Thursday, April 29, 2010

Natural storytelling IV - Solutions

This is part four of a four part post on natural and purposeful storytelling. To read the four parts in order, see:
  1. The sweetness of disgrace
  2. Hierarchy and meshwork
  3. The authorities of story
  4. Solutions (this post)
I've been pondering a long list of possible solutions to the problem (of people not believing their stories are real stories) for months and years now. My online software Rakontu is an attempt to provide one solution (and what I learned building and using Rakontu will be the subject of an upcoming post). I've thrown out many possible ideas as unrealistic or unlikely to have an effect. After going through the explorations I wrote about in the earlier parts of this series, I've narrowed the list down to only four solutions that I think could actually have an impact.

I didn't want to list a lot of solutions that involve individual people making changes in their lives. I know those can work, but somehow I don't have a huge amount of faith in all the "100 Ways You Can Save The Planet" campaigns. People believing only purposeful stories are real is not an individual decision. It's a cultural trend, and I think if it's going to change it's going to have to change at a societal level. So these are lots-of-people-involved solutions. I don't know, of course, that any of them would work, or be feasible, or make a difference. But I think these have the best chances of all the ones I've come up with so far.

Solution one: narrative intelligence guidelines

In 1995, the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg started the Dogme 95 "avant-garde filmmaking movement" with a vow to produce movies that conform to a code of ten rules. Most of the rules tend toward eliminating artifices and superficialities such as special effects and other "cosmetics" that reduce the "purity" of the story. Some have dismissed this set of "vows" as a publicity stunt that means nothing, but according to the Dogme 95 web site, over 250 movies have since been produced that meet some or all of the standards set out, and it has had an undeniable influence on the way people make movies and even television commercials.

Some aspects of the removal of "cosmetics" may help to engage people more in movies, but I'm not sure of this -- one of the Dogme rules is that "temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden" which, as a sci-fi fan, I find disheartening. But still, when I thought about my experiences participating in narrative events in person and while watching movies, this set of rules came to mind. Why not try the same thing? What would happen if there was a set of guidelines for producing movies and television shows that engage the narrative intelligence of viewers? Maybe assuming that the people making movies and TV don't care about the numbing effect is an error, a failure of the imagination. Maybe some of them would respond and would make movies differently, if they knew what was called for.

What would be in such a list of guidelines? That would require more thought, and certainly some collaboration, to pull off. But I can think of a few things right off. One of them would be about bloom. This is my term for the moment when the hints and nudges an author has been dropping for you begin to crystallize into an intuition, a guess, a possibility of something that turns out to be pivotal to the work. My favorite bloom experience was during the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison. The moment of bloom is a blissful moment, even when the realization is unpleasant or even gruesome. In the movie version of Beloved, however, the bloom was lost. The awful truth was laid in front of you in a way so destructive to the bloom of the story that I had to turn away in disappointment. The story didn't bloom; its bud was ripped apart. It would be easy to test movies for bloom: just watch the faces of the viewers. I remember reading once about a movie writer (or director or something) who sat in movie screenings discreetly watching the faces of the audience members, watching reactions. It's easy to see bloom; it's when people get that "aaaah" look in their eyes. If they never get it, the movie has no bloom.

Another rule might be about whether people change the movie at all in their minds, and whether they generate more peripheral or tangential stories as a result of seeing it -- whether it grows in narrative space. For example, recently I saw Ladies in Lavender with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Watching the interplay of emotions on the faces of these expert actors got my mental gears turning over and over (and they're still turning, as I ponder it again and again). I did need to negotiate and explore as I contemplated the meaning -- left carefully oblique and gapped -- of each moment. I've now generated so many links between that movie and stories in my own life that it would be difficult to extricate it from the web it has formed in my narrative self. The Fisher King was another movie like that, and Vagabond, and Paris, Texas, and some others. A movie that sits in narrative isolation in the experience of its viewers is a different species of story than a movie that works itself into the meshwork of connections in the narrative matrix of our lives.

A third rule might be about narrative versus narrated events. The rule might be "admit you're telling a story." Every time you can see some of the plumbing behind a movie, it becomes more of a narrative event, and thus more stimulating to narrative intelligence. I wonder if that's why commentaries and "featurettes" have become so popular on DVDs -- because audiences crave the experience of participating in a narrative event and aren't getting that from the movie itself. Back in the early days of Stargate SG-1 there was a running joke where one of the minor characters appeared, along with the director, on every episode somewhere in the background, just for a few seconds, holding a very large wrench. Other backstage helpers also appeared occasionally in the story frame. I remember Peter DeLuise, one of the writers, being on quite a few shows for a few seconds as an anonymous underling. He always gave his lines with a little smirk on his face that said "you're in on the joke, right?" There was even a parody episode where they made fun of everyone on the team, including us viewers. Things like this ruin Good Stories for Good Audiences, but they vastly improve the experience of participating in a narrative event. They are used far too seldom. A movie narrator also helps to widen the view to include the story frame. I loved the narration in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, and I think it helped inspire me to go look up the real man the movie was about afterward (that's story growth, rule two).

So, such a list of rules might be possible. One problem is that different movies get different people engaged in different ways. Ladies in Lavender gave me something to do, somewhere to meet it, and something I could use it for. But apparently, according to reviews I've seen in various places, for some people no gears turned and nothing was stirred or connected at all. So it's a difficult set of guidelines to create. Still, it's an idea with potential.

