Thursday, October 22, 2009

Eight observations - 2nd

(This is the second in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

Stories have stories have stories have ...


Like a ripple in a pond, every story has a story and is part of a story.

Branigan, in Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992) lists this basic plot outline, on which he says "nearly all researchers agree":

  • introduction of setting and characters
  • explanation of a state of affairs
  • initiating event
  • response or goal statement by protagonist
  • complicating actions
  • outcome (resolution)
  • reactions to the outcome

Note that not all of the elements of this outline are about things happening. A story's narrated events are usually interposed with pieces of narrative, non-event content. In Branigan's terms, these elements:

  • introduction of setting and characters
  • explanation of a state of affairs
  • reactions to the outcome

are not narrated events but narrations about events. This distinction is crucial to understanding stories. Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination (1981), said it this way:

... before us are two events—the event that is narrated in the work and the event of the narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place in different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events....

So, "the work in the totality of all its events" includes at least two stories: that which is recounted, and that which happens during the recounting. And then we move on to retelling and remembering and ... it's turtles all the way down.

Dr. Seuss and me


A simple exercise will prove the point. Choose a story about yourself as a child. Now follow that story as it moved through your life. I'll send you a dollar if you don't find several other stories wrapped around it.

All right, I'll go first. One of my favorite stories from childhood is from when I was exactly six years old. The neighbor kid started squashing a worm, out by the mailboxes (I can show you the spot) and I pulled her away, shouting, "That worm has just as much right to live as you do!"

I've thought about this story for a long time. Why do I remember it in so much detail - the location, the exact words, the fact that I was exactly six years old? For a long time I told myself the story that it was important because it said something about who I am, deep down, what sorts of moral sensitivities I (uniquely of course) was born with.

Now fast forward in time to a few years ago. On having a child I of course bought all the Dr. Seuss books I could find, including my two all-time favorites Horton Hears a Who (about which movie I once threw a screaming fit because my horrid, horrid siblings wanted to watch something else), and The Lorax, a creature dear to my heart. So my son and I are sitting in the big chair and I'm reading Horton Hears a Who to him for the very first time, with great excitement, and I read this line:

Please don't harm all my little folks, who

Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!

I suddenly realize that it is irrefutably true that, in my memorable six-year-old outburst, I was parroting Dr. Seuss. Sensing a pattern, I reach for The Lorax. Sure enough, another one of my favorite sayings, which I thought only I in the whole world had ever said: "(Truffula) Trees are what everyone needs." Double whammy. I am a Dr. Seuss disciple, not an original thinker or a born moralist. (That doesn't make me any less wonderful, of course, but the point is that a new layer of story has formed.)

This new story makes me want to read more about Dr. Seuss and why he wrote those books, and what impact they have had on society, and how his books have affected other people ... like me. And it goes on and on and on.

Angels, demons and aliens - oh my!


Here's another, darker example of stories having stories, one that reaches further. Carl Sagan wrote a fascinating book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. One of the parts I found most interesting was where he raised a parallel between UFO abduction stories and similar stories that took place hundreds of years earlier and involved "visitations" by either demons or angels (take your pick). He goes through many remarkably similar aspects of such visitations, then and now: the visitors tended to be small, quiet, pale, able to walk through things; they asked for things; they promised things; they sometimes became sexually involved with the storytellers (not the angels on that one); and so on.

He quotes the folklorist Thomas E. Bullard, who said in 1989 that:

Abduction reports sound like rewrites of older supernatural encounter traditions with aliens serving the functional roles of divine beings. Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions. Only the extraterrestrial outer trappings are new. All the fear and the psychological dramas for dealing with it seem simply to have found their way home again, where it is business as usual in the legend realm where things go bump in the night.

Then Sagan asks:

Is it possible that people in all times and places occasionally experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often with sexual content, about abduction by strange, telepathic, aerial creatures who ooze through walls - with the details filled in by the prevailing cultural idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist? Others, who have not personally had the experience, find it stirring and in a way familiar. They pass the story on. Soon it takes on a life of its own, inspires others trying to understand their own visions and hallucinations, and enters the realm of folklore, myth, and legend.

Sagan refers specifically to hallucinations because he believes that a common basis in the physiological variation inherent in sensory perception is behind many of these stories. People tell stories in an attempt to explain the things that happen to them using the cultural materials available at the time.

