Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I'm not here right now

In my last post I promised I'd post monthly, and here it is nearly two months later. I've been thinking for weeks about what I should write here, and I keep coming up empty. Today I realized that the best thing I can do is simply explain why I have nothing to tell you. I'm not here right now.

In order to explain what that means, I need to explain my pet theory for how I work. I'm not sure this works for anyone else but me, but it describes my thought processes perfectly, and maybe it will be interesting to you. When I'm working on something, there are always four phases to the work.

During the fattening phase, I increase in intellectual bulk on some topic. I go on journeys through information and knowledge; I pursue intriguing avenues; I bounce back and forth between opposing views; and so on. Some people might call this phase "gathering" or "scanning," but I like the metaphor of puffing up to a larger size on a topic. I grow.

At some point my growth reaches a point of saturation. I find myself greeting old friends more than I do making new acquaintances. My paths grow smooth, and everything feels comfortable and familiar. When I reach this point, I know it is time for the next phase: milling.

During milling I stop working on the topic I have been researching, and I carefully refrain from learning about anything else. I clean my house; I take long walks; I cook more than usual; I knit and weave; I distract myself with non-intellectual (or at least non-complicated) pursuits. The information I fattened on is not out of mind entirely, but it is in the back of my mind, where it can swirl around and recombine in ways of which I am only dimly aware.

At some point during milling I begin to have an urge to do something related to the topic I've been pondering. I might want to write a blog post or article or book, or propose an idea to someone, or collect some data, or run an experiment, or something. But somehow a craving for action takes form. When this happens, I know I have entered the next phase: producing.

During the producing phase I do what looks like work. I write reports, run experiments, analyze data, and so on. This aspect of work will be so familiar to you that I don't need to describe it. In fact, this is the only phase of my work that I find most people are willing to pay me to do. That's a problem, because producing doesn't produce anything if it isn't preceded by fattening and milling. I usually have to ask my clients to be patient when work begins on any project, because I may seem to be doing nothing useful at first.

After some amount of producing, I reach the end of what needs to be done in the project. The proposal or experiment or report has been completed and delivered.

For a long time I thought that producing was the final phase of my thought cycle, but some years ago I realized I was missing something. I call my fourth phase the void. The void is sort of like milling, only it's deep milling, back-burner thinking that places the preceding project within the context of my life's work, my life, and life itself.

You might think of the void as "vacation" or "holidays" -- an optional rest -- but I have come to believe that the void is as much work as any work can be. After a few project cycles without sufficient attention to the void, all of the other phases begin to break down. I went through void starvation (that is, projects back to back with no voids between) when I was doing heavy project work early on in this field. I was becoming less and less effective in my work, and I only realized why this was happening because the combination of parenthood and lulls in paying work forced me to discover the benefits of the void. I've since come to anticipate and actively create the void in order to improve the quality of my work. I don't know if everyone needs the void, but I do.

This is exactly why I can't write a substantive blog post for you right now. I'm deep in the void after finishing the book. For the past six weeks I have purposely thought as little as possible about anything work related. I have answered emails and talked to people as they needed me to, but otherwise I have avoided thinking about work. I will probably soon enter a new fattening phase, and then I will have some relevant blog posts to write. But right now all I can tell you is that I'm not here. Who knows, maybe what I've written to you from the void will have some value to you as you evolve your own pet theory about about how you work.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Go ahead

This is a photograph of one of my favorite coffee mugs. In case you can't see it on the photo, the mug says:
When it is time to be still, then stop;
When it is time to act, go ahead.
I am showing you this particular coffee mug because I've been staring at it for the past six years while I've been working on this book. Every time I have looked at this mug, it has said the same thing to me: "Keep working. It's not time yet."

Now it's time.

The print and Kindle versions of Working with Stories are finally available for purchase on The EPUB and PDF versions are available (with a suggested donation) at (The Kindle version can also be read on the iPad, iPhone, Android, and computers, using Amazon's free Kindle app.)

The part where I thank everybody

Working on this book project has been a long journey. "The book" has been such a constant presence in my life that my heart has seemed sometimes to beat with the sound of "book-book-book-book." At times the book has been a shining beacon, and I have rushed toward it with excitement. At other times the book has seemed a horrible mistake, and I have wandered the dark landscape of doubt.

What has kept me going through all of these years? Two things. First, the unflagging support of my husband and son, who never stopped believing that I could do what I set out to do, even when six months turned into a year and one year turned into six years.

The other thing that kept me going was you. Every time I felt like the world didn't care if I ever finished the book, somebody would send a "thanks for the great book" email and ask me a few questions, and my energy would rise again. Everyone who has ever written to me: without you I could not have finished the book. I am sure of that.

There are those among you who have done much more than others. You know who you are, and you know how much I appreciate your help.

