Friday, December 17, 2010

Story games

This post is about story games, in three ways.

First, it is an announcement to my readership that, due to the lamentable fact that I am apparently incapable of making any utterance less than five pages long, I will be switching to biweekly posts for the foreseeable future. I just can't keep up this level of writing - on this blog, anyway.

Second, I'm happy to say that due to the apparent lack of anybody wanting me to work for them (much) in January or February, I may actually be able to finish rewriting the book. I may blog even less during that time. So if I'm silent, you will know why.

Third, I thought I'd throw out a few tidbits on great games to play with your kids if you want to build and tell stories together, for fun and for narrative sensemaking. My son and I have had a wonderful time using games (online, for the Wii, on the computer) as part of our daily narrative sensemaking, so I thought I'd pass on some recommendations for other parents, and just anybody who likes to play with stories.

Open-ended physics games

Physics games are those where you manipulate objects in virtual space with realistic elements such as gravity, momentum, inertia, etc to reach goals. Some are very simple because the goals are obvious and the puzzles involve nothing but logic. Those bore me quickly because there is no way to tell a story in them. To tell a story you need uncertainty. You need to have something happen, and then not know what will happen next, and then find out what happens next. If what will happen next is always that you will solve the puzzle, or not, you can't do much with it story-wise. But some games offer scope for the imagination. In general, if there is either much latitude in how a problem is solved, or a level editor that exposes the game designers' engine to players, you can work out stories in the space.

Fantastic Contraption is a favorite. There you have things like wheels and planks, and you need to build things to get things from here to there under constraints. The fascinating thing about Fantastic Contraption is that site visitors submit their own solutions to the puzzles, and many of them are essentially stories. People have taken the basic engine and used it to create the most amazing events, some of them featuring emergent patterns that they found by exploring the limits of the system. The catapults in particular are worth watching over and over.

There are many more wonderful physics-engine games at that can be used in this way (Demolition City, Sprocket Rocket and Red Remover are favorites).

Open-ended games with characters

Playing with a simulation-style program (not necessarily physics-based) that has a good level editor and characters is a little like being a director, in that you can explore and work out issues (like negotiating rules, resolving disputes, avoiding vicious cycles, etc) by manipulating the actions of characters. It is also useful to be the characters (who must have  funny voices, of course) while making them do things onscreen.

Professor Fizzwizzle is a silly platform game where you help this little crazy professor get back to his laboratory from which his robots have evicted him (he accidentally turned the control dial from "friendly" to "rage"). The challenges are fun (luckily solutions are nearby for the lazy player - never mind how I know that) but the great part is the level editor. We have set up endless stories in which the professor and the rage-bots (over which he still has a limited degree of control via various funny devices) face off in hilarious ways. Here the story is not so much built with simple balls and planks interacting as it is characters who have useful behaviors and characteristics that stand in for things we want to think about.

Some others in the open-ended-with-characters group are MySims Kingdom, MySims Racing, the WeSki series, and the games based on the Cars movie. In all of these it's fairly easy to place characters into situations and pretend to be them while controlling them. One favorite thing is to play hide-and-seek, where one of us searches for the other who is hiding somewhere. Or we set up story scenarios, like one character is lost and needs help finding their way home, or two characters have an argument, or one character is bullying another, or two characters want to convince a third of something, and so on. This is all great narrative sensemaking material.

You might say The Sims is the standard for character simulation. But when I played The Sims (this was before the child) I found myself frustrated by the restricted worldview. I created an endless parade of hermits who would carefully parcel out their meagre savings in order to bury themselves in reading, writing and walking in the woods. But they ignored the woods I built (those trees cost money, you know!), and all they would do is whine that they wanted television and parties and jobs delivering pizzas. I hear the Sims people have done some work on those limitations, but I'll believe it when I see it. I did have some luck when I found out the infinite-riches cheat (something to do with monkeys), and I did have some fun creating people from literary situations (the Boxcar Children was one I remember). But I never could get the people to enjoy nature and reading and solitude, which sort of took all the fun out of it for me. If you can't tell stories about yourself, what is the point of telling stories?

Role-playing games

Role-playing games are, obviously, games where you play a role. I find that these games vary immensely in how much you can play with the roles you inhabit. You can't build stories if you can't play with characters, for the same reason you can't build stories if you can't find uncertainty. If you always know what a character will do (because they are orcs or something) you can't build a story. You can only experience one somebody else made (which is fine for what it is, but that's not what I'm talking about here). What you can do with a role-playing game is, if the narrative material provided is rich enough, it can provide fruit for stories that spin off outside the game itself.

