Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Writing here and there

Lately I've been writing less here because I've been writing more there. On the PNI Institute blog, that is. So right now, if you want to read the new stuff I'm writing, go there.

Why am I writing more there? This year, in our monthly Zoom calls, we've been going through the purposes of participatory narrative inquiry, as described under "Why work with stories?" in Working with Stories. To prepare for the calls, I've been trying to write blog posts about each of the PNI purposes. I haven't managed to do it every month, but these links show what I've written so far, as well as our discussions.
These calls are yet to come (and hopefully to be written about):
  • November - Connecting people: Community building and maintenance with PNI
  • December - Helping people learn: Knowledge management and organizational learning with PNI
  • January - Enlightening people: Advocacy and education with PNI
  • February - Combinations of purposes
I'll post those links here later (or you could just go and look at the blog there). Calls take place at 2pm New York time on the second Wednesday of each month, here. Everyone is welcome to join us, and calls are recorded and posted as well.

Since my method in writing these posts is to just sit and wait for a while to see what ideas rise to the surface, the posts are starting to form a sort of update to WWS, in the sense of new things I've been thinking about lately with regard to the uses of PNI. So if you are interested to see where PNI is going right now, these posts and discussions might be interesting to you.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Story the Future summit Sept 10-30

So a while ago I got an invitation from David Hutchens, who wrote Circle of the 9 Muses, to take part in an online summit he and some others were putting together on the future of story work. It seemed like a good thing, so I said yes. Then he asked me to tell you about the summit, so I said yes to that too. So here I am telling you.

The summit is called Story the Future and it runs from September 10 to 30. In the main it consists of some 30+ half-hour interviews with people doing a wide range of story work. My intuition is that every one of these interviews will be worth watching. I plan to watch as many as I can. If you are just getting started with story, or if you have been in the field for a while and feel a need to branch out and learn more about what the rest of the world is doing, this seems like a great opportunity.

There are also "live events" planned for each week (these seem like they will be Zoom conversations). I plan to attend some of those as well.

Here's a blurb:
Story the Future is a three-week online summit filled with dialogue, inspiration, and ideas participants can put to work right away to "story the future". The Summit is a collection of half-hour interviews discussing a range of facets around storytelling and story work. New interviews will be coming out daily, jam-packed with fresh ideas, ways to work with story and insights into how story is working in, and changing, the world. ... The intention of this Summit is to share stimulating new ways of looking at story and story work, connect the international field of people interested in story and help all of us deepen our practice.
Seems like a good idea, right? I think so. Be aware that each interview will only be available for a few days (unless you buy the "All-Access Pass"), so choose what you want to see, and pay attention to the dates on the schedule.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Works in progress

This is not a here's-something-to-think-about blog post; it's a why-hasn't-she-been-posting-anything blog post. Just so you know going in.

Store-bought stories (yes, still) 

In between other things, I've been working towards finishing the book of essays I started writing almost ten years ago about how we don't tell everyday stories as much as we used to. Its working title is (still) Store-Bought Stories: Essays on the Interplay between Commercial and Conversational Storytelling. It will include the fifteen or so essays I've already written on this blog on the topic, plus a few more I'm working on now.

I originally thought the essay on The Neverending Story would be the last essay in the book. But after I finished that essay, I realized that the book would be inadequate without three more essays:
  1. a reality check, to see if things really have changed (I call this the "Am I Wrong" chapter);
  2. a better look around for hopeful signs of positive change ("Points of Light"); and 
  3. advice for those who want to keep things moving in the right direction ("Manifesto").
This past winter, I started working on the "Am I Wrong" chapter. I began, as I always do, by looking around for things I could read to answer the question. When the number of "must read" books reached fifty, I forced myself to stop looking and start reading.

At this moment I am fifteen books into the pile, and two things have happened.

First, the "Am I Wrong?" chapter is now called "I Am So Very Much Not Wrong." I went looking for evidence that the trend I thought I saw was real, and I found abundant evidence, overflowing evidence. Nobody has written a book specifically about the decline in everyday story sharing, but there are hints and pieces of the trend littered all over the place, in many books on history, culture, and criticism. It's definitely a thing.

Second, when I hit the fifteen-book mark, my brain could hold no more, and I had to stop reading for a while and start gathering my thoughts together. I now have an outline with the major points of the essay, along with many quotes gathered from the books I've read so far. My plan is to finish typing these quotes, then read the other fifteen books in this particular pile, then type those quotes into the outline, and finally flesh out the writing in each section.

