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.

Natural storytelling III - The authorities of story

This is part three 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 (this post)
  4. Solutions

The authorities in the story world, the keepers of the hierarchy, have always managed the official stories and decided what was a story and what was not. Several hundred years ago these were the church, the state, and those people dedicated to traditional storytelling roles -- traveling bards, novelists, playwrights. Story authorities then made the same claims as they do today: that their stories were qualified to be official stories, and others were not. That much has not changed. The very act of writing down texts like the Illiad was a crystallization of oral traditions, whose effect (even if not the sole intention) was to legitimize some stories and deligitimize others.

Who are the story authorities today? All of the above still exist and maintain some influence, but they have been largely crowded out by the commercial world of television and movies.

In The Magic Mountain, one of the most effective contrasts is that between the previously mentioned humanist Settembrini and Naptha, a would-be Jesuit (who was forced to leave the order due to his medical condition). Naptha represents the authority of the church and counters Settembrini's humanist arguments, sometimes in a dazzling bewilderment of contradiction and self-contradiction (which I still can't completely understand). During a conversation Mann calls "the great colloquy on health and sickness" Settembrini and Naptha trade views on what it means to be ill. If we translate these as views on what it means to consume packaged stories, we can discover some illuminating insights.

The conversation begins when casual talk turns to a young woman who has recently died of tuberculosis. She was involved in one of Hans Castorp's schemes for proving his place in the hierarchy of illness: he had begun methodically paying respectful visits to and bestowing gifts on all the most aristocratic (dying) patients. Settembrini makes "sarcastic remarks" about this campaign and its element of put-on reverence. In response, Naphta recounts how Christian saints were known for their "fanatacism and ecstasy in the care of the sick -- the daughters of kings had kissed the stinking wounds of lepers, with the express purpose of becoming infected." Settembrini bridles at this and speaks of "modern, progressive forms of humanitarian nursing, the slow, steady victory over epidemic disease."

Naptha's response is worth typing in full:
During the centuries he was talking about, Naptha responded, such decent bourgeois measures would have served neither side -- would have been of no more use to the ill and suffering than to the healthy and happy, who had wanted to demonstrate their charity not so much out of compassion as out of the desire to save their own souls. Efficaceous social reforms would have deprived the latter of the most important means of justification, and the former of their sanctified state. And so it had been in the interest of both parties to perpetuate poverty and illness, and that attitude had held as long as it had been possible to maintain a purely religious view of things.
I love Settembrini's reply to this.
A squalid view of things, Settembrini asserted, and he felt himself almost above combating such an attitude. For the notion of a "sanctified state" ... was a fraud based on deception, on misplaced feelings, on a psychological blunder. The sympathy that the healthy person felt for someone who was ill, which could intensify to the point of awe, since he was unable to imagine how he could ever bear such suffering himself -- such sympathy was utterly exaggerated. The sick person had no right to it. It was based on a misperception, a failure of imagination, because the healthy person was attributing his own mode of experience to the sick person, making of him, so to speak, a  healthy person who had to bear the torments of sickness -- a totally erroneous idea. The sick person was just that, sick, both by nature and in his mode of experience. Illness battered its victim until they got along with one another: the senses were diminished, there were lapses in consciousness, a merciful self-narcosis set in -- all means by which nature allowed the organism to find relief, to adapt mentally and morally to its condition, and which the healthy person naively forgot to take into account. A perfect example was this tubercular pack up here, with their frivolity, stupidity, depravity, their aversion to becoming healthy again. In short, if the sympathetic or awestruck healthy person were to become sick  himself, to lose his health, he would soon see that illness is a state in and of itself, though certainly not an honorable one, and that he had been taking it all too seriously.
Hans Castorp vacillates between these views. He is attracted by the "nobility, aristocracy" of Naptha's view:
Hans Castorp ... admitted haltingly that he had always imagined death wearing a starched Spanish ruff, or at least in some sort of semi-uniform with a high stiff collar, whereas life always wore a little, normal, modern collar.... [W]as it not true that there were people, certain individuals, whom one found it impossible to picture dead, precisely because they were so vulgar? That was to say: they seemed so fit for life, so good at it, that they would never die, as if they were unworthy of the consecration of death.
At this Settembrini again seizes the opportunity to warn Hans Castorp against the hierarchy of illness:
Herr Settembrini hoped he was not wrong in assuming that Hans Castorp had made such a remark merely so that it could be contradicted. The young man would always find him ready to assist intellectually in warding off such assaults. "Fit for life," had he said? And had used the term in a pejorative sense? "Worthy of life" -- that was the term he should have used instead. And then his thoughts would order themselves in a true and beautiful manner.
Naptha fires back with:
Illness was supremely human.... Indeed, man was ill by nature, his illness was what made him human, and whoever sought to make him healthy and attempted to get him to make peace with nature, to "return to nature" (whereas he had never been natural)... wanted nothing more than to dehumanize man and turn him into an animal. Humanity? Nobility? The Spirit was what distinguished man -- a creature set very much apart from nature, with feelings very much contrary to nature -- from the rest of organic life. Therefore, the dignity and nobility of man was based in the Spirit, in illness. In a word, the more ill a man was the more highly human he was, and the genius of illness was more human than that of health.
It is easy to step from these two views on illness to two similar views on storytelling. First, in Settembrini's meshwork-dominated view, story is a complex human endeavor that goes on among members of communities and families. It is rooted in the concrete and personal, the ever-forming and never-complete, the work of life itself. As such it responds to "efficaceous social reforms" that strengthen community storytelling. From Settembrini's position, packaged stories draw people in and "batter them" until they get used to them.

This reminds me of the audio series "Word of Mouth" on "Who is Telling Stories Today?" -- especially these parts:
"I think as TV gives us images to be consumed, we are not nourished. TV gives us throw-away images. We can't remember from hour to hour what we saw. It has a numbing effect. Now, I watch a lot of TV, and I've analyzed my own interest in it. Why do I watch so much TV? But I know that when a TV program is served up to me, I'm supposed to consume it and excrete it so that I can take in another program. So the images don't linger."
And from a different speaker:
"You can turn on a television and watch Three's a Crowd, and it doesn't make any difference how stupid it is, you'll get some laughs out of it. It's quick and it's easy, and you don't have to put up with Grandma Simpkins, who's a wonderful storyteller but sometimes it takes her a half a pint of whiskey and two or three hours to get going, and she drools. But for me, I'd spend the time around Grandma Simpkins, but...."
Notice the references to hierarchy and meshwork here. In the first quote, the viewer is "supposed to consume it and excrete it" -- supposed to -- expected to fulfill a role in a hierarchy. Conversely, notice the work implied in natural storytelling -- watching television is quick and easy, while experiencing Grandma Simpkins' authentic storytelling requires effort and patience.

