clearly quite old. Witness: ‘The word ‘blog’ irritates me. We’re not that pretentious!’ Said tongue-in-cheek, but amusing nonetheless!

Fans of The Retronaut would have been as excited as I was to see Wolfgang Wilder speak. He took us through his childhood, his inspiration for the Retronaut and its journey to becoming a part of Mashable. The premise of the Retronaut, the ‘messing with your mind’ aspect of photos that take you through a time machine, is pretty cool, and its success is a wonderful thing.

Hannah Nicklin was a star turn, you had to be there to understand the combined power of theatre + words + a heightened sense of self-awareness as she questioned her ‘arrogance’ as a writer (it is an important question for all writers to ask).

Helen Zaltzman, Jamie Byng and James Ball were all equally strong in what they had to say, whether through comedy (Zaltzman), a stream of thinking (Byng, on his experiences at the Calais refugee camps) or the examination of a process (James Ball, about his work at the Guardian on the Snowden files). Leila Johnston held the proceedings together very artfully!

I don’t think it is by any stretch of imagination easy to put together a conference. Harder to make it around a theme as open to interpretation as storytelling. And harder still to ensure a level of quality from 100% of the speakers (this, I assure you, is a rarity) – making The Story that rare diamond amongst the rough of conferences. I doff my hat to Matt Locke, Hugh Garry and the team at Storythings and thank them for their effort – it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I’ll close this by quoting Auden via Jamie Byng, the last talk of the day: ‘How can I know what I think unless I see what I say?’ So, see what you say, and know what you think, by learning more about people’s experiences. The Story is a good start.

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