(If you're curious about the typing-in-quotes thing: I only use about a tenth of the quotes I type in, but I like to read over each set of related quotes in one place to get my thoughts together for that section. It's too hard to remember points and arguments I found scattered across dozens of books. I don't know if other people do this, but I depend on it. In the distant past, I copied excerpts by hand onto index cards, then sorted and resorted them as I worked out the structure of the writing. Now I type everything into a document on the computer. Typing each quote helps me think through the issues. I often read the quotes out loud as I type them, and I usually add some notes to them as well. I typed in hundreds of quotes for Working with Stories, and I throw together a few dozen for every essay I write. That's all in case you want to write non-fiction and you're wondering how people do it.)

The particular pile of thirty books I am halfway through stops just before the internet started, because one of the things that became clear early on was that I was going to have to treat the internet as a step change in story sharing. The internet-age books (another ten or so, plus some essays and articles too recent to have solidified into books) will support their own chapter (so yes, that's four chapters left to write). The ten books left after that are on a variety of topics like community organizing, celebrity culture, and fan fiction. I also pulled twenty of my older books off my shelves for a quick skim, to make sure I'm not forgetting some critical insight.

So that's what I have been up to. To motivate myself to tackle these great piles of books, I designed a cover for the Store-Bought Stories book a few months ago. I was going to show it to you! But some time went by, and now I hate it with a vengeance. That's a good sign. I'll probably take another break from research to redesign it soon. Pretending the book is real helps me keep working on it.

I also wrote a table of contents and a whole first chapter for a popular book whose goal would be to help people reskill themselves (and their families and communities) in story sharing. I ended up hating that attempt as well. I'm not sure a popular book wants to be written on that subject (or wants to be written by me). I decided to put that project on hold until this book is finished and see how I feel about it later.

If you are interested in the topic of Store-Bought Stories, let's talk. I am still looking for a few more people to read drafts of the book and send feedback (when I'm ready for that). I plan to post the rest of the essays here, as I have posted all of the book's essays so far. But I will still need some volunteers to read the book as a whole, for proofreading and to check my final editing and presentation.

Other works in progress

So what else is happening? Our monthly Zoom calls at the PNI Institute are going well. We are in the middle of a series of calls going through the uses of participatory narrative inquiry for all of the goals set out in Working with Stories (discovering insights, catching emerging trends, making decisions, generating ideas, resolving conflicts, connecting people). The calls are now being recorded, so you can listen to yours truly and a bunch of other PNI practitioners (and some interested others) talking shop every month.

I have also been writing more blog posts for the site -- one on weak signal detection and one on future planning might be interesting to you. If you'd like to get a monthly digest of posts, you can sign up there to receive our newsletter.

Also, I've been doing a lot of coaching lately. I just love helping people learn to use participatory narrative inquiry. I've been inspired by the courage, curiosity, and imagination shown by the people I've been coaching. Good things are happening in the world, people. Good things.