For example, I have played and loved several titles in the Harvest Moon series. It's a favorite unwinding thing to do after work. Everything's free or next to it, everyone's nice, your spouse and kids do anything you ask, you can befriend people simply by handing them things they like (and you can look up what they like online). And work consists of hoeing in the garden for an hour or two a day. It's the ultimate fantasy game for middle-aged workaholics. But this series is particularly rich in materials for narrative sensemaking as well. In one of the Harvest Moon stories, when I was playing as a woman, I found two suitors (you marry and have kids) who perfectly captured two sides of my husband: Craig the irritable grouch, and Toby the soft-hearted and humble fisherman. Similarly, I found two female characters that described two sides of me: the proud, sharp-tongued Selena and the shy, kind Candace. My son and I spent many hours working out the ramifications of these abstract characters trying to live together and do things like, say, put food on the table and keep a house clean. My son himself favored the tough-guy characters who seemed to have great power - but cleverly, the game didn't leave them that simple and gave them interesting flaws to explore. All of this has been great grist for the mill that is childhood (and parenthood).

Other role-playing games that spur storytelling like this are Ico (the emotions it evokes are amazingly real) and the must-see Samarost. The Dungeons and Dragons world is another great role-playing system in which people work out who they are going to be. I spent many hours defining and redefining myself using that narrative system during adolescence (when I most needed it). Once in a while I'll drag out my yellowed character sheets (or whatever they were called) from back then and look at them, and it's like reading the story of my coming of age. As I understand it there are many such worlds now, and everyone can find something that works for them.


We have recently started playing create (by EA for the Wii), and I find I have to give it its own category. It is an excellent story vehicle, not necessarily the best ever, but still pretty darn good. It took me a while to figure out how it works, and I'm still amazed that anybody thought to put things together in this way. To begin with, you can explore fourteen distinct worlds, each with its own mythological/symbolic setting: theme park, transportopia, family home, outer space, the great outdoors, ancient history, future city, pirates, I can't remember them all. In each world you have three elements. At the back of the 3D space is a standard-issue 2D paint program, although it has some extra-fun elements like "stickers" you can "flick" to set in motion (airborne vehicles, clouds, birds, etc).

In front of the 2D backdrop is a 3D composition space where you can arrange items appropriate to the setting (or inappropriate, as you like). Conveniently, some of these items make great story characters. There are even real and fanciful animated creatures, though they don't do much but stand around and do a few stereotyped moves. They also don't interact, sadly, which would have made the system more Sims-like. It's not that fun to put the robots with the ancient sea monsters if they just stand there and gawk at each other, or at nothing really. My favorite of the worlds so far is the ancient history world, where I have Mayan and Greek and Egyptian statues holding little conferences on various topics all over the place, while monsters and rabbits wander among them. It's easy to set up stories of jokes, disasters, discoveries, conflicts and so on. (Interestingly, my son has decorated all of his worlds to look new and perfectly functional, while my built worlds all feature rust, decay and the taking over of human structure by natural growth. Hmm.)

Right smack in the middle of each 3D composition space is a ribbon on which a 2D physics-based simulation takes place. It looks like it is embedded in the world around it, but it really isn't (leading to much initial confusion). In each world you have ten "challenges" with pre-made goals, and of course achieving the goals wins you points and 3D objects to use in the scene composition and simulation (how irritating this pervading belief that nobody will play anything if they don't win anything, ooooh, winning). But the cool thing here is that the challenges themselves are not logic puzzles but great story-generating engines. Even with all the other stuff, if these challenges had been the boring sort - only one way to get this ball to that hoop - I would have put the game down.

The reason this simulation works for narrative play and sensemaking is that like many of the better physics games, it is a complex-and-complicated system. Because you are using virtual gravity, wind, and fickle machines (some of which have hilariously unexpected properties, like monster truck tires that pop like balloons), things rarely go as planned. Successfully having completed a puzzle once gains you next to nothing when you try to do it again. One misplaced whiff of forced air and the whole contraption goes off in a different way and you miss all the goals. One type of challenge in particular, called the "Score-tacular," is less like solving a problem than like orchestrating mayhem. This is a story event generator. There was one memorable moment the other day when we had to gain 30,000 points and couldn't see how, and then by accident the simulation got into this cycle where a spiky thing almost popped a balloon, but didn't quite, and we watched the spiky thing go around in circles for about fifteen minutes as the points added up 500 points at a time. We began to wonder if the cycle would ever end and talked about stopping the simulation, when at 37,000 points the balloon suddenly burst, and we burst out laughing. What a story! After we stopped laughing we talked about other times when things happened like that, when it seemed like something would never happen and then it suddenly did. Like anger, and making friends, and wars, and stuff like that.