The part where you put up with me going on about boring details (or skim past: your option)

So, what have I done to "the book" since I put out the "finished" version in December?
  • I moved the book from Scrivener to LaTeX. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about LaTeX, book layout, and self-publishing. I met CreateSpace's arcane print requirements.
  • I incorporated suggestions from helpful readers. I rearranged book parts some more. I smoothed transitions between book parts. I removed fifty pages of redundancy, excessive detail, and unnecessary diversion.
  • I added a detailed, embedded index that works in both print and electronic versions. The index was professionally built for me by Ellen Kaplan-Maxfield at, who (if you can believe it) is as obsessive about quality as I am.
  • I wrote a glossary. I designed the book's cover. I met the arcane requirements for publishing in the Kindle and ePub formats.
  • I fixed many errors found by three wonderful proofreaders. I pored over every word of the book in printed proof copies three times, finding many other mistakes. (If you look carefully at the photograph above, you'll see that on top of the stack of proof copies is a sheaf of papers. That's the first proof copy of the book, the one I posted a picture of on this blog. I cut it apart with a jigsaw so I could scan the many changes into the computer!) 
  • I obsessed over every little thing. I did that for quite a while, to be honest.
  • Finally the book told me that it was done, or done enough, for me to stop holding its hand. I stopped obsessing. I took some deep breaths. I uploaded the right files to the right places. I wrote this blog post.
How long is the book? 682 pages. I am very sorry about that. I tried my best to shrink it. As I said above, I removed about fifty pages of redundant and digressive writing. I reduced the white space as much as I dared. I formatted the text in two columns to squeeze more words onto each page. For a while the book got quite a bit shorter. But by the time I added the glossary and index, wrote about fifteen new pages on topics I had realized were not well covered, and increased the figure sizes so you could read the words in them without squinting, the book grew longer again. At least now I think those 682 pages all have to be there. Without an editor to put every sentence on a diet, this is the shortest the book is going to get.

(A side note, to illustrate the sort of "digressive writing" excised from the book: If you could see the back of the mug in the photograph above, you would know that this particular coffee mug and I once had a trifling difference of opinion about when it was time for its handle to fall off. A mutual friend, whose initials are S.G. and whose last name rhymes with "goo," interceded, and we patched things up. )

The part where I beg for help

If you have enjoyed reading the posts on this blog, or if you have read any of the endless pre-publication versions of Working with Stories online, here is what it is now time for you to do.

1. Network

If you like the book, please tell people about it. If you have a blog, I'd appreciate a post. If you are on a mailing list related to stories, you could mention the book on it. Help me tell people about the book.

2. Testify

If you have read the book, please consider posting a review on the book's page. Say what you like! Tell everyone how long-winded I am, and how I'm not as funny as I think I am; but fill up that bar chart for me.

3. Crowdsource

If you like the book, please buy a print or Kindle copy of it (or make a donation for an EPUB or PDF version). If you like the book a lot, consider buying two copies and giving one away. Consider this blog post my Kickstarter campaign, only you don't have to watch me try to be funny in a video, and I won't be sending you upbeat progress reports (not that there's anything wrong with that). I would really love to keep doing this work. Having sunk so much of my time into this book project (about 2.5 person years so far), I can't keep this up if I never make any money on it.

Your reward for doing any or all of these things will be my undying gratitude combined with the knowledge that you helped to bring the book to people who need it. Plus I'll be really grateful.

The part where I make promises

What's next? To begin with, my first vacation in years. I plan to spend a few quiet weeks pottering around in my yard and garden (though I'll keep answering comments and emails, so go ahead and say hello). After that, I will finish the last few sections of the second book (More Work with Stories) and prepare that book for publication. Luckily I have made every possible mistake while preparing the first book, so the second book should go faster. After that I would like to finish one or two books of essays. All of this is on top of the usual on-and-off client projects.

I have one more announcement to make. Because I have finally passed the endlessly receding milestone of "when the book is done," I have decided that I will return -- gently, slowly -- to blogging. Hooray!

I hereby promise to write at least one blog post per month, starting, um, next month. I'm not making any promises about the length of these blog posts, mind you, but I will try to write something interesting about stories and/or complexity at least once a month. I look forward to hearing the blog's little feet pattering around in my mind again.

So thanks again everybody, and you'll be seeing me around more often.

Friday, February 28, 2014


A proof, that is. A proof copy of the book.

I'm still working on a million little details, and there is indeed a devil in them; he and I are on a first-name basis at this point. But I am getting very close to the end of this journey (for the first book, anyway). I thought some people might like to see the book looking like a real, physical object. Back to work....