A taste of what's coming up

I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from my reading so far. Here's one by the great Lewis Mumford, in Technics & Civilization, on the influence of the factory clock (emphasis mine):
[W]hile human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time -- what Bergson calls duration -- is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves only in one direction -- through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death -- and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born. (p. 15)
From Ashby's With Amusement for All on the blind ambition of the mass entertainment industry:
For the entertainment mainstream, the effort to divine public preferences was clearly largely a guessing game. "The much-wooed audience does not make 'demands,'" as a leading student of the media has written. "Public opinion, such as it is, speaks with a vast silence, or with a background yammer that is incessant, indecipherable, contradictory." (p. 438)
From the confusing-yet-essential Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow on what happened to community life:
The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life -- a shimmer of national life -- and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it. People began to lose a sense of what distance was and of what the usefulness of distance might be. . . . Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. (p. 47) 
And finally, the biggest surprise I've found so far has been a pattern I've taken to calling "the escape is the trap." Over and over, mass entertainers have wandered into the discovery that the best way to get our money is to sell us fake versions of the things mass entertainment took away from us. I will have much to say about the many examples of this pattern later, but here is just one example, from Ashby's With Amusement for All:
In 1930 . . . the station manager Glen Rice turned to it [deception] in a desperate effort to help his struggling KPMC in Beverly Hills, California. After "disappearing" for several weeks and stirring speculation that something awful had happened to him, he appeared with a story about how he had gotten lost and stumbled by accident into an unknown "hillbilly" community that refugees from the Arkansas Ozarks had established in the California mountains a century earlier. He claimed that some of the residents were musicians and that he had invited them to perform at KMPC. For several weeks, he milked the story for all it was worth, saying that the hillbillies would arrive soon. On April 6, he excitedly informed the radio audience that they were, indeed, on their way: "Yes, yes, I see them getting off their mules, and there they are. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the hill billies!" The musicians were, in fact, professionals from around the country with considerable experience playing jazz and other kinds of music. ... [T]he label hillbilly tapped the kinds of antiurban, antimodern sentiments that still gripped many Americans. In contrast to the phony and artificial, the mythical hill country supposedly represented what was homemade, authentic, traditional, unpretentious, and rooted. (p. 246)
In other words, our disdain for the phony and artificial has been routinely played upon to sell us the phony and artificial. Our new world of store-bought stories, says George W. S. Trow, "hasn't anything to do with a human being as a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being as a human being is weak and willing to be fooled: the human being's eagerness to perceive as warm something that is cold, for instance; his eagerness to be a part of what one cannot be a part of, to love what cannot be loved."

Now that's something to think about.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Underbutterflies are free

About a year ago I cleaned up my old "butterflies" blog post (one of the most popular) and submitted it to the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems. After acceptance, review, and revision, the journal volume is now out, and you can read and download the improved version of the paper (or read the stand-alone PDF version here). Hope you like it!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mail bag: On transcribing storytelling

I'm deep in some intense (and fascinating) reading as I work on the last essays in the "Store Bought Stories" book. But the blog is hungry, so I went looking in my mail bag again. Here's an anonymized (names and details changed) excerpt from some emails I sent recently to somebody who was working on transcribing storytelling in some interviews. (I wrote about the topic of transcription in WWS as well, on page 183.) Thank you, correspondent, for asking such useful questions!

Sentences in speech and print

When you are listening to a person talk, you can hear their sentences in the tones and pauses they use as they speak. However, in a transcript, the same string of words that makes sense with the audio information in it can look like nonsense without it.

The truth is, most people do talk in complete sentences -- except for reframings, where they stop and start again with a new phrasing -- but you need to listen to how each person communicates the pauses (commas) and endings (periods) of their thoughts. For example, I could hear the endings in Melanie's sentences, but only after listening for a while to her style of talking. Her pauses and sentence endings are brief, but they are there, and you can help people "hear" them by rendering them in the transcribed text. It may seem like you are "improving" Melanie's words when you add capitalization and punctuation to them, but you want the people who read her stories to be able to make sense of them, and for that they need complete sentences.


When people change direction in the middle of a sentence -- as they do, often -- it's best to show this in your transcript with dashes, because that's how people express such reframings in print (like I just did). Every time a person reframes a thought, if the transcript shows a break and restart, people will understand what they meant by it. Without such markings, people tend to spend a lot of time puzzling out what people meant by strings of words that don't make sense together.

Also, when a person leaves out a word that is obvious when you hear the audio but can't be guessed at without it, it's fine to add that word in [square brackets] as a clarifying comment. For example, in the first sentence of your transcript, you and I both know that Melanie is referring to a question she was asked before the recording started. But the person reading the story won't understand that. So it's okay to add in that context to help people understand what she meant.

I try to leave it in when people reframe the way they are telling a story, because it says something about the story. However, if somebody repeats a word just because they said the wrong word and then corrected themselves, you don't need to keep that in.

For example, at one point Melanie said,
"we can’t offer a whole lot of support for one side of the purchaser of the purchase in advance"
As text, that makes no sense at all. But listening to the audio, I can hear this:
"We can't offer a whole lot of support for one side of the purchaser -- [backtracking, correction] of the purchase -- in advance"
Though in that case I would just remove the backtracking part (because she didn't mean to say "purchaser") and make it:
We can't offer a whole lot of support for one side of the purchase in advance"
My rule is, if repetititions and reframings add to the understanding of the story, keep them in. If they don't add anything, leave them out. For example, when Melanie said "even the short term income, outcome was not his favorite" -- you could just render this as "even the short term outcome was not his favorite," because her saying "income" was just a slip of the tongue.