Outside of the challenges, you can use the open-ended simulation to build events into stories. One we did last night was, we took teleporters and put them in a circle so that whatever we dropped into one teleporter would go round and round forever. We then placed a magnet somewhere just to give the system a nudge, and watched as the lawn tractors chased themselves around the loop faster and faster and faster, until they started popping out and shooting like rockets across the sky. We also had a blast placing characters from the past (an Inca god who shot arrows out of his mouth in indignant fury and rode around on a seige tower) into positive and negative interactions with contemporary vehicles like tanks and blimps and farm tractors. This propelled a discussion about technology through the centuries and how our lives are different in some ways while the same in others. And about conflict and the various ways we leap to conclusions about each other. The tanks in particular have enabled much exploration of power used to aid and obstruct: sometimes a missile blast can be a helping hand. And so on and so on.

What makes create such a useful resource for narrative play? I think it is the combination of many settings (providing backstories, dilemmas, opportunities, genres), many characters (bears, robots, monster trucks, indignant statues), and many events (importantly, many of these happen by surprise). I always think of stories as looking like pencils, with setting as the eraser, characters as the shaft, events as things along the shaft (letters, icons, fingernail marks, teeth marks), and the point of the story as ... well, the point of the pencil. When a game substrate provides settings, characters, and events, you can build lots of stories with lots of points. And then you can draw things with them.

So that's my round-up of great story games (for the around-seven set and adults who like that sort of thing).

One thing I've noticed while writing this is that except for D&D, I only described computer games. I can hear somebody saying, "But what about good old board games?" The problem is, most board games aren't great story material. Too many of them are only about winning, or so much about winning that the story material is hard to make good use of. Monopoly is a pretty good story substrate - I spent years of my childhood exploring all the ways to cheat and steal in that game, and only found out years later that some of our "variations" weren't actually written in the instructions but local to our family. (Evidently there is no "rich game" where everybody gets loads of money! In that case why play?) In general the best games for narrative play are not games with rules you play by, but games with rules you play with. I've found a few games like that recently - Set is one, Blokus is another, and some of the ThinkFun games (Rush Hour is a pretty good story generator). Colorforms still exist, thank goodness. But it's mostly slim pickings. It seems like most board game designers are more interested in creating docile instruction followers than original thinkers. Or that's what they think parents will pay for anyway. If I see one more tangrams set with "helpful" patterns you must build, I'll scream. Quietly.

In the bath, as usual, I thought of another paragraph to add in here. It's the predictable response from the stick-and-rock people. You know, the people who say children can only grow when they have nothing but sticks and rocks to play with. We are mostly stick-and-rock people ourselves, in the summer, and the Wii sits abandoned for months. Certain LEGO lovers around here become offended by my admonitions to stop "shuffling bits of plastic around" and go out in the real world. And we do (and you do too). Just two weeks ago we built a pirate/anti-pirate ship (it kept switching sides) out of bits of old wood and string, with a tomato support for a mast, a garbage bag for a sail, a log for an anchor, and an old frisbee for a wheel. (This being a futuristic pirate/anti-pirate ship, it also needed many inexplicable dials and levers.) However, the ship soon stuck fast to the ground and had to be yanked up and frog marched to the garage for storage, lest it trip us up when it's invisible under the snow. This time of year it's always either cold and dark or cold and going to be dark soon, and the Wii begins to beam benevolence in contrast. (And our friend the snow is not yet here. When the snow comes we gain another medium of narrative substrate that, unlike the frozen mud and sand, can be molded into roads, buildings, people, cities.) But yes, I agree that when physical conditions permit, nothing can beat sticks, rocks, mud and snow as the best narrative substrates of all.

Are there any games - of any kind - that you find particularly useful as material for narrative play and sensemaking?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The healing cleaver

Yesterday I posted about the issue of context in story listening, and how I try to preserve context and worry that I fail. Today I listened to two doctors tell stories about how listening to their patients tell their stories helps them work together to find solutions to problems. (This was on a teleconference from the Plexus Institute on the topic of Narrative in medicine, about which a colleague told me and many thanks, colleague. I think the Plexus Institute puts up archived recordings of these calls if you want to listen to their stimulating accounts. Look for archived PlexusCalls.)

