Sunday, November 8, 2009

The yang doesn't get the yin-yang

Hey. I was just checking Kathy Hansen's Storied Career blog (one of the great resources in the story field) and I saw this post, which references this post by Gary Goldhammer. His "The Last Newspaper" tells a fictional story about a person holding the last newspaper and answering questions from curious passersby. In general the message is that the death of newspapers is a terrible thing.

Let me say up front that with that general message I wholeheartedly agree. Newspapers fill a vital place in public discourse.

However, I found these quotes disturbing.

He reminded his rapt audience that what they now refer to as "content" used to be called "stories," delivered by trained individuals known as "storytellers" and "journalists." ... Stories are personal and transformational. Stories have definition and character. Stories are history personified. ... But content is cold, distant. Content is a commodity – a finite consumable of fleeting value.

Through my work as a researcher and consultant on the listening side of organizational and community narrative, over the past ten years I've read and listened to thousands of raw, personal stories. And the pattern I've seen is the opposite of what is described here.

Who decides which stories are stories?

What I've seen is that professional storytellers - from journalists to screenwriters to academic experts - have co-opted the word "story" to mean "something you are not allowed to tell." This has had devastating effects on the ecology of storytelling. In fact, I've spent a considerable amount of my energy working to dispel a widespread and damaging belief that there must be gatekeepers between people and storytelling. (In particular my Rakontu project is exactly about this.)

Here is what I said in my interview with Kathy about this issue:

I’m sad about how much packaged entertainment and crafted messages have changed our world. Sheet music and novels were met with wide condemnation when they came out because it was said people would no longer come up with their own music and stories. The people condemning those media would hardly recognize the world of today, where it seems people have barely a thought to themselves but spend their time listening to other people sing, watching other people play games, and hearing what other people think. ...

I don’t think people have lost the ability to tell stories as much as they have lost the expectation that it is their place to tell stories. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people balk at being asked to tell stories because they don’t think their stories are good enough to be "real stories." Would that have been true a hundred years ago? A thousand? Of course there have been storytellers since the beginning of time, but I don’t think there has ever been a time when ordinary people were so removed from ordinary storytelling.

I would tell the story of what has been happening differently:

What people now refer to as "news" used to be called "stories," and these were told by regular people, to regular people. People were actually allowed to tell their own stories without being "professionally trained" to do so. ... Raw stories are personal and transformational. Raw stories have definition and character. Raw stories are history personified. ... But packaged news stories are cold, distant. News stories are commodities – finite consumables of fleeting value.

Things are so bad that a lot of people in the story field have given over the word "story" to the professional storytellers and have switched to using the term "anecdote" instead. I refuse to do that. I use the adjectives "raw" or "personal" versus "purposeful" or "crafted" to distinguish between these two equally valid and necessary forms of storytelling. Saying that ordinary people can't tell stories is like saying that a bunch of friends clowning around with a football aren't allowed to say they played football. The word "story" encompassed raw and purposeful storytelling for countless thousands of years before newspaper "stories" came along, and it should retain that ancient meaning.

What is most cold and distant?

Let me tell you a story about a newspaper story. Many years ago my husband and I wrote educational simulations whose goal was to help people learn more about the natural world. We worked very hard on these simulations; we poured all of our passion and energy and youth into them; we went into debt so badly to build them that it took us ten years to extricate ourselves. One of these programs was a garden simulator. Just around the time when the first few thousand people had downloaded the garden simulator (it was eventually many thousands), a reporter from a local newspaper asked to talk to us on the phone about it. We were eager to spread the word about our effort. We told the reporter many things about our enthusiasm and vision. In one small aside I mentioned that even though we had used the most current US Department of Agriculture models as our simulation base and spent years on the models, the simulation should not be thought of as a predictor. (The USDA guys had warned us that some people might expect the simulator to tell them what their garden would do that year. They had people complaining that their weather simulator didn't predict the weather.) I said that once I had even grown an eight-pound carrot in the simulator, so people should understand that it was for learning, not for planning.

Guess what story came out in the newspaper? (The cynics will have guessed.) A nasty joke about how our simulator produced eight pound carrots and how it was essentially a laughable farce. No mention of helping people around the world learn more about nature; nothing about democratizing knowledge and bringing university-level soil science, botany and ecology into the hands of everyone with access to a computer. Just the eight pound carrot. He wanted to tell a joke, and he used our "content" for his own purposes.

Since then many people have told me similar stories about having the stories they told to "professional storytellers" distorted and destroyed. Made cold and distant. Purged of definition and character. Turned into commodities for commercial consumption.

Restoring the balance

Let me be clear here: I am not saying that newspapers are evil or that newspaper reporters are evil (though the eight-pound carrot reporter has my eternal enmity). The Christian Science Monitor and the New Yorker have been my constant companions these past few decades, and I like many people rely on authoritative, expert news coverage.

What I'm saying is that the personal and the public, the raw and the packaged, need each other and need to be in balance. The professional is the yang, the active, the planned, the structured, the hierarchy. The personal is the yin, the reflective, the emergent, the messy, the meshwork. Both are equally valuable, but both have not been equally valued, at least not in the past century.

One of the commenters on Gary Goldhammer's blog said that they hoped humanity wouldn't be "lost amidst the rush to plug in, update, and suck in the bare facts." But something is missing here, something is going unsaid. Professional storytelling doesn't work only with "bare facts." A lot of the "content" Goldhammer disdains is not raw data. A lot of it is stories. Wild, shy, unpredictable, unreliable, passionate, wrong-headed, delusional, but emotional, natural and real. I've spent a lot of time with wild stories, and I think they deserve a lot more respect than they have been getting. Giving people more exposure to wild stories, in addition to those that have been captured and subdued and paraded in zoos, is a benefit, not a loss. It restores a vital balance.

I can't help but wonder if professional storytellers aren't aware of what I've seen. Perhaps they don't know that the yang of story has so intimidated the yin that people are literally afraid to tell their own stories. Perhaps the yang doesn't get the yin-yang because the yin is nothing but meaningless "content" to it. Perhaps if newspapers want to survive and be more "relevant" in today's world they should start doing less specimen collection and more field study.

This blog post by David Cohn says it well:

There are certain characteristics of news organizations or "professional" journalism that if it were to stop tomorrow wouldn't be easily replaced – if replaceable at all. ... [But] If citizen journalism activities were to stop tomorrow could professional journalists replace them? My answer is no.... What I want to know isn't if one can replace the other – but how the two might work together.

Yes, the last newspaper would be a tragedy. But I've seen many tragedies already. It breaks my heart every time I hear another person say, "Oh yes, I've had lots of experience with that, but I don't know any stories."


John Caddell said...

Cynthia, this post made me realize something about Ken Burns' Civil War series (possibly a good example of telling a story by having others tell stories).

As I recall watching the series, a couple of times, I can't recall that he ever quoted news stories of the time. If he did, it wasn't often.

On the other hand, Burns used personal letters extensively, throughout the series, to tell the story.

To him, anyway, professional journalism from the time was not as useful as personal stories. Not by a long shot.

Frank said...

I think people often tell stories all the time and are not aware of it.

Ask them to tell a story and they clam up.

Step back and let the conversation flow and you won't be able to shut them up.

That's why I'm a little sad that now at work one day seminars or annual refresher courses the instructors (I refuse point blank to use that ugly and misleading term "facilitators") discourage story telling often dismissing them by saying "We don't encourage anecdotes."


Cynthia Kurtz said...

My guess is that "We don't encourage anecdotes" is code for "We don't encourage revealing the truth." :)