Also compare Settembrini's statement about how illness batters its victims to what these people have said about the packaged stories in television. "The senses were diminished" becomes "throw-away images" by which "we are not nourished." "There were lapses in consciousness" becomes "We can't remember from hour to hour what we saw." "A merciful self-narcosis set in" becomes "TV has a numbing effect." Settembrini's scenario of a healthy person viewing a sick person conjures up in my mind the view of a time traveler from hundreds of centuries ago visiting our modern world. While they would certainly marvel at our medical advances, they might be aghast at our willingness to submit meekly to the "numbing effect" and "self-narcosis" of packaged stories, as well as at our belief that we are not qualified to tell "real" stories. Such a traveler might be dismayed at our "frivolity, stupidity, depravity" and "aversion to becoming healthy again" -- healthy storytellers, that is. Any sympathy they might have for us, for our thoughtless turning away from face-to-face conversation to side-by-side consumption, would be a misperception to which we had no right. We have adapted, mentally and morally, to our condition, and are as complicit in it as the illness itself.

Against this view Naptha provides one dominated by the authority and ease of hierarchy. In Naptha's view, the important thing is to advance the pure ideal, that which cannot be sullied by human complexity and messiness. At one point in the "great colloquy on health and sickness" the talk turns to the issue of guilt. Settembrini believes that individual guilt cannot exist, since criminal behavior can be explained by errors of the state, especially in allowing poverty to crush human potential. Naptha responds that guilt is the state of man from which he can only rise with the help of something above himself:
...[T]he moment a single idea, something that transcended mere "security," was at work, something suprapersonal, something greater than the individual -- and since that alone was a state worthy of mankind, it was, on a higher plane, the normal state of affairs -- at that moment, then, individual life would always be sacrificed without further ado to that higher idea, and not only that, but individuals would also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own lives for it.
Settembrini asks if criminals, then, should take all of the guilt of their actions upon themselves and leave none for the state. The response is:
Exactly. The criminal was as imbued with ugilt as he was with self. For he was what he was, and was neither able nor willing to be anything else -- and that was his guilt. Herr Naptha removed guilt and merit from the empirical world to the metaphysical.
That sentence about removing guilt and merit to the metaphysical ranks up there with the sentence on the "dissolute sweetness of disgrace" as penetrating to the heart of the issue. It is now easy to transfer these ideas to storytelling: simply place Naptha's Spirit with the Platonic ideal of Good Stories. The pursuit of Good Stories -- proper, well-formed, well-told, captivating, enlightening, persuasive, memorable, powerful, compelling, timeless stories -- is a single idea. It is something that transcends mere anecdote, something suprapersonal, something greater than paltry community gossip. It is on a higher plane. Individual storytelling should always be sacrificed without further ado to this higher idea, and not only that, but individuals should also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own ability to tell stories for it. The story authorities remove guilt and merit from the narrative world to the narratological.

In this view, helping people revive community storytelling would serve neither side -- would be of no more use to the people who consume Good Stories than to the people who painstakingly learn the craft and produce them. Those who produce Good Stories -- perhaps they have been trained by such masters as Robert McKee, with his absolute hierarchical statements about what makes a good story, or perhaps they have studied the great literary theorists and academic narratologists, or perhaps they turn to the great authors of Good Stories in the past -- do their work not so much out of a desire to entertain and enlighten their audiences as out of the desire to achieve their own mastery of Good Stories. Efficaceous social reforms would deprive the latter of the most important means of justification, and the former of their sanctified state, as Good Audiences who receive Good Stories. And so it is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate the production and consumption of Good Stories, and that attitude will hold as long as it is possible to maintain a purely hierarchical view of narrative.

Indeed (so Naptha might continue), consuming Good Stories is supremely human. People crave Good Stories by nature. The consumption of Good Stories is what makes us human, and whoever seeks to make us healthy and attempts to get us to return to the natural state of casual story exchange (whereas we had never been natural, had always craved Good Stories)... wants nothing more than to dehumanize us and turn us into clumsy, stupid anecdote-spewing peasants. Humanity? Nobility? Good Stories are what distinguish us -- creatures set very much apart from nature, with feelings very much contrary to nature -- from the rest of organic life. Therefore, the dignity and nobility of people is based in Good Stories, in being a Good Audience for Good Stories. In a word, the more Good Stories a person consumes the more highly human he or she is, and the genius of being a Good Audience is more human than that of storytelling.

It may seem as if I am ridiculing this perspective by making such an absurd parody of these translations to another context. But I am not, and actually I find myself agreeing with narrative-Naptha to some extent. There is such a thing as a good story (and there is definitely such a thing as a bad story), and it is nice to watch a movie made by an expert storyteller. The problem, as always, is in the balance. When people are afraid to speak because their role as a Good Audience for Good Stories is too tightly wrapped around their lives, things are not right.

There have always been people around willing to say they know the way to Good Stories. Aristotle's Poetics begins with these words:
I propose to treat of Poetry [drama] in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.
Three words are important here: "essential", "good", and "order." These are statements of authority: I know what is essential, thus real; I know what a good poem is and isn't; and I know what is orderly and what isn't.

Listen to this blurb for McKee's Story Seminar:
Over four intense days, McKee's Story Seminar effectively demonstrates the relationship between story design and character. Quality story structure demands creativity; it cannot be reduced to simple formulas that impose a rigid number of mandatory story elements.

Robert McKee's course teaches you the principles involved in the art and craft of screenwriting and story design, and proves the essence of good story is unchanging and universal. Whether on the big screen, on television, in novels, on stage and in ALL creative work, everything works in the shadow of classic story design.
Demonstrates, demands, cannot, principles, proves, essence, unchanging, universal . These are all hierarchy words, structure words. If in some alternate reality the idea of Good Stories had never evolved and storytelling was still heavily meshwork-flavored, people might still give seminars about stories, but the seminars would be more about observing how people tell each other stories, learning from your own experiences, finding your voice, learning how to listen, and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of stories through human life. Such a seminar could never take away the work aspect of meshwork, because each person's path would be unique. There would be no short-cuts to find, no secrets to reveal, no gurus, no how-tos, and no teaching at all, really. Perhaps that would be a more healthy version of human storytelling? From Settembrini's view, certainly, but not from Naptha's view, because the stories people told would not be Good Stories. Not only that, but there would be no Good Audiences. It would be a disaster.

In this great article in The Atlantic, Richard Bausch laments hearing from writers who have read dozens of books on how to write good stories, but few great stories.
Recently, at a college where I was lecturing, a student told me, with great pride, that he had "over a hundred books" in his library—I could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books. This person wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the work. Being a writer is a stance he wants to take. He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role. I meet this kind of "writer" far too often now in my travels around the country—even, occasionally, in the writing programs.
Again, notice the implications of hierarchy over meshwork in this quote. The student Bausch met wants to take on a stance -- a place in a hierarchy -- but does not want to do the work of reading enough actual writing to learn how to write. He wants to live in Naptha's world, not Settembrini's. He wants what Hans Castorp wanted. He wants what I wanted. He wants a place in the order of things. He wants a path, not a machete.