The two doctors on the call reminded me of something I had forgotten. They talked about how part of the therapeutic solution doctors and other health providers offer to patients is just the opportunity to tell their story to someone who cares and is listening. The story is the therapy, they said. They mentioned the gratitude they have found in patients for this act of listening, not for any solutions proposed but just for the chance to speak and be heard.

The sword in his mother's hand

I had forgotten that. I myself have been amazed to find so many people grateful to be heard in the story collections I have helped people put together. Generally the storytellers in the projects I help clients with have been asked (begged) to contribute to something, a goal or a cause, though sometimes they have been simply paid or required to contribute and given no other reason to speak. In most projects some number of people have inevitably expressed gratitude for what they have usually called the chance or the opportunity to speak. Some who don't say it directly have radiated their gratitude indirectly, through their stories. Sometimes you can just feel the relief people have at finally being asked the right question that gives them the permission to share their experiences and perspectives.

This made me think about my post yesterday. If the severing of context from a story is always negative, if asking people to recount their experiences to strangers and using those stories to represent people without their further participation is a dangerous enterprise open to abuses of power, how could anyone possibly feel gratitude about it? Should they not cry out in protest? Why do so many people seem to honestly enjoy the experience?

I wonder if in my soul searching I've been too one-sided in looking for solutions and blame. Maybe sometimes the loss of context in storytelling is exactly what is needed. It could be empowering as well as coercive, and maybe at the same time. Maybe sometimes a story that cannot be told within the boundaries of family, friends and community can be told beyond those boundaries, and that could lead to reflections and revelations impossible otherwise. Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

It reminds me of this great Sting song that goes:
He looked beneath his shirt today
There was a wound in his flesh so deep and wide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
He turned around to face his mother
To show her the wound in his breast that burned like a brand
But the sword that cut him open
Was the sword in his mother's hand ...

Though the sword was his protection
The wound itself would give him power
The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour
She said the wound would give him courage and pain
The kind of pain that you can't hide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
Maybe what I have not been considering, in my struggle to work ethically, is that effective story exchange should be both a tie that binds and a sword that cleaves. If that is true, cleaving context from story becomes not something uniformly to be avoided, but something to be used at the right place and time. When is that place and time? I don't know. It is something I'd like to think more about. If the creation of distance is an essential element in story collection, when is it essential and when is it obstructive? When does it help and when does it hurt?

The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour. Isn't that what stories do for us, give us the power to remake ourselves? Maybe it is in our darkest hour when we need the distance a loss of context can provide. Maybe that is why I've seen the people with the worst, saddest stories show the most gratitude. They have the most to reveal, the strongest boundaries, and the greatest reason not to reveal their stories without the freeing context of no-context. Why do people call suicide hotlines when they are surrounded by family and friends who would do anything, go anywhere, pay anything, to help them in their time of need? Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

Clothes or skins? 

I'm not saying my ritualized practices of relying on storyteller interpretations as maps of authenticity are not warranted. I still believe it is manipulative and self-deluding to interpret the stories of others without attempting to preserve some understanding of their meaning in situ. But maybe the key to helping people collect and work with their stories is not in preserving context above all else, but in helping them manage the interplay of cleaving distance and joining intimacy.

I've thought about this duality in stories for a long time: are they objects or living beings? I've seen lots of people excoriate those on the other side of that divide. Those who treat stories as objects say: Don't put too much stock into stories. Don't treat them as powerful forces and don't be deluded into thinking they represent reality. They are just shiny playthings, constructions created for purposes, artifacts, masks. When my son was very little, he would describe people based on the colors of their clothing, not realizing people didn't define people that way. We would read a book and he'd say, "I liked that red man" or "That blue man said mean things." It was only later that he realized I separated clothing from identity and stopped doing that. People who see stories as objects see them like clothing, things that can be put on and taken off. They caution us not to take them too seriously.