Solution two: enlist the aid of the storytellers

In pondering this issue I keep remembering what somebody told me years ago, at the start of my very brief career as a rollerblader: grass is your friend. In this case, it's the professional storytellers who are our friends. I'm not sure that very many of the people who make packaged stories for mass-media consumption would be interested in this topic, or care, or even think the problem exists. But I've heard enough from professional storytellers to know that they are concerned about the decline in personal and community storytelling.

What would happen if every professional storyteller, whether they told stories in performance, put on puppet shows or plays, or wrote fiction, took it upon themselves to help with this issue? They would be in a unique position to do so. First, they are bound to know a lot about the ins and outs of stories. Second, they are used to talking in front of people, or writing to people. Third, they care a lot about stories and have energy surrounding them. Perhaps they could tack on a "tell your life story" class to every public performance. Even something as simple as talking to people about the issue (I hate using the dated term but here it is: raising consciousness about it) could make a difference.

Maybe a group of collaborators could even come up with a "restorying society" program that professional storytellers of all kinds could use to spread knowledge about and respect for personal and community storytelling. In this I think of things like the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance campaign and Michelle Obama's Let's Move program to overcome childhood obesity. I'd love to work on a project like that and contribute what I could.

Solution three: tax and spend

Ha, ha -- but seriously folks. What if every time anyone saw a movie or television show, a penny was put into a fund (in some magical way) for all the local community theatres, puppet shows, drama clubs, and professional storytellers? We often tax things that hurt us (cigarettes, alcohol, gambling) and use the money for things that will help (hospitals, safer roads, help with gambling). Why not tax packaged, low-narrative-intelligence, mind-numbing, played-upon story production and use the money to bring more narrative play into people's lives?

There has always been a class aspect to storytelling forms, and there still is, but it has flipped upside down. Before mass media, not knowing how to tell and listen to stories was a disease of the rich, like gout and kidney disease. The rich spent their time passively consuming the packaged stories of the theatre and costly novels, while the poor had to work at storytelling. They kept their narrative intelligence sharp by listening to their grandmothers around the kitchen table and passing on rumors. In the same way that the rich are now fit and thin while the poor (at least the moderately poor) are fat and malnourished, rich people now are more likely to experience stories in person through the theatre and opera, while the poor passively consume the unhealthy, over-packaged media of television and movies. Taxes are usually redistributive, and this tax would be no exception.

Can you imagine what would happen if every local group trying to work with local stories could apply for funding? Say every community could get free tape recorders to preserve the stories of their oldest members, or a free stage and props, or free copies of any play they'd like to put on, or free seminars in how to elicit stories, or free advice on organizing their stories, or free printing for story booklets, or free puppets, and on and on. Would that make a difference? I think it would. Could it happen? Probably not, but maybe something smaller could happen along the same lines.

Solution four: soup and stories

This is my Oprah idea. Several years ago thousands of book reading clubs sprang up simply because Oprah said it was a good idea. (Amazing.) But I've heard about many other types of clubs and groups that have sprung up without Oprah's help -- the Laughter clubs that started in India are an example of a wave that has spread worldwide. I keep thinking about a "soup and stories" club. The vehicle would be a web site or book or blog or some other way of getting the essentials to people. It would have to be simple, something like a few steps and simple rules to follow. And we'd need lots of testimonials about how wonderful it is. I've just been reading All New Square Foot Garden (after having gardens inspired by it for decades) and I can see how people can start a "movement" like this and keep it going, as long as their message is simple and clear and beneficial (and they put a lot of time and energy into it). I'm not sure if I am the person to start a movement, but somebody could, or some number of somebodies could.

By the way, I thought of the name "soup and stories" because people love to eat together, and also because back in grad school one of my favorite social events was Friday Soup. Every week somebody made a huge pot of soup and we all got together to eat it, sometimes all afternoon (until it was time for Friday Beer, which restarted the get-together clock). Soup is a warm food, inviting, welcoming; and people need invitations and welcomes (and sometimes, excuses and roles and hierarchy) to get started telling stories to each other. If so many people are willing to try book reading clubs, why not get them to try story sharing clubs? Maybe people just need an invitation and some help getting started. It could work.

Finally, the end of the very long four part post

At this point, half of those of you who are still reading this essay are saying "what's the problem?" and the other half are saying "as if that would fix it." But you see, the pendulum is swinging already, and our work is half done for us. I don't think it's a problem that people consume packaged stories, because they don't consume as many as they did and as badly as they did before (although the numbing is getting worse). I really don't think it's a horrible problem, because if I did I'd go story-vegan and stop watching movies entirely. (Of course I have the wonderful offset of spending hours a day making up stories with my six-year-old, and when you have that sort of daily practice an episode of Stargate once in a while can't do much damage.) I guess what I'd like to see is a few fingers on the pendulum applying just the right amount of pressure to guide it to something closer to a good, healthy balance.

I'll end this very long set of posts with a welcome and invitation (and excuse and role, if you like) to join me in thinking about this issue, and, maybe, to join me in doing something about it. I'd love to hear your comments, suggestions, complaints, ideas and arguments about the issue, which I suspect I will continue to think about (though hopefully stop writing about and turn to other tasks) for some time.

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