Back to reality

11 April 2020

Real stories have made these workshops mean so much more, says Megan Stephens

What does an online workshop mean? To me, the word workshop has always suggested something practical, a process of tangible creation. Something inherently rooted in physical space. A definition which is almost impossible to map onto a virtual festival. 

The online workshops for NSDF 20 have, unsurprisingly, taken a variety of approaches to this unusual task. Some have been structured, strictly following a presentation, and some have been completely derailed by one interesting question. Some have asked for participation – discussion, roleplay, even movement – whilst in others the speakers have commented on how unsettled they are by the eerie bank of muted faces. But the ones I have enjoyed the most I actually wouldn’t define as workshops at all.

They’re stories. Real stories, that is. Personal stories. Stories of the speakers’ lives and experiences. One story in particular has reappeared throughout the week, repeated and yet (of course) different every time. ‘How I got started’. I suppose that’s unsurprising. When you place an industry professional (virtually) in front of a group of young people who want to get to where they are, that’s the one question they’re all going to ask, the one which is really at the root of all the others. How do I be like you? 

But the answer is you don’t. You be like you. Because these stories aren’t offered as instructions, but examples. They aren’t roadmaps, or blueprints we can use to build our own lives. And why would they be? Our stories, whatever shape they take, will be just as personal as the ones we’ve heard this week. And the speakers are recognising that. They’re sharing their experiences with no expectation that ours will be the same. They’re asking us to be ourselves.

So the stories aren’t manuals, but I’ve still picked up some common threads over the week. Firstly, that those starting moments were moments of chance and connection. No one is saying that they started out with some grand plan which was executed perfectly. They just took a step, with no idea what was at the end of the path. And they found someone to help them. Relationships are central: personal, professional, or both. These stories are about people.

They are also about time. These are stories which span ten, twenty years, and are nowhere near to being over. They encourage a slower approach. They encourage us to recognise that this is not a race. These things take time. And sometimes the time is not right. That’s another piece of advice which keeps cropping up. Learn to recognise when what you are doing is not right for you, and don’t be afraid to put it down. Maybe you will pick it up again later (maybe much later) and maybe you won’t. And both are okay.

Are these stories useful? Well, perhaps that’s a dangerous question to ask of any story. But the short answer is yes. They aren’t utilitarian, they don’t offer a clear answer, but they do help. Especially at a time like this, hearing that you don’t have to have your whole future set up, that you never have to have your future set up, is incredibly reassuring. Knowing that things take time, that many projects take years to pull together, is calming. It’s freeing. Trying to map my future has often left me paralysed. But trying to decide what I want to do for now, who I want to be with for now, that seems a lot more manageable. 

There’s a flip side, of course. I am afraid that this approach will let me too far off the hook, that I will begin to rationalise doing nothing under the guise of ‘things take time’. But maybe there’s something in that as well. Maybe I shouldn’t try and tie my whole life to what I thought I wanted when I was twenty-two.  

So, yes, these stories have helped me. Because they have encouraged me to try. I will try things, and trust that I will have the strength to stop them if they are not working. And also to come back to them if I realise, years down the line, that they simply belonged in a different part of my life. I will try things, and they will take me where they take me. And if I stop liking where that is, I will stop. And then I will try again.

And maybe, if I’m very very lucky, one day I will be sat in a (hopefully no longer virtual) room full of young people who are looking to me for answers. And I won’t have them, not really. I won’t have absolutes, or even really any definitive proof that I should be listened to.

But I will have a story.

@noffmag / [email protected] 

Photograph: Beatrice Debney