Those who treat stories as living beings say the opposite: revere stories for their centrality to the human experience. Respect them, don't ship them around as commodities, don't remove their sacred layers of context. People on this side get all hot and bothered about voices and rights, and write long blog posts about the dangers of cleaving story from context and the daring temptations of manipulative interpretation by outsiders. I've been on this side, obviously, but I wonder if I have gotten too storier-than-thou about it for my own good. Maybe because I have felt the sharpness of the cleaver in my hand so often I have not understood its dual uses as I should. There is that great quote from Oscar Wilde: "Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Maybe sometimes stories should be masks we can put on and take off. Asking people to come into a room of strangers, or onto a web site, is like asking them to shed their skins as if they were clothes and try on others. It allows them to step outside of their clothes that say "single mother" or "struggling farmer" or "helpful doctor" and speak freely, unadorned by the confining encrustations of context. It transports.

Casting themselves into the wind

My favorite metaphor for stories is that they are like seeds, so I like to use it as a handy tool to explore any and all dilemmas. Seeds can be seen as objects, things that can be picked up and cast about by those in control of them. Some even speak of seeds as tools, elements of human-controlled technology.

But seeds can also be seen as living organisms with abundant abilities to adapt and respond: sharp spines, chemical weapons, adaptive growth patterns, the power to endure through harsh conditions and emerge when favorable conditions return. I've always been on the side of the living-organism view, I think. It is where I am when I talk about the horror of cleaving context from story. But there is a liberating merit, at the right place and time, to treating stories as objects, to casting them on the ground as a farmer casts seeds. To loosening the bonds of context and sacrificing the sacred to the profane. To Carnival and the breaking of rules. To shaking stories loose from their moorings and prodding them to travel. To giving them the gift of courage and pain.

But it's not that simple. Some seeds don't wait for farmers to cast them, and maybe some stories don't either. Some seeds cast themselves, with their pinafores of fluff and their whirligig motors. Some seeds build their own loss of context into their travels, and maybe some stories do, or want to, as well. If that is true, some stories may wield their own tiny cleavers and cut themselves loose. For these stories, maybe I am not the agent of control at all. Maybe I just delude myself into believing I have power over them. If it's true that some stories cleave themselves, the ethical narrative intermediary should not expend their energy on preserving context in every situation, because sometimes they will work against what they want to support. Instead they should find out what is most wanted in each circumstance. Which stories want to travel? Which have grown wings? How can you tell? I'm not sure. There must be some way of discerning a winged story from the burrowing sort. There must be some way of finding out which stories have cut themselves loose and are struggling to fly. Maybe in a story wings look like gratitude.

One bridge too far

From the story-seed bridge I see another nearby analogy (will you follow me there?) to mutation in natural selection. Mutation is a sort of shaking of the bag of life to see what will fall out of it. Mutation destroys cherished boundaries and concocts new combinations, some wondrous and some grotesque. When we cleave stories and cast them about, we are inserting some entropic forces into the order of cognitive, psychological and social explanation in order to reach new assemblages of order. If so, is that not the perfect role for a trickster to play? Should not a narrative intermediary fill that role, at times? Is the cleaving of story from context the spice of story work? Does it keep the process just unbalanced enough to keep it alive, even as it introduces the pain of destruction and renewal?

Oh, dear. I've done it now. The metaphor police are here. They have a warrant for my arrest on charges of flagrant mixing: "beyond all reasonable tolerance." I can't very well argue. I know I've been caught red-handed. I have to go.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Severed stories and those who sever them

One of my favorite moments in my work is when I'm sitting with a body of stories and their accompanying interpretations. This is a position I have been in many times now and have come to love, over and above writing or programming or almost anything else I do. Sitting with the stories, abiding with them, listening to them, is a delight. Recently, as I reflected on this process and the emotions I experience as I go through it, I thought writing about it might be helpful to others who are also doing this sort of work.

Listening to the story of stories

I always start with the answers. I should explain, to those who don't know, that in projects I help my clients with, I always ask them (beg them, really) to ask people at least a few brief questions about each story they tell: how do you feel about it, when did it happen, and so on. When I receive the stories for a project, they never stand alone but are adorned, encrusted, surrounded with meaningful interpretations.

So when I receive this information, I begin by generating every possible measure and comparison among answers, visual and/or statistical. Then I pore over them. How many people said they felt happy yet confused about their stories? How many people over fifty told stories in which people needed respect? How many under twenty said that? How many people said their second-hand stories lacked control? If they said one thing, were they more likely to say another? Or the reverse? And so on. These thousands of comparisons form patterns which I sort through, sometimes by eye, sometimes by algorithm and sometimes in both ways. Some patterns line up as expected, some are surprising, some curious, some unsettling. The patterns begin to assemble themselves into heaps that grow and merge until I arrive at a smaller group of large trends at the highest level.