Next: Solutions ...

Natural storytelling II - Hierarchy and meshwork

This is part two 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 (this post)
  3. The authorities of story
  4. Solutions
The wicked attractions of hierarchy

Okay, so now (if you haven't read part one of this post, you'd better do so now) I've primed the pump with two stories about the seductive power of illness. What in the world does this have to do with storytelling? (That sentence seems to come up often in this blog. Hmmm.) Reading The Magic Mountain and reflecting on my own experience with illness got me thinking about hierarchy and meshwork, and from there I began thinking about hierarchy and meshwork in storytelling through the ages. And here is where the connection lies.

Pure meshwork requires effort (work). It entails building, negotiating, filling in gaps, responding to challenges. It is a verb, a process. Pure meshwork is always in progress, never complete, never entirely reliable. In contrast, pure hierarchy reduces effort (at least for some). It is dominated not by verbs but by nouns: the arch of one level supports another. Pure hierarchy invites people to fill a slot, to make use of the structure provided. A place for everything and everything in its place. It is always complete, never in progress, always entirely reliable.

I wonder if you question my statement that meshwork implies work. Perhaps you are pointing to the famous examples of bird flocks that form in all their apparent centrality due to three simple decentralized rules (don't get too close to anybody, don't get too far from anybody, go where everybody else seems to be going). These seem to imply no more effort than slotting in to a hierarchy. But have you ever seen, and more importantly heard, a flock of geese fly overhead? If they are following simple rules and doing nothing else, what the heck are they talking about? My intuition is that this discovery of complexity-from-simplicity, though significant, cannot cover the full complexity of flocking in real birds (and certainly not in real people), and that new models will incorporate a degree of work (meaning negotiation, observation, adjustment) in meshwork.

One of my favorite real-life experiences of meshwork was what happened one day decades ago when I was walking down a street in New York city with a few hundred other people. Suddenly we heard a gunshot from within a nearby building. Instantly the crowd contracted into a dense clump next to the building; for a few seconds we hung there, waiting, and then the clump dispersed and we walked on. Not a word was said; no one looked at anyone; still it happened. We were like birds following simple rules. But I don't think the phenomenon was empty of work. In those few seconds (and especially in the first half of a second) the gears in all of our heads were spinning at full speed, and we were intently watching what the other people were doing, even if only in peripheral vision. If you replicated such an experiment and placed one "dissenter" in the middle of the pack, say who left a gap or jumped up or shouted, I think the pattern would have been different. We were hard at work.

So, let's just say that you accept my argument that participating in a pure meshwork entails a degree of individual mental effort greater than participating in a pure hierarchy (for all but the hierarchy builders), and let us move on. (If you don't accept my argument, perhaps you'd like to read on to find out what other sorts of errors I might make.)

Swinging pendulums

My thesis in this essay is that the social phenomena of mass media and scientific medicine, as they formed and strengthened, pulled the worlds of narrative and medicine closer to pure hierarchy than they had been previously, and that that change amplified the seductive power of "resting" -- our bodies, our minds, our narrative intelligence. In the worlds of television and hospitalization, you need do little but show up. However, it appears that both of these pendulums, having swung far into hierarchy around the middle of the last century, are now swinging back. That's a good sign: it means that the task of reviving natural storytelling (and perceptions thereof) is not one of arresting the pendulum's swing, but one of giving it a push in the direction it is already going.

Medically, let me contrast three illnesses from my own life to illustrate the change in medical hierarchy and meshwork (and here feel free to substitute your own). When I was nearly four I spent something like a month in the hospital (which was not unusual at the time). I was bleeding internally, no one knew why, and the kid in before me had died of duodenitis, so they took everything out, had a good look at it, and put it back in again (probably in the right place). My memories of the hospital are those you would expect of a three-year-old. They had this great big rack of pajamas, and you could choose any pair you wanted, every day. This stands out because normally it was hand-me-downs and nothing else (and nothing wrong with that, either). As I recall, I chose one animal-based pattern after another: giraffes, elephants, puppies and so on. I can still remember the thrill of seeing those endless stacks of pajamas. Also, I threw up on my new teddy bear (he cleaned up well and is still with me), and I misunderstood the end of visiting hours as my parents being bored with me and liking their other kids better (that's probably typical for three). After I got back from the hospital, no better off, my mother tried the remedy she had read about in the newspaper, you know, the one she tried to show the arch doctors, who waved her off, silly woman. She stopped giving me milk, and I started healing within days. Turned out I just had lactose intolerance, which was not yet on the radar screen of most of the scientific medical profession. Now that experience I'd call pretty close to pure hierarchy.

The second illness I have already told you about. Compared to the pajamas story it is mid-range in hierarchical influence. The third illness happened only a few years after the back injury, but either I straddled an invisible cultural phase transition, or I simply encountered a hospital with a more forward-looking philosophy. This time things were different. I had a small surgery for something that was growing where it should not have been, in a benign (one might even say a misguidedly helpful) way. The surgery was completed in the afternoon and I slept all evening and night. The next morning, at a very early hour, as I prepared to enter into my fully sanctioned rest cure, the doctor matter-of-factly entered my hospital room, took a look at the incision, ripped off the bandage, and advised me to get out of bed and start walking around. What? In my state? The pomegranate was forbidden, the door to the underworld closed. The meshwork had risen again.

Since then, touch wood, I've stayed out of hospitals and rest cures and have been properly energetic. (I identify more with Settembrini than with Hans Castorp these days.) But from what I've seen I'd venture a guess that today's medical world is further into meshwork than it was then, and that the events of The Magic Mountain, or my pajama adventure, couldn't happen now. If there had been an internet search engine in the International Sanatorium Berghof in 1914, and Hans Castorp had typed "patient empowerment" into it, he would have found nothing. It was an oxymoron then. That's because empowerment is a meshwork function. ("Patient advocacy" is another term you see today, but it has portions of both meshwork and hierarchy and thus has a longer history.) In fact, typing things into internet search engines is exactly the action that has created patient empowerment. Combined with crass commercial cost-cutting, this has made departures for the underworld less likely, more brief, and less attractive. Get out of bed and start walking around.

The same thing has been happening in the world of story, and probably not coincidentally. Here are another two stories about meshwork and hierarchy, but this time about stories instead of illness.

For its entire run of ten years I was a devoted fan of the television show Stargate SG-1. Somewhere in about the ninth year, as I was wincing yet again after they had blown up more conveniently-ugly or conveniently-tastelessly-dressed or conveniently-controlled-by-aliens or otherwise disposable bad guys, I said to myself: why do I keep watching this show? It's violent, it's predictable, it's mindless, it's boring. I have to wait through three or four kill-the-bad-guys shows to get to one interesting idea (like, what would happen if the human(ish) host and alien symbiont went to court? -- that sort of thing). Why do I keep watching this? What is the attraction in it?

