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?

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