Filler words

With "ums" and "ahs" ... when there are few of them I keep them all, but when there a lot of them I tend to remove them all. Some people say only a few, but some people say so many of them that the transcript gets hard to read. In this case, if you transcribed each um or ah Melanie said during those few minutes, you would have dozens of them. I'd rather remove them all than make arbitrary decisions about which ones to keep. The same thing goes for when people simply say the same word or phrase over again, like when she said "of the, of the" (meaning nothing but "I haven't yet thought of what to say next").

Sometimes I will take out a repetitive thing somebody said, then read the story and see if it's better (easier to understand, more authentic, more personable) with or without it. There's a balance: if you remove all of the hesitations and repetitions it doesn't sound like a person talking, but if you leave in too many it's hard to find the story in the mess. The goal of transcribing stories is not to create a perfect record (as in a court case) but to get across what the storyteller meant by the story -- and what the story meant to them.
 Listen until it sounds the same

What I usually do when transcribing stories is, I listen to one sentence at a time, then I pause the audio and type that sentence. Then, when I get to the point where it sounds like a paragraph break should go (because that thought has been completed), I run back the recording and listen to the audio again while reading what I've typed. Wherever what I've written doesn't capture what they are saying, I fix it. I do this until I'm sure that what they said -- and what they seemed to mean by what they said -- is captured enough that I can take the audio away and it still "sounds" the same. Sometimes I will listen to the whole story again after I've finished transcribing, because I understand things about the story once I've heard the whole thing that I didn't understand after the first few sentences.

That sounds like a lot of hassle, but it does make a big difference in getting stories that people can read, understand, and use. A little attention to this up front can make a big difference in how useful your stories are to the people who will be using them later on.

Transcription and social signals

When I make a transcription of a person telling a story, I have three goals in mind. My test is that any random person reading the transcription should be able to tell me:
  1. what happened in the story
  2. how the storyteller felt about what happened in the story
  3. how they themselves feel about 1 and 2
Getting down every word the storyteller said can reduce the transcription's ability to meet the first goal. Without auditory information about tone and pitch and volume, people have to do a lot of work to make sense of text that doesn't hold together into complete sentences with coherent thoughts. Dashes to indicate quick turns in the meaning of the text can help, but sometimes verbatim text is such a word salad that you just have to remove some words.

On the other hand, getting down every word the storyteller said improves the transcript's ability to support goals 2 and 3. That's because in a spoken conversation, hesitations, filler words (like "like" and "you know), and repetitions serve a purpose. When people feel uncertain about something they're saying, they hesitate and add filler words and repeat themselves. When they feel confident about something, or want to indicate that something is important to them, they speak more coherently and completely. People know this and pick up on these differences and use them to figure out people's motivations. That's why it's important to include some of the hesitations and repetitions we hear when we transcribe stories, because we're trying to preserve the social signals in the way the story was told.

So it's a balance. I base my decisions on what to keep in and leave out on what I can hear of intent in the speaker's voice. Sometimes you can tell that somebody is repeating themselves just because their thoughts are colliding with each other. Like that time when Melanie accidentally said "pace" instead of "place," and she corrected herself. That sort of editing-while-talking I tend to leave out, because it's not socially meaningful.

But when repetitions and hesitations seem to have social meaning, I leave that stuff in. An example is when Melanie said,
"So he understood, even though the short term outcome was not his favorite, he really felt -- and I was surprised and really happy with that -- really felt that the experience had been well worthwhile."
In that case she put a sentence right into the middle of another sentence. The meaning of her interjection was clear. It was: "This is a thing I need to tell you, and it's so important that I will interject it into the middle of another sentence to make sure you know it." That's the kind of social signal I try to leave in.

And of course there are borderline cases. When Melanie said,
"the folks at the -- what’s the purchasing part? I forgot the -- [Interviewer: Procurement Department] -- Procurement Department, yeah."
I was thinking of taking that reframing out, because it was just Melanie forgetting a term. But then I was like, well, maybe her forgetting that term would be important socially to the person reading the transcription. So I left it in.

I don't think any two people could possibly write the same transcription from the same speech recording, but as long as they are both keeping the goals of the transcription in mind, both versions should be useful. As long as people can make sense of what they read and make some pretty good guesses as to what the storyteller meant and how they themselves feel, it's a good transcription.