Then it dawned on me. The characters in Stargate SG-1 are friends. The attraction is not that they face horrible situations. I just tolerate that to get what I'm really after. The attraction is that they help each other through horrible situations. I've been watching friendship fantasy. These are the wonderful, stand-by-me, stride-through-fire-for-me friends I wish I had, not the real ones who move away and don't drop everything when I'm down and leave off pretending to get excited about my obsessions. These characters are impossibly tolerant, loyal, engaged, understanding and persevering. They are supernormal stimulus friends. I'm starting to think a majority of contemporary television and movies is friendship fantasy. Harry Potter -- would your friends face he-who-must-not-be-named for you? Star Wars -- "I love you." "I know." Star Trek -- "I have been ... and always shall be ... your friend." If you think about any show or movie you have felt irresistably drawn to, was the attraction of effortless connection part of the draw?

There was a second reason I loved Stargate SG-1: I loved Daniel Jackson. Not because he was handsome (though that didn't hurt) but because he was me. He was a scientist, and he had failed academically, and everybody underestimated him, but he was secretly very cool and saved the world every week. He even talked like me (to craft his "Actually, it's more complicated than that" they must have secretly followed me around) and talked fast when he was excited and pawed around for his glasses and was most comfortable with his nose in a book. When Daniel died (dispute between the actor and production) I was horrified and nearly quit watching the show, but then he came back (gotta love sci-fi) and I became a loyal fan again. This wasn't friendship fantasy, it was career fantasy. Daniel was me, except successful and important. The fact that he was secretly successful and important made it even better, because he could be smug in the face of underestimation, like I'd like to be.

After coming to these realizations I began to feel strange about my favorite shows and movies. I began to pay attention to how I felt when I watched TV and movies. The best description I could come up with was that I felt played upon, like an instrument. I didn't feel negotiation or challenge or even cognition, really, just emotions dangling in space. I felt adrenaline, I felt  fear, I even felt tears on my face sometimes, but I couldn't explain how they got there. I didn't do anything. I was passive, like a patient lying in a hospital bed. Don't get up and walk around, just lie there and take your rest cure. That's hierarchical, authoritative story.

Now here's the contrasting experience (and again feel free to replace it with your own). Last fall I went with my family to see the Mettawee River Theatre Company performing "Beyond the High Valley," a Quechua folk tale about a hummingbird and a condor. The shortest and most banal summary of the story was that a condor transformed into a man in order to seduce a young woman, then took her away to his mountain redoubt. The young woman wept and her parents grieved, but the story turned when a trickster hummingbird showed up and taught the young woman how to fly home on the wind.

The condor in the play started out as a bundle of branches and cloth carried into the play space. Four puppeteers assembled the branches and cloth into a giant condor-like contraption and held it aloft. (Of course, it looked nothing like a condor, but since they kept saying it was a condor, it was a condor. The first few minutes of the play consisted in guessing what these people were up to, and some of the kids fidgeted, unused to such a challenge, I think.) Later the condor took on other forms, shrinking down to a smaller version held aloft on a single pole, and then a tiny version high up in the cloth mountains. At other times the condor swooped down and became a handsome man dressed in traditional Incan courting clothes. The hummingbird was a shining, vibrating spark, and his movements became part of his message. Even the clouds moved and changed as the story wore on. Under and among all of these floating elements of the story were people, talking, singing, holding poles, and running back and forth. It was impossible to exclude the puppeteers from the story, because there they were, so they became part of it. I particularly remember the man who held the twinkling hummingbird; he seemed to take on some of the personality of his character in his face. Says this review of the play: "We watch the puppets and the puppeteers too—and it often seems the humans are the puppets' souls." In the middle of the performance it began to rain, and this also entered into the story, rendering the mountains misty and remote.

Sitting in the audience, I was keenly aware of the part I myself was playing in the story. I could feel the negotiation and the challenges in the experience. I even caught myself rising and falling slightly as the condor swooped. The whole play felt like something I was doing, not something I was watching. I wasn't being played upon; I was playing. Later, when I asked my son what he liked best about the performance, he said "you had to add the background yourself." When I asked what he meant by background, he said "you had to use your imagination to make the story." Exactly. This sort of story feels like engagement, like effort, like getting up and walking around. Like meshwork.

The retention of disbelief

Contrasting these two story experiences, considering their similarity to the three medical experiences I mentioned above, and pondering the differences between being played upon and playing, I came to consider yet another angle on how mass media has impacted storytelling.

In narratology the difference between narrative events (storytellings) and narrated events (the events that take place in the story) is a critical distinction. Bakhtin's quote on this is useful here.
We might put it as follows: before us are two events—the event that is narrated in the work and the event of the narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place in different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events, including the external material givenness of the work, and its text, and the world represented in the text, and the author-creator and the listener or reader; thus we perceive the fullness of the work in all its wholeness and indivisibility, but at the same time we understand the diversity of the elements that constitute it.
In narrative we speak of the suspension of disbelief, the cognitive task we take on when we enter into the world of a story and participate in the narrative event it entails, in "the fullness of the work in all its wholeness and indivisibility." If you think of any story you have seen played out before you in person, whether it was told by a relative or friend, put on by a drama group, or invented by a child, you were aware that you were participating in a narrative event.

Now think about moving pictures, and specifically the rise in you-are-there verisimilitude through camera angles, special effects, sound effects and (lately) three-dimensional representation. Early movies were like plays: the camera stayed in one place, stage props were obviously fake (and nobody considered that a problem), and the sounds you heard were those you would hear sitting in a theatre watching a play. The frame of the narrative event (surrounding the narrated events) was still obvious and reliable, even though the players had obviously put on the play at another time and in another place.

In contrast, most of today's movies have so enlarged the story frame that it has disappeared from our peripheral vision. We have gone inside the story, or it has enveloped us. The events we see in movies no longer appear to be part of a narrative event in which we are participating. The events we see appear to be happening. In other words, narrated events have taken over while narrative events have become obscured. Even the footsteps of the actors are now routinely modified to place the audience more centrally in the frame. Why do movies need "surround sound," and lately even "three-dimensional sound reality" if not to remove the narrative event from view? In fact, in looking up mentions of surround sound, I invariably come up against that word: reality. The goal, apparently, is to forget that we are participating in a narrative event at all. In such a situation, suspension of disbelief is effortless: it is done for us, to us, like a surgical operation. If there is any effort involved, it goes into the retention of disbelief -- after the movie, as we attempt to return to our boring, normal, complex lives -- rather than its suspension. I remember the tremendous letdown coming out of the first Indiana Jones movie and realizing that I had to go back to my real life. I'm sure you've had similar experiences.