Importantly, none of these trends are based on the stories themselves. They are based on interpretations: answers people gave to questions about their stories and about themselves and their views.

I do actually read some stories as I assemble patterns; but I only read small subsets when a pattern is too curious to be understood without plunging into detail. I carefully avoid looking at any stories without a good framing reason, a question to be answered, in the early stages of the work. I never allow myself to wander into the story collection and start exploring.

Why keep myself away from the stories? Because I don't want to form any patterns in my own reading. What I want to do is find the patterns the storytellers set down for me to find. The patterns that form in the interpretations given by storytellers create a second-order story, one that encompasses and explains all the stories beneath it. It is the story of the stories, told by the people who told them. I can only find that story-of-stories by listening to what people said about their stories. The most delightful moment in every project is when the story-of-stories starts to tell itself (or, when the large trends in story interpretation begin to appear and stabilize). If slogging through all the pattern comparisons is like patiently tending a garden, watching the patterns join and merge into strong messages is like harvest day. It is like watching a dense fog lift over a quiet landscape, or rounding a corner and hearing a distant sound become a resounding choir. It is heartening. The people find their voices and speak.

After I have discovered the story-of-stories I communicate it to whoever asked me to help collect the stories. In more technical terms, I explain and illustrate each major trend in prose, in graphs, in statistics, and in stories. As I build this presentation, I finally allow myself to dive into the stories. At this point I read as many stories as I can in order to choose relevant stories with which to illustrate each trend. (Usually that means I read all of the stories, but when there are thousands I cannot get to them all, poor things.)

I always find myself pleasantly surprised at how perfectly the trends match the stories. I don't know why they wouldn't match up, but I'm always excited when they do. The problem is never to find examples that illustrate the trends; the problem is to choose among the many excellent examples that present themselves. People know their stories. I've come to rely on that fact.

Whose story of stories?

I mentioned this always-surprisingly great match between trends and stories to my husband the other day, as I put together a report on a project. He said, "Gee, if they match up so well, maybe you don't need to do all those statistics and look at all those graphs. Maybe you could just read the stories." Not knowing any better, bless him, he put his finger directly on the crux of the issue. My reaction was rapid, emotional and instinctual: I recoiled. What would happen if I read the stories alone? I know exactly what would happen. The result would be worse than useless; it would be a disaster. I might as well not even start such a project. The people would not find their voices and speak; I would try to speak in their voices, and I would fail. It would be like any number of bad movies where ghosts or aliens or monsters take over people, issuing grunts, guttural horrors, grotesque gestures. It would not be real speech but un-speech, something wrong, distorted, alien, horrible.

So I've been thinking about this issue, of why it matters that people interpret their own stories, lately as I work on rewriting the book (Working with Stories). At one point in WWS I say, "You don't have to ask people to answer any questions about the stories they have told." But you know, I don't like that anymore. I want to take it out.

I think I'm coming round to a belief that if you don't ask people to interpret their own stories in some way, you have to take the P out of PNI -- that is, you are just doing Narrative Inquiry, not Participatory Narrative Inquiry. You don't necessarily have to ask people to fill out survey forms about stories; that is just convenient in some circumstances. You can ask people to reflect in a workshop setting, because asking people to build larger stories out of their stories is asking them to interpret, reflect and participate. (In fact in-person, facilitated reflection is far better when you can support it.) But you do need to engage people in some sort of reflection about their stories if you want to hear their true voices. Stories alone are not enough. I have become increasingly convinced of that fact. It just can't have the positive impact I think story work can and should have, and in fact I think it holds danger.

Whose trails through whose lands?

Let's picture a story collection as a landscape marked with features: rocks here, bushes there, a brook, a solitary peak rising above a grassy plain. Anyone who reads the stories gets a sense of the lay of the land. If you have read through any books with hundreds of folk tales or short stories in them, you will remember what it feels like to begin to sense the rise and fall of the terrain. I love to stretch out with a book of folk tales from a region or history and explore it, all the while thinking of other lands I've visited in the past. Maybe you do too.

Now. Anyone who encounters such a land of stories lays down trails through the land. Some trails are broad and rutted, with nothing but the most stubborn grasses struggling to grow on the compacted earth. Some trails are slight and hard to discern, only visible to those familiar with them. Forming your own trails through a narrative landscape is one of the delights of exploring a story collection. As a lover of folk tales, I look forward to feeling the paths form as I read through a collection. But if you have done this, you also must know that my trails cannot be your trails. The experience of reading a collection of stories is a story in itself, and each such story is unique.

