Feast on Universally Themed Stories

Are stories universal? Literature studies will tell you they are. They will tell you there are a finite number of plots that most stories fit into. In fact, Douglas McPherson in Writers’  Forum #190, says that estimates of plot types range from 36 to seven, to as few as two. ZP Dala, a South African writer from KwaZulu-Natal, explains further that the universal nature of stories is what connects people ‘across oceans or across a kitchen table in a commonality that fosters a sense of belonging.’ (The Mercury, 12 September 2017, p. 5).

A fellow movie lover and I watched a foreign language film together a few years ago. It was in Serbian or Croatian or Czechoslovakian, I can’t remember which. The story followed the lives of a poor couple who eked out an existence in a run-down, snowbound village. They lived hand to mouth, so much so that when the wife became sick the husband simply sold his car to pay for her medical expenses. Without this intervention the woman may not have survived. Universal themes here included poverty and love – storylines also found in, for example, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and many others.

Footloose by The Young Performers. Source: Publicity Matters

What really underscored the universal nature of this film was that the disc sent to the cinema house arrived without subtitles. That’s right, my friend and I watched the whole thing without understanding a single word of the dialogue. I’ve never forgotten that film. Even though my friend unhelpfully told me she couldn’t remember the title because there were no subtitles, the story itself, regardless of language, made such an impression on me. A story of commitment regardless of struggle.

Another story which I have long enjoyed is that of Footloose – the tale of a boy who can’t stop dancing and inspires a town of miserable people to enjoy themselves again. I saw the original in 1984, the remake in 2011, and just last week the stage play by The Young Performers. It was lovely. A story with a similar theme is the 2015 Swedish film Heaven on Earth. In this tale (which I watched with subtitles) against all odds a woman revitalises a town and its church minister and tiny congregation by forming a choir to sing Handel’s Messiah.

Although my limited experience is hardly evidence of the universal nature of stories, this small sample certainly seems to support the notion. A feast of tales indeed.

Writing in a Third Place

So as I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop about 2km from my home office. I decided to try out the writing-in-a-coffee-shop thing to see what it’s like. Author and UK resident, Phil Barrington, says in Writers’ Forum (July 2017) that he is ‘one of those coffee-shop writers. A walking cliche.’ He hogs a table he says ‘while annoying folks with constant finger taps.’ As an author Barrington likes this type of venue because it makes him feel like he’s going to work. But, unlike working for someone else in an office, he can leave whenever he likes. ‘Sociologists,’ explains Barrington ‘call this middle ground between home and office a “third place”.’

Ryan Waters of Rain Africa at I Want My Coffee

For Barrington, writing in public spaces informs his writing (he’s written in hotel lobbies and monasteries too) and it adds to his productivity. I get that. It’s like doing research. But another use for  coffee-shop writers could be meeting up with other writers in this “third place”. I did this recently when I attended a #bloggersmeetup arranged by Susan Deysel (goddess.co.za and everything4less.co.za) in another coffee shop close to my home. Verushka Ramasami (spicegoddess.co.za) and Nelisiwe Zuma (Conversation Lab) spoke to the assembled bloggers about blogging tips while we all flashed away on our mobile devices Instagramming and Facebooking and Tweeting, recording the event live while ensuring multiple follows through clever hashtagging.

A theme which ran through everything from the speakers, to many of the bloggers, to the sponsors (Rain Africa, MUD and Origin Bespoke Stationery), to the coffee shop itself (I Want My Coffee) was authenticity. Being authentic in our writing, in the topics we chose to write about, in our use of resources, in our attitude to the environment. Is ‘being authentic’ a luxury? The domain of the privileged? I’m not sure, but at least trying to be authentic or real sits well with me. And it was great to meet other, real, bloggers in the flesh. As a writer you can achieve a lot with a keyboard and an internet connection. But connecting with real people in a public space is great too.