Now, for the good news about the pendulum swinging back. I just looked at, and there are (as of this writing) exactly 22,592 fan stories related to Stargate SG-1. (And that's only on one site.) Obviously, some, or much, of the fan fiction out there is of poor quality, but some of it is thought-provoking -- just like all human conversation and creative output. But here's the best thing about it. Reading fan fiction and other audience outgrowths from professional, purposeful stories never feels like it's happening before my eyes. The "author notes" and little mistakes here and there make the whole exercise more of a romp in a room full of playthings than a surgical operation on my friendship organ.

The reason I say the pendulum is swinging back is that very little, if any, of this stuff existed when I saw Indiana Jones for the first time (okay, okay, of many). Maybe, even as the movie and TV world has drawn us deeper and deeper into narrated events, we have had an instinctual reflex reaction back out of them and into narrative events, and societally that comes out into the internet and the outpouring of what people call "user generated content." The audience is becoming the storytellers. Maybe we have such a need for narrative events that when we are fed on a diet of narrated events, we generate our own narrative events in response.

Here's another good sign: the script of nearly every television show and movie ever produced is now available online (many of them typed in laboriously by people who have a lot more free time than I do). Last summer, on my e-book reader, I read the scripts of nearly every Star Trek show ever written. (That is not as difficult as it sounds: the script for an hour-long show only takes about five minutes to read.) Reading these scripts felt different than watching the shows. Even though I remembered seeing many of the episodes, I was free to "add the background myself" in any way I liked. There were also lots of fascinating behind-the-scenes details, like the way someone was supposed to look at someone else, which enhanced the story and gave me some "hooks" onto which to hang my own imaginative additions. I've also started reading the scripts of some favorite movies. It's not necessarily better to experience movies in this way, it's just different, but different in a way that complements the passive act of watching. It's a walk between rest cures, and I think it's healing.

Next: The authorities of story ...

Natural storytelling I - The sweetness of disgrace

This post is part one of a final (probably) wrap-up to the issue of natural versus purposeful storytelling in contemporary society. The essay turned out to be so long that it overtook Blogger's capacity to keep up with my typing, so I've split it into four parts (even though I posted them all at the same time). The four parts are:
  1. The sweetness of disgrace (this post)
  2. Hierarchy and meshwork
  3. The authorities of story
  4. Solutions
[To those who haven't been following this issue: over the past few years I have been pondering something I keep hearing people say in regard to stories. At this point I've heard dozens if not hundreds of people, in person, in groups, even in online story collections, respond to the questions I and others have posed to them with a statement about the quality of their stories and their qualification to tell them. People say: I don't have any stories; my stories aren't real stories; my stories aren't good enough to tell; I've had experiences, but no stories. This response has mystified me since I first heard it about ten years ago, because for most of what stories have been used for since people were people, that is, transferring complex knowledge and communicating complex feelings and points of view, all stories are good stories, and all stories are real. I've been exploring the origins of this phenomenon: how natural and purposeful (packaged, usually commercial) storytelling are out of balance and what can be done to improve the situation. Click on the Natural storytelling heading to see other posts on this topic.]

In my last post about this topic (It's not a puzzle; it's a piece of a puzzle) I promised to start posting some solutions. I have the first inklings of a few possible solutions now, some lights at the end of a tunnel (hopefully not a train). They are in part four of the essay, but I would not advise reading them without the rest as they will not make sense alone.

The dissolute sweetness of disgrace

Over the past month I've been slowly re-reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a masterpiece of a treatise on the modern world started before World War I and completed in 1924. (This is by the way one of the best backflow stories ever composed, but if I tell you why that's true...) According to the rules of serendipity, I found much food for thought in The Magic Mountain with respect to the purposeful/natural storytelling issue. (Whether the book addressed the issue or the issue shaped my reading of the book is one of the mysteries of serendipity.)

The shortest and most banal summary of The Magic Mountain is this: we follow a promising young naval engineer, Hans Castorp, as he visits his cousin Joachim at the International Sanatorium Berghof, a tuberculosis treatment facility (and posh hotel) near Davos. Hans Castorp's visit lasts for three weeks, but his stay at the Berghof lasts for seven years.

On re-reading this book it is clear to me (this time) that it is all about the interplay between hierarchy (order, structure) and meshwork (unorder, complexity and chaos). (The next time I read it, it will probably be about something else.) And that is why it relates to natural and purposeful storytelling. To find out why, come and walk with me, but be warned: we will go far afield before we return home.

As the story begins, Hans Castorp, a promising young naval engineer with a plum internship lined up at a shipbuilding firm, arrives at the Berghof. Hans Castorp is a young man who habitually does what is expected of him blindly and without the slightest thought. On the train he carries what seems to be a textbook called Ocean Steamships as though it were a badge of identity (or a security blanket). But the sanitarium is high in the mountains, and the people "up here" behave strangely, or so it seems to Hans Castorp ... at first.

What first got me excited about the connection between this book and storytelling was this quote from near the start of the book. One day soon after Hans Castorp arrives at the sanitarium, he overhears Herr Albin, whose case has been deemed incurable, defending his "outrageous" behavior (smoking, eating chocolates, carrying around a revolver) thus:
You simply must grant me the license that results from my condition. It's much the same as in high school when you know you'll be held back -- they don't bother to ask you questions, you don't bother to do any work. And now I've finally come to just such a pretty pass again. I don't need to do anything anymore, I'm no longer in the running -- and I can laugh at the whole thing.
Hans Castorp's thoughts on hearing this run along these lines:
[A]lthough he was not quite certain if Herr Albin was a phony or not, he could not help feeling a little envious of him nevertheless. That comparison taken from life at school had made an impression on him, because he had been held back in his sophomore year, and he could recall the somewhat ignominious, but humorous and pleasantly untidy state of affairs that he had enjoyed in the last quarter, once he had given up even trying and was able to laugh "at the whole thing." ... [I]t seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless. He tried putting himself in Herr Albin's shoes and imagining how it must be when one is finally free of all the pressures honor brings and one can endlessly enjoy the unbounded advantages of disgrace -- and the young man was terrified by a sense of dissolute sweetness that set his heart pounding even faster for a while.
This is the crux of the matter. Before he came to the Berghof, Hans Castorp was embedded in a hierarchy of hard work, progress and all the things society expects of promising young men (who have promised by being promising, and therefore must deliver). The Berghof offers release from that hierarchy. The advantages of disgrace provide a ticket into meshwork, into the freedom to create one's own path. And create he does. Hans Castorp follows a bewildering array of interests: physiology, botany, skiing, philosophy, political science, astronomy. He builds his own social and romantic connections with the people "up here."