Even the same person reading the same book decades later will lay down new trails. When I used to read Hans Christian Andersen's collected fairy tales every year as a child, I ran first on my favorite trails. One of my favorite stories then was "The Story of a Mother." It was about a mother who loses her child and speaks with Death and -- I don't remember how it ends. As a child I loved that story. It was heroic and romantic, and I think it helped me understand how much my own mother loved me, even if that love was manifested in rules and chores and waking me up in an irritating way. As a mother today, I cannot bring myself to read that story. That trail has grown over and lies untrodden, abandoned, forbidden. Just now I looked the story up on the internet and tried to read it -- but I find I can't. I can't face what it says. I couldn't even keep the browser window open, not looking at it; the words leaked fear and pain across into this page where I am writing. Someday I may read that story again and forge a new trail to it, but not in this stage of my life. People know their stories.

Now picture me again, this time facing a collection of stories told by real people, often people in real distress (because story projects usually involve people unhappy about something). Or picture yourself in the same position. If I was to build my own trails through that land of stories, or if you were, of what use would those trails be to anyone other than myself, or yourself? How would my trails or your trails help the people who told the stories, the people who asked for the stories, or the people who might be helped by the stories? They would not help them; indeed they might hurt. My story, or your story, would fight with the story the stories are telling. It might even take over and enslave their story, without our knowing it. So I don't build my own trails. I let the storytellers show me where to find their trails. I do this by asking them to reflect on their own stories. The answers they give me are the trails I follow, and those trails are what I present to those who asked me to help collect the stories. I recommend this practice to everyone who works with stories. Don't build trails. Ask, help and watch.

My journey to story reflection

I didn't always feel this way. I didn't always ask people to interpret their own stories. I started thinking about asking questions about stories soon after I began my journey through organizational narrative. As I recall, I had been reading the literature on story classification and story databases, and I was unhappy with the way people described stories. Of course adding contextual information to stories was nothing new. People had been annotating stories with metadata in computer systems for decades already, and for centuries (though less systematically) before that. But recently the cognitive scientists had got hold of things and everything was about plans and goals and actions. I wanted more. I asked myself: What are all the questions you could possibly ask about a story? To answer that question I spent three months surveying the research and popular literature in fifteen fields related to stories and storytelling. I ended up with several hundred possible questions, which I clustered into the three giant categories (form, function, phenomenon) that informed much of my later work. Some of my favorite questions from that list can be found in Working with Stories.

Soon after I developed this list I began to use questions of form, function and phenomenon to annotate stories and find patterns in the answers. Some of this early work on story annotation was done with John Thomas in IBM Research and some with Dave Snowden, Sharon Darwent and others in IBM Global Services. A decade later, lots of people have used this question-asking process in dozens of successful projects, but many may not know that in the first few years we did not ask storytellers themselves the questions. We did not think people would do it, and we did not realize it had value. Who answered the questions in those first years? Our clients, that is, the people paying us to collect stories, were supposed to answer them; we always asked people to agree to do that part of the "work" (as we saw it then). But when it came down to it, one client after another balked, and Sharon and I ended up staying up half the bleary-eyed night answering questions about stories. After doing this several times we said to ourselves that it just wasn't going to work this way. I did try, sometimes, in the early days, to answer questions myself about the intent of storytellers, like, did the storyteller appear to find this memorable. But those were always educated guesses, maps drawn by hearsay.

Note that all through this we did not realize the potential benefit of asking people to interpret their own stories. We were dragged kicking and screaming into doing it right. I have tried to remember on which project people were first asked to interpret their own stories, but I just can't remember. I do have a strong sense that when we began to gather more and deeper reflections from the original storytellers, the trails we found became more clear and easy to follow. What we discovered was that people know their stories. There is no better foundation on which to work with stories than stories combined with what their storytellers say about them. This is abundantly obvious in retrospect, but I for one did not see it coming. (If anyone else did, fine, all honor and credit to you, but I don't remember anyone else seeing it coming either. As I recall it, we all saw it as a labor-saving device at first and only discovered its other effects later.) In any case I'm very glad we discovered it, because it has had huge positive effects, from what I've seen, on the field in general. Isn't it always the case that the thing overlooked becomes the thing that holds everything together?

Severed stories

When I consider the benefits that can be gained by exploring the trails people have laid down among their own stories, I begin to have almost a horror of people reading and presenting the stories of others without such contextual interpretation being somehow preserved. By extension of course this is a horror of my own early work, but following my embarrassment rule it is a good sign of progress.