Friday, December 6, 2013

Return chapter and (drum roll) completion of first book

The full version of Working with Stories, with all twelve chapters complete, is now up on the web site. I started working on the third edition of the book when I started this blog, in October of 2009, so that makes four years I've been working on the rewrite. It's hard to believe I've been working on this project for so long; the time has flown by. Honestly, I thought the whole thing would take six months. The full rewrite isn't even finished yet, because I've still got another 50-100 pages left to write in More Work with Stories. But the first of the two books is now officially complete. If you are one of the dozens of people who have helped me during this project, please accept my profuse thanks.

As I did for the Intervention chapter, I'll pique your interest with a table of contents for the Return chapter.

Chapter 12: Narrative Return
- - - Why support the return phase?
- - - How return happens
- - - Ideas for supporting return
- - - - - - Supporting return in your PNI practice
- - - - - - Supporting return with your steering committee
- - - - - - Supporting return in your entire community or organization
- - - Supporting ongoing story sharing
- - - - - - Why story sharing happens
- - - - - - Why story sharing matters
- - - - - - Assessing story sharing
- - - - - - Ideas for supporting in-person story sharing
- - - - - - Ideas for supporting mediated story sharing

What's next? Some last-minute tweaks for clarity based on reader comments I've been putting off reading (for fear of scaring away the part of me that writes new chapters), and then a daredevil plunge into the rapids of LaTeX and CreateSpace for final formatting and publication. "My" indexer has been working on a comprehensive, professional index over the past few months, and I'll be incorporating that into the final versions (with live links in the PDF, ePub and Kindle versions). Hopefully the end result of all this work will look, talk, walk and run like a real book.

By the way, in the misty future when this whole project is finally over, I would like to start writing in the blog again. I miss it. I've actually started several blog posts that followed interesting mental perambulations in the past year, but every time I slapped my hand and got back to book writing. I have -- believe it or not -- two ideas for essay compilations based on posts I've written here and posts I have in mind to write here when I'm done with the books. Since this blog used to be about more than book progress updates, I thought some might like to ponder the eventual return of essay writing.

I can still accept feedback for about another week or two, so if you would like me to correct or clarify anything in the book, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Here it is: it's the intervention chapter for Working with Stories. It came out to eighty-some pages with figures. I'll throw the table of contents at you, as an advertisement to get you to look at the chapter.

Chapter 11: Narrative intervention

Ideas for intervention
- - - Listening to stories that need to be told
- - - - - - Narrative ombudsmen
- - - - - - Narrative suggestion boxes
- - - - - - Story sharing spaces
- - - Getting stories to where they need to go
- - - - - - Narrative orientations
- - - - - - Narrative learning resources
- - - - - - Narrative simulation
- - - - - - Narrative presentations
- - - - - - Making stories happen
- - - Helping people work with stories
- - - - - - Spaces for sensemaking
- - - - - - Sensemaking pyramid schemes
- - - - - - Narrative mentoring
- - - - - - Narrative therapy
- - - - - - Theatre of the oppressed
- - - Combining interventions
- - - - - - Diversity = synergy
- - - - - - Where the best synergies lie

The intervention interviews
- - - Shawn Callahan
- - - Karen Dietz
- - - Thaler Pekar

(and then the usual summary, questions and activities.)

Now all that's left in the first book is the Return chapter, which should be half the length of the Intervention chapter, I hope.

For the interested, a few thinking-about-book-production notes, in hopes of feedback.

First, book length. The current in-progress PDF of WWS has 577 pages. This PDF has 92 (though the last 5 or 6 of those are the References section for the whole book repeated). This might lead you to think WWS will be huge when it's printed. Not as much as you think. I've been formatting the book for PDF with only about 450 words per page, mostly out of ignorance and sloth.

But I've been reading about word counts for typical books. Novels are supposed to have only 250 words per page. Non-fiction works of general interest can go up to 400 words per page. But textbooks are often much more dense, up to 600 or 700 words per page. I couldn't decide what to do, so I got out some of my favorite textbooks and counted how many words they had on a page (by counting words on lines and lines on pages). I did this with three books, and each time I got about 600 words per page (for a 6x9 inch trim size). So I'm going to be formatting WWS that way for print and PDF, after I get the last chapter written.

That means that if WWS comes to, say, 700 pages with the last chapter, it's not really going to be that long. It's going to be 700*450/600 = 525 pages. That's not a long book at all, not for a textbook. Right?

Second, layout. I've been struggling with the decision of how to get the books looking good for print publication. Using Word to create PDFs for self-publishing is evidently worse than walking around with LOSER tattooed on your face. I think I've decided to use LaTeX. LaTeX is free; it makes great looking examples; it's widely supported, with abundant examples and answers all over the internet; using it gives me a lot of freedom to make changes in the future; it doesn't create a dependence on a "layout person" who knows what I need to know; and it's just the sort of thing a programmer might enjoy (writing code is always better than fighting with interfaces).

So if anybody reading this has used LaTeX for book formatting, I'd love to hear about your experiences with it, good or bad.

More news when I get it.