But while Hans Castorp has left one hierarchy, he has entered into another: the hierarchy of illness, where he enters into the role of a patient. The existence and strength of this hierarchy becomes apparent soon after his visit begins.
Hans Castorp had not been up here for two weeks, but it seemed much longer to him, and the Berghof's daily schedule, which Joachim observed so dutifully, had begun to take on the stamp of sacred, axiomatic inviolability in his eyes as well, so that when viewed from up here, life in the flatlands below seemed strange and perverse.
As one hierarchy (the path of a promising young engineer) has been abandoned, another (the path of a tubercular patient) replaces it; and one freedom (to feel oneself able to achieve physical goals -- to run, to breathe deeply, to travel anywhere) is put aside in favor of another (to learn, to explore, to ruminate, to socialize, to "waste" time). The novel hints at all of these gains and losses obliquely (as all good novels should) but repeatedly. In particular the issue of membership, or qualification, is prevalent throughout. This connected, for me, to what I heard people saying about stories: that they were not qualified to tell them.

Life underground

Hans Castorp's extended stay at the Berghof begins when Director Behrens obligingly suggests he come along with his cousin for a physical exam, because he looks anemic and has a slight cold. I'd love to type in the whole passage where Behrens "grants" Hans Castorp "admission" to the sanitarium, but it's long and I'll just pull out the most telling parts of it.
"Yes, Castorp," he said ... "[I] was pretty sure of my guess that you were secretly one of the locals.... Now listen to me, young man, I am about to utter several golden words.... [A]s things stand and on the basis of my examination, and seeing that you are already here -- it would not pay for you to return home, Hans Castorp. Because you would be back to see us in a very short order.... I knew at once that you'd be a better patient than visitor, with more talent for being ill than our brigadier general here [his cousin], who tries to slip away the moment his fever goes down a tenth or two."
Does Director Behrens find tuberculosis in Hans Castorp during this examination? It's not clear. But notice the hierarchy-shifting words in these excerpts. Doesn't every tourist envy "the locals"? I grew up next to a pick-your-own strawberry farm, and on a certain week in June hundreds of cars would cram our rural road. My siblings and I would proudly stand out in our yard pursuing activities expressly chosen to demonstrate that yes, we really did live here, unlike those pitiful tourists who could only gawk at our riches. That sounds utterly insane now, but my point is: if a strawberry farm could produce that effect in vulnerable youth, how much more strongly could a natural beauty like the Alps pull people in? A place where the very air is different, where entry requires a long train ride up, up, up? What better to place to seem unattainably exclusive and seductive?

Why does Behrens say "I am about to utter several golden words"? It is a twisting of the usual portrayal of medical diagnosis. It seems disrespectful, heretical, obscene even. Hans Castorp has been given the chance to enter an exclusive club, the wasting-time club, the free-from-promises club, the abundant-excuses club, and Behrens fully knows he wants in. Notice how Behrens says "you would be back to see us in a very short order" -- but elsewhere the book mentions that there are several other sanitaria in the area. These words are carefully chosen. It's more of an invitation to take on a role than a diagnosis. And the most telling line -- "I knew at once that you'd be a better patient than visitor" is tantamount to a certificate of qualification.

So Hans Castorp accepts the offered role and is put on three weeks of bed rest (to get over his cold, ostensibly, but it reads more like a ritual of passage), and the transformation begins. During his bed rest the director's assistant visits him daily, which pleases him:
Yes, Dr. Krokowski no longer circumvented Hans Castorp when he made his independent afternoon rounds. Hans Castorp counted now. He was no longer an interval or hiatus, he was a patient; he, too, was questioned, instead of being left lying there to his own devices, as he had been every day until now -- much to his slight and secret annoyance.
Lodovico Settembrini, a humanist (and actually quite ill) patient who speaks for the view of enlightened human progress throughout the novel, repeatedly warns Hans Castorp about the path he has chosen. He calls Hans Castorp "one of life's problem children." He visits him during his bed rest, and is at first as inclusive as the director:
"[You are] Like a pious monk. One might say you've ended your novitiate and have taken your vows. My solemn congratulations. You're already calling it 'our dining hall,' yourself."
But Settembrini also sounds a warning, hinting that not all of Behrens' diagnoses are correct and telling some stories about X-ray "spots" that turned out to be nothing but shadows. He also gives a more general warning:
"Permit me, permit me, my good engineer, to tell you something, to lay it on your heart. The only healthy and noble and indeed, let me expressly point out, the only religious way in which to regard death is to perceive and feel it as a constituent part of life, as life's holy prerequisite, and not to separate it intellectually, to set it up in opposition to life, or, worse, to play it off against life in some disgusting fashion.... For as an independent spiritual power, death is a very depraved force, whose wicked attractions are very strong and without doubt can cause the most abominable confusion of the human mind."
Settembrini later compares staying at the Berghof to a visit into the underworld.
Catching up with the young man, but with the intent of moving right on past him, Settembrini said, "Well, my good engineer, how did you like the pomegranate?"

Hans Castorp smiled in confused delight. "I'm sorry -- what did you say, Herr Settembrini? Pomegranate? We haven't had any pomegranates, have we? I don't think I've ever ... no, wait, I did once drink some pomegranate juice and soda. It was too sweet for me."

Already past him now, the Italian looked back over his shoulder and carefully stated: "The gods and mortals have on occasion visited the realm of shades and found their way back. But those who reside in the nether world know that he who eats of the fruits of their realm is forever theirs."
(I think the words "It was too sweet for me" have something to do with the fact that the freedom of unadulterated disgrace is too good to be true. Maybe.)

Alas, Settembrini's words are not heard, and Hans Castorp continues to revel in the freedom of his disgrace. He takes to sitting or lying in favorite places and "playing king" -- meaning, doing just what he wants to do, without considering the obligations of his former life. Though of course he is perfectly dutiful in his obligations as a patient (mainly, eating, eating, lying down, chatting, and eating).

The conversion is complete

By the time Hans Castorp's uncle James visits him, nearly a year later, his transformation is complete. Hans Castorp refers to James' visit as an "attack" and a "raid," but receives the news "with great calm," sure of his new position. When Uncle James arrives, he is stunned by Hans Castorp's response to his inquiries. Hans Castorp ignores the news from home, diverts his uncle with descriptions of the constellations (about which he knew nothing before his new role began), and expounds new and unexpected philosophies of illness as "exuberant" and a "celebration" of the body. What's even more striking is the way Hans Castorp talks about himself.
[T]he crisp autumn evening was close to freezing, yet there beside him sat Hans Castorp without hat or overcoat. "The cold doesn't affect you, does it?" asked James.... "We're never cold," Hans Castorp replied calmly and curtly.
James asks Hans Castorp to return home with him.
"Well, let's not be reckless about this," Hans Castorp said. Uncle James was talking like someone from down below. Once he had been here awhile and looked around a bit and settled in, he would soon see things differently.
The ambiguous complicity of the sanitarium in the "wicked attractions" of illness becomes more apparent as Director Behrens extends his "you look a little anemic" and "it would be a clever move to stay a bit longer" invitations-to-disgrace to Uncle James. After an interview with the head nurse Mylendonk (one of the comic relief staff) James and Hans Castorp have this conversation:
[Uncle James] rapped on his nephew's door and circumspectly inquired if he did not also think the head nurse just a little odd. After first casting a fleeting, speculative glance in the air, Hans Castorp halfway assented to the idea by asking in return whether Head Nurse Mylendonk had sold him a thermometer. [The event of being sold a thermometer had been significant in Hans Castorp's own conversion to fully qualified patienthood.] "No. Me? Is she in the business?" his uncle replied. But the worst part was how clearly his nephew's face said that he would not have been surprised if what he had asked had in fact occurred. "We're never cold" was written in that expression.
Cutting his visit short, James flees back to the flatlands, not so much in reaction to what has happened to his nephew but in horror at what threatens to draw him in as well.
[H]e had turned tail and ran, head over heels, in silent haste, as if he had seized the resolve of the moment, dared not for the life of him to let that moment pass, had thrown his things into his bags and off he had gone. Alone, not with his nephew, not in fulfillment of his honorable mission, but overjoyed at having escaped, even if it was all alone -- the upright citizen and deserter to the flag of the flatlands, Uncle James. Well, bon voyage.
As an upright citizen of the flatlands, James is a deserter from the order "up here" while Hans Castorp fully engages in it.

My own private pomegranate

One of the reasons The Magic Mountain works so well is that many of us have experienced exactly such a dilemma: to make the most of the license that comes with illness (or some other socially valid excuse: house burned down, lost our job, orphaned, jailed, abandoned, etc), or to "fight the good fight" and return to everyday striving? Illness and misfortune can offer a new and compelling role in a hierarchy whose demands may seem, at least at first, refreshingly light.

I experienced exactly this dilemma myself. A memorable episode in my own life's story was the back injury twenty years ago that pretty much ended my career as a field biologist. The shortest and most banal summary of the story is that I slipped on the ice, tore a ligament, and spent several months in nasty pain and several years in slow, two-steps-forward-one-step-back recovery. The relevant part is that in the first weeks and months after this injury, I refused to participate in my own recovery. I didn't try to get better; I didn't want to get better. As I've come to understand it, there were two elements involved in this refusal. First, I felt (not "I reasoned" because I didn't) that if I got better, it didn't happen, and if it didn't happen I could no longer nurse my cherished anger at ... whatever had done it. (Yes, this makes no sense, but read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot for a perfect explanation of the paradox.)

The second element was the same attraction that ensnared Hans Castorp. Frankly speaking, it was liberating to be demonstrably unable to succeed. There was an exuberance and celebration in it, one that I can only see (and admit to) twenty years later. Because my back pain was obvious (I couldn't feign health even if I tried), it served as a legitimate qualification, sanctioned by doctors, to take a "rest cure" from the expectations of a "promising" young biologist, or even a wage-earner, citizen, adult. In The Magic Mountain, Director Behrens provides the valuable service of "admitting" people to the hierarchy of illness, for a modest fee. (Whether he is aware of this service or is simply and sincerely zealous in his work is one of the delicious ambiguities of The Magic Mountain.) Essentially, my back pain was the price of admission to a hierarchy that provided benefits I had never before experienced. Like Hans Castorp, I could take my rest cure, as I often did -- on a work day, even -- with perfect equanimity, indeed with the same sort of unruffled calm that so alarmed Hans Castorp's Uncle James. (And like Hans Castorp, I thought a lot during these rest cures. I thought some of the best thoughts I've ever thought during that awful/awe-full time.) These were indeed strong and wicked attractions. The price of these attractions became apparent, to myself and to Hans Castorp, only later, as the story wore on.

What happened in the end? To me, or to Hans Castorp? It's the same story either way. Eventually each of us had to give up our membership in the great society of victimhood and return to real life. I haven't got to the end of my second reading of The Magic Mountain yet, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you even if I had, but suffice it to say that Hans Castorp returns to the flatlands. And I returned to taking proper care of myself and healing my back. I got tired of clinging to excuses and started looking for solutions, and I rejoined my first hierarchy, the one you belong to, the hierarchy of the normal productive world, the flatlands.

Next: Hierarchy and meshwork ...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The best questions about stories - more

This is a follow-up post to "The best questions about stories" with a few more thoughts. I said in that post that I've observed four dominant factors that make questions about stories work. Since then I thought of two more factors (and also at the end I have a little more advice on reducing the number of questions).

5. Mind your messages.

It is so very easy to slip subtle messages into questions about stories. We all betray ourselves when we ask questions; it's human. Some messages, like "I am excited about this project" and "I hope you will find yourself heard here" and "I'm here to listen" and "I respect your viewpoint" are messages you want to communicate. But other messages can creep in, ones that damage the potential of the project. Those are worth finding and removing.

I can think of two types of message you can send in your questions about stories: directing messages (what to do) and characterizing messages (who you are, who we are).

Directing messages.  A directing message tells people which responses are acceptable and which are not. This is close to a "leading question" in direct questioning surveys. The most extreme directing message is what I call the "do you want to keep your job" question set, in which the correct answer to each question is painfully obvious. Projects with question sets like this are foregone conclusions and aren't worth finishing. But there are many lesser grades of directing questions that can slip under your radar.

Say you are asking patients for stories about their relationship with their doctors. Say you ask what the story shows about the doctor's committment to quality medical care. If all of the available answers are positive, ranging from "satisfactory" to "excellent" for example, you have communicated to your storytellers that you do not want them dishing any dirt on their doctors. "Quack" is not a possibility, nor is incompetent, dishonest, burned out, lost, or confused. The message is: you will say this, and you will not say that. The worst part about a message like this is that it will affect not only the answers to that question but every answer and every story people tell you after they see it.

Or, say you are looking at innovation among the employees of your organization. One of your questions has to do with what the main characters of stories do with their work time. It would be a project-killer to include "play" or "chatting" or "messing around" as possible answers, even though this is the sort of thing you are looking for, because nobody in their right mind would choose that. But if you put in an answer like "unconstructed exploration" or "collaborative brainstorming" you are likely to find the play you are looking for.

This is not to say you should not direct people when you ask questions about stories. Certainly you want to nudge people! You want them to reflect on their story, to consider the questions carefully, to recall the information you need, to explore their feelings. Keep those directions and lose the others. My suggestion is to have a range of people read the questions and report on their feelings about where they feel nudged. Are they nudged in the way you'd like them to be?

Characterizing messages. A characterizing message comes in where you make a statement about the worldview of your storytellers and, for some of them, your statement doesn't fit. To those people that constitutes a message, intended or not. The message is: this is not for you.