Sagan particularly mentions hypnagogic hallucinations, meaning those that take place during the time when one is falling asleep. Now my ears perked up at this, because I have long experienced hypnagogic hallucinations of proprioception. I can remember the precise moment when I memorized this term in my sister's medical school library many years ago. What that means is, a few times a year, while I am drifting off to sleep, my body becomes temporarily confused about how large or small it and its surroundings are. During these times I am absolutely unable to say that I am not as large as, say, a car or a house, and that the room I am in is not as large as, say, a football stadium or sometimes even a mountain range. I know rationally that this cannot be true, yet all of the apparatus of my sensory perception tells me otherwise. I sometimes rub my fingertips together during this time to feel the great boulders shift and strain (it's quite fascinating and even beautiful now that it's not scary).

If you've ever read any of Oliver Sacks' work, you may have an idea of how manifold are the variations in sensory perception and brain function, and how many (perfectly okay) ways there are of being human. It only makes sense that some of these ways cause people to seek explanations wherever they can find them, using whatever explanations are available at the time. As a teenager I thought I might have been visited by angels, and if I had not become a scientist (or my sister had not gone to medical school) I might have gone further down either the angel or alien story routes by now. (By the way, I wonder if Lewis Carroll might have had similar proprioceptive experiences? Who knows?)

So. When I try to visualize this set of interacting stories (medical accounts, my experiences, angel/demon visitation stories, alien abduction stories, Bullard's and Sagan's explanations, societal beliefs about religion and science) as ripples in a pond, it becomes massively complex.

Actually, I no longer believe that a story is like a ripple on a pond. Stories are like rain on a pond. A story may have its own stories, but stories also interact with other stories, which have their own stories, and it all gets sort of muddled together into an impressionistic wash, until a new story drops into the mix. We can see ripples and even circles, but it takes conscious effort to distinguish them from all the ... life ... going on.

In practice


So, coming out of all that theory and mystery and history, what does this mean for someone who is doing story projects?

First, and most obviously, ripping a story out of context does more than just remove useful detail: it strips off layers of stories which may be critical to making sense of it. Asking questions about the story of a story, or what I like to call the story "phenomenon" - where did it come from, when did you first hear it, who told it to you, to whom have you told it, who can tell it, who can you tell it to, who can't hear it, who won't hear it, who will refute it, and so on - can help to preserve some of these layers. Other questions can illuminate interactions between story ripples - which stories led to what stories, which have similar themes, which ground-truth stories relate to what "official" stories, and so on.

There is always a tension between how many questions you ask about a story and whether the answers mean anything; but it can be fruitful, once in a while, to choose a smaller number of stories and ask many questions about them, of many people. That sort of depth-first story collection can provide a valuable complement to a breadth-first collection of stories (where the aim is to spread a net widely). There is so much attention to speed and growth and more-more-more today that people tend to talk about volume as important in its own right. But careful attention to depth can be just as revealing in its own way.

A good place to look at stories in depth is to find what I like to call pivot stories. These are stories people have told or collected in which several critical themes seem to converge, and which many different people respond to, for a variety of reasons. In nearly every story project there are some of these stories. They may not have strong narrative form, but they resonate in multiple dimensions of what matters to the group. One way people sometimes find pivot stories is that they keep coming up time and again as people consider various issues or go through various exercises. You could imagine first casting a wide net, then going through some exercises one of whose outcomes is finding pivot stories, then working in depth with those stories to complement the other parts of the project.

A great way to get stories rippling is to have people create new ripples themselves. This is most observable by having people construct new composite stories or timelines out of stories they have told or observed or collected. Sometimes when people are deliberately raining stories they create patterns that surprise everyone, because a lot of the outer-layer stories are not as obvious. Sometimes in the rain that is created by collective construction you can better see the stories of stories of stories.

However, let me tell a cautionary tale about what can happen to the constructs of group sensemaking, such as timelines or composite stories. Such constructs are themselves stories, and they include stories about how they were made. Constructs can participate in the larger story of the community or group, and even of the industry or culture or society around it, but it takes some attention to make this happen. We have all had the experience of creating something synergistic with a group of people - maybe at a conference or meeting - and then having it languish in a dark document repository. The key is connection. When you can maintain relevant and timely links between sensemaking constructs and people, the constructs can maintain a narrative connection to other and larger stories. Perhaps you can ask people to tell stories about their reactions to constructs. Perhaps you can ask people how the constructs relate to new events as they come up. Perhaps old constructs can be "re-visited" every year and new layers of story added. It is even reasonable to re-construct such collective artifacts every so often, to renew them so that that they can stay alive in the community, and more importantly, useful to it.

1 comment:

John Caddell said...

Cynthia, welcome to the blogosphere. These posts are fantastic - more like book chapters than mere blogging! Can't wait to read the next 6... regards, John