Monday, October 19, 2009

Eight observations - 1st

Several years ago I gave a presentation made up of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. These were not scientific findings; they were just things I had encountered that had surprised me and that gave me food for thought. (Nor were they original thoughts, if there are such things; many others have talked about them as well.)

As the years go by I find myself returning to the eight things often; so I thought a good way to start this blog might be to talk about each observation and what I think it means for those of us who work with stories.

Stories compact knowledge

Stories are essentially humanity's zip files. When I tell you a story, I contract the total of my experience on that subject into a more condensed matter. Items particular to me are either excluded or explained, and items I can expect us to share ride along unstated, taking no space. When you read or hear the story, you re-expand it, making use of all the materials we share for the extraction of the story.

Try it. Here is a tiny story from
"Some things in life are so easy to do," the man thought, falling to his death.
-- G.S. Evans
You can almost feel that story expanding in your mind.

Here is an appropriate quote from Nabokov's The Gift:

Now he read in three dimensions, as it were, carefully exploring each poem, lifted out like a cube from among the rest and bathed from all sides in that wonderful, fluffy country air after which one is always so tired in the evening. In other words, as he read, he again made use of all the materials already once gathered by his memory for the extraction of the present poems, and reconstructed everything, absolutely everything, as a returning traveler sees in an orphan’s eyes not only the smile of its mother, whom he had known in his youth, but also an avenue ending in a burst of yellow light and that auburn leaf on the bench, and everything, everything.

Expansion incomplete! Supply additional data

Sometimes problems occur when we don’t share enough experience to make the re-expansion of a story work. The degree to which re-expansion of a story correctly reconstructs the original meaning depends on the emotional, cultural, temporal, and experiential distance between storyteller and listener. The greater the distance, not only is the possible compression smaller, but re-expansion errors compound. It's like trying to display a a PDF file without fonts on a different operating system: the mappings are wrong.

To give an example: my hobby is constantly reading old novels and folk tales, with rare 20th century exceptions. (Don't ask why I do this, I don't know the answer.) When I choose editions to read, I pay much attention to whether the editions have copious notes of historical reference. Why? Because when they don't, it's just not much fun. Lately I've been in a Russian phase. Some of the narrative compressions come across very well - for example Dostoyevsky mentions putting straw on the floor at Christmas, which I grew up doing, so no problem there. Other things, like the uses of bast and kvass, the moods of samovars, the types of carriages, and the nuances of the various grades of civil service, I cannot re-expand correctly without some help.

Similarly, I can think of three children's stories - Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, and The Wizard of Oz - in which cultural and political messages are compressed inside and inaccessible without help from notes and introductions. In fact, all stories have such inaccessible parts in them, not just things written hundreds of years ago. Have you ever read an old diary entry and had no idea what you were talking about? Doesn't it feel strange?

Here's a question I've often pondered. Most of us are familiar with an image of the plaque sent into space advertising our presence in the universe (and our intelligence). Supposedly, much thought was put into making that plaque universally understandable. The human form (who we are) is surrounded by mathematical diagrams (our common identity with the presumed audience). The question is: Could one develop a universal narrative translator that could make every single story comprehensible to every single person on earth? What would the features of such a universal narrative translator be? (And beyond earth too: It would tell the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. If you have never seen this, by the way, it is the single most narrative-pertinent sci-fi episode ever made, as far as I know.)

In practice

Getting back to earth, the main way I've seen this zip-file observation played out in practice is that almost all story projects involve both narrative compression and distance. There is almost always a gap to be bridged, whether it is between doctor and patient, company and customer, or neighbor and neighbor. This is one of the reasons for my caveats about "the people in the group of interest" being the best interpreters of stories; others may insert erroneous elements during the necessary narrative expansion.

There are two ways to deal with narrative compression and distance in a story project. One is to capture more of the context of a story when it is told. This can be done, to some extent, by asking questions about the story and about the storyteller. Asking contextual questions can be particularly helpful when you are asking people from different groups to learn from each others' experiences.

The second option is to have people tell and work with stories within the original group, and make the necessary translations not on individual stories but on the constructed artifacts created during group sensemaking. Because of the integrative act that produces them, such artifacts constitute a richer and more complex compression that communicates more of the essential meaning than the raw stories themselves.

Next: stories of stories.


TheLegendaryFrank said...

Hmmm. My worry is that stories can be delicate things that might not stand up to being pulled apart.

It's like when I write fictional stories there arrives a point when any further tinkering will destroy the integrity of the story.

A good story hits you at a level which bypasses the intellect.

Sometimes a good story will have no meaning for you until something happens in your life and you say "Aha! So that's what that story was about!:

A good story has many levels of meaning. I'm talking here of fictional learning stories. True stories also have these attributes, the degree depending on the story.

What I'm saying is not contradicting you. I'm just a little uneasy of analysing stories.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hey Frank,

I agree that stories can't be pulled apart. I'm not advocating pulling them apart (at least I didn't mean to!). What I *am* advocating is adding packing material to the *outside* of the story to help it travel better. People can do this by including some of the "story of the story" along with the story whenever possible. Tinkering usually pertains to messing with the insides of a thing, and I'm trying to advocate the opposite of that.

Also I never suggest "analysing" stories for exactly the reason you give - that stories can't be taken apart and put back together again. That's why I talk about "catalyzing" and sensemaking with stories.

So, we agree! I'd also add that even if a story does *not* bypass the intellect but engages it fully, that is *still* no reason to tear it apart. The coherence of stories has to do with their unique communicative structure, not on the absence of reason or intellect. People thinking there can be no reasoning in stories is one of the reasons stories are one of the underappreciated workhorses of communication.