The classic example of this sort of characterization is in the puzzle that goes like this.
A man and his son are rushed to the hospital, both badly hurt. The surgeon on duty in the emergency room cries out, "I cannot operate on this boy! He is my son!" 
At this point so many people know this story that it's just a funny little test to see if there's anyone left who can't guess the answer. But think how the surgeon feels. And think how the surgeon would respond to questions that assume she is a man. What would she do? She might try very hard to prove she can still be considered worthy of speaking; she might lose enthusiasm and plod through the rest of the required task without giving due consideration to anything; she might angrily answer the questions vindictively; or she might simply walk away and exclude herself from the project. All of these responses are misfires for a narrative project.

A few more examples. Your list of possible answers to the question "How do you feel about this story" shows people what sorts of emotions you expect them to have. Say the list includes "hysterical" but not "calm" or "motivated" but not "desperate" or "happy" but not "sad": that communicates a message. I like to check for counter-balancing answers. If there is a "desperate" there should be a "reassured" or "content." If there is "to create" there should be "to destroy." Or, if there is a long list of possible problems, one answer should be "there wasn't a problem." Why? Because if you don't have that answer the message is "you are a person who is guaranteed to have problems."  

Also watch out for "of course everybody thinks this" or shared-value messages. These make a statement about the worldview of your storytellers by describing your worldview and making it clear that you assume they share your opinion. Again these can be so subtle that you don't notice them. Even the names you use for places and people can communicate presumably shared values. Listen to this sentence from Wikipedia on the name of one of the airports in Washington, D.C.:
The airport is commonly known as "National", "Washington National", "Reagan", and "Reagan National".
Which of these names you call that airport has something to do with your feelings about Ronald Reagan and his politics, and your age and history in the area. Every city has a few of these tellingly-named landmarks. Even the names of some whole cities, and countries, are indicative (Mumbai or Bombay? Burma or Myanmar?). Most people in official roles can also be referred to in several ways. Is a teacher different from an instructor? How about an educator? A trainer? What is the difference between a cop, a policeman, a police officer, a law enforcement agent, and an officer of the law? This page on Wikipedia lists an amazing 119 (at this count) slang terms for police officer. (Wow. Important?)

It is so easy not to notice characterizing messages that I suggest always having someone else look for them. Of course you can't write questions that encompass the worldview of every sentient being on the planet, but you can aim to get to the point where most of your storytellers believe the project is about them and not someone else.

6. Gather interpretations, not opinions.

When you ask questions about stories, you want people to direct their attention to the story and away from themselves. This creates that magical narrative displacement you need to get past defensive walls and gather authentic ground truths about the topic you are exploring. So make sure your questions keep people engaged in interpretation and don't allow them to wander over into opinion. For example, even if you are one hundred percent sure that each of your storytellers will be the protagonist in their own stories, don't ask a question like, "In this story, what did you need to solve a problem?" Doing that will remove them from the context of interpretation and place their attention back on themselves. Instead, ask "In this story what did the main person need to solve a problem?" Keep them in the story.

It's a bit tricky figuring out how to refer to whoever is in the story without saying "you" to people. Rarely can you actually use the word "protagonist" because most non-screenwriters will not understand what you mean. Instead it's better to talk about the main or central person or character. Character is more broadly understood than protagonist, but it can be a dangerous word to use with suspicious storytellers or sensitive topics, because it can be taken to imply that the story is a fiction or lie. Person, though not very exciting, is the least risky.

When you ask questions about the story's main character, make sure to ask who that is. I've seen a few question sets that asked about behaviors, beliefs and characteristics of the central person, but then forgot to ask who that person was. When this happens the answers get mixed together -- was it the teacher or the student who showed compassion? was it the sales agent or the customer who needed information? -- and lose their utility. I hate it when this happens, because people often reveal things about themselves as a story character that they are less willing or able to reveal directly. A simple question like "Who is the central person of this story?" (and then some choices based on the important societal/topical roles of people who might be in the story) can avoid this problem.

You might think that the question "How do you feel about this story?" presents an exception to the keep-their-eyes-on-the-story rule. But it doesn't. If you asked the question "What does your story mean?" or "What is your story about?" you would open the gates to the world of platitudes and close down the path to ground truth. Don't ask people why they told their story. If you do that, you might as well skip the story and go straight to "what do you think about this issue." Instead, ask people what the story says to them, what emotions it brings up. That's still interpretation, and that's still magic.

A few more tips on reducing the number of questions

In nearly every project in which I've helped people design questions, we end up with more questions than we can use. That's a good sign. It means you are thinking broadly and will pick up a wide range of useful information. If you don't have to trim your question number you haven't been thinking deeply or aspirationally enough. But trimming them down can be daunting. Every question wants to be asked; but if you ask them all, you ask none of them.

Here's a method that works. Draw a table on a large piece of paper, or use a spreadsheet. On the rows and the columns write your questions (twice). Give each question a number. Now compare the questions in pairs. For each pair ask yourself: if you could only have one of these two questions, which would you choose? Write the number of the winning question in that cell of the table. As you consider each pair, also think about their proximity in conceptual space. Are these two questions similar? If so, why do you have them both? Were you trying to get at something slightly different in each of them? Can they be merged without losing anything? Or should they be moved further apart? You might have to iterate parts of the table a few times if you are merging and splitting questions. (Gotta love those spreadsheets.)

After you finish your table, count up the number of "wins" for each question, and you'll have a ranking. If you can only use seven questions, choose the top seven on the list. Some questions require others, so you may not be able to simply cut off the list so easily, but in general this method can get you through the obstacle of staring at the questions not knowing which to pick. (I picked up this technique long ago from Richard Bolle's What Color is Your Parachute, and I'll bet a lot of people recognize it and have used it in other contexts.)

One thing I've noticed about having too many questions is: the ease with which people trim their question lists is correlated with their confidence in the project. In other words, hanging on to lots of questions is usually a sign of fear, uncertainty and doubt about a project. If you have fears about your project, don't puff up the project with too many questions. Improve your questions. How many questions people will answer meaningfully is a law of nature. As they say, you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with cognitive budget. (Sort of.) (It's a song. Seventies. Swing set. Saturday mornings. After I swung up high enough, I could fling my shoes clear across the yard and onto the sidewalk.)

But duplicate questions are not always bad. Most of the time they result in wasted cognitive budget, irritated storytellers, and wasted sensemaking or analysis time. However, in two special cases they can be useful. The first case is where you know very little about your storytellers or expect excessive variety (say they are random people walking by a street corner). The second case is where you want to consider a particular topic intensely, say trust or creativity or decision making. In those cases, very similar questions can aid in mapping out an unexplored area of the conceptual landscape. For example, I've seen people ask both "How do you feel about this story?" and "How did this story turn out?" The answers are usually similar -- if I feel good the story turned out well -- but in the places where they don't match you can find useful pockets of unexpected insight. If it's important enough to spend some of your cognitive budget on it, spend away.

Happy question asking again! If anybody has comments or suggestions or questions or confusions or arguments about any of this book fodder (that's what it is, in case you didn't know; these are drafts for the second edition of Working with Stories) please drop me a line.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The