In their natural setting stories are never told devoid of context. It is only when we set about collecting them in databases that the problem arises at all. People add meta-narrations to their stories all the time, about why they told them, who they want to hear them, what parts are the most important, how they feel about them. Asking people to reflect on their stories is a way to mimic these interactions and preserve at least some of the story's context. That's why it works.

I'd go so far as to say that a story with no context to it ... is not really a story at all. It is a sort of imprint of a story, an impression, like those pencil rubbings people make of old gravestones. If you make no attempt to include some sort of story context in what you collect and work with, you are not really doing story work at all, because you are not working with living stories. You are just picking up dead stories and shuffling them around.

It reminds me of that scene in The Golden Compass where Lyra discovers a severed child: a child without his daemon, something torn apart, abhorrent, grotesque.
The little boy was huddled against the wood drying-rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon [her daemon], with both hands, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.
Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense. ...
She found herself sobbing, and Pantalaimon was whimpering too, and in both of them there was a passionate pity and sorrow for the half-boy.
Passionate pity and sorrow for the half-boy. This is exactly how I feel about stories taken out of context. They are naked, lost, half-stories that cry out to be clothed in meaningful context.

The kind of narrative analysis where experts build trails through the stories of other people simply by reading them and rearranging them seems to me nothing more than a thin fabric of delusion over the cold-blooded seizure of control. It is the treatment of stories as objects or commodities, things to be remapped and repurposed into new objects for consumption and use by those with the power to use them as they see fit.

Those who hold the cleaver must not use it 

I'm aware that this reaction is extreme. It seems extreme even to myself. I can't entirely explain it. It is not rational. Maybe it has come after sitting with so many tens of thousands of stories, feeling their vulnerability to exploitation, and wanting to protect them. I don't actually know anyone who rips stories away from their meanings in this way, so it's entirely possible -- no, probable -- that I have constructed a bogeyman to act out my own fears of what I might do with stories.

Just today I got an email about a project. The email said, we are entering the stories now and you can read some if you want to. My immediate reaction was to recoil. I even drew my hands back from the computer as though the keyboard were burning. It is interesting to reflect that the person who sent the email is used to facilitating storyteller reflections and interpretations in workshops, not to receiving disembodied stories through the ether as I do. I wonder if they are further removed from the daring temptation to use the sharp cleaver I could wield to separate context from narrative, daemon from child. Maybe it is the nearness and power of that cleaver that brings the spectre of using it so close to my mind and makes my reaction so intense (and my procedures so internally ritualized). I always say that working with stories has both great power and great danger. This is one of the dangers: of cleaving context from story and thereby subduing one story of stories with another.

Of course, there is another interpretation of my bogeyman story. It only occurred to me as I let this essay steep while I stepped into a hot bath. The bath, that womb-like, back-to-the-beginning font of wisdom, bubbled up the thought that maybe the reason I fear the cleaver so much is that I am already wielding it. I am an agent of story intercision myself. How foreign, how alien is it to gather people into a room or onto a web form and ask them to tell their stories to strangers? No matter how many and how deep the questions I ask, maybe I delude myself into believing I am preserving context. Maybe the thin fabric of delusion over a cold-blooded seizure of control is my own. Maybe my procedures are so ritualized not because they preserve context but because they preserve the remnants of what was once context. Maybe what I fear is what I already do.

Recently I was talking about the issue of being an intermediary in story projects with a colleague, and I noticed that I kept mentioning attributes of tricksters. People who work with stories must stand with one foot in two worlds, as insiders and outsiders at once. They must be ready to break the rules and upset the prevailing order so they can help people discover new rules and new order. They must lie to discover the truth, because only by making it clear that they cannot be trusted can they provoke people to think for themselves. And more than anything they must laugh at themselves and question their every statement and motive and plan. If that's true, I am probably exploring in the right direction. I'm starting to think a manual for working with stories (which is what I've been trying to write all this time) should be a manual for tricksters. It's worth thinking about, and it may be worth writing about. I've got my copy of Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World out and am planning to map it onto story work. Can't believe I never put that together before.

Readers, I wonder how much I am unique in having this feeling of power that must not be used, and in worrying I might be using it without knowing it. If you work with stories, have you had nightmares about severed stories? Have you seen anyone wield such a cleaver? Have you used one yourself? And have you developed any techniques that preserve story context in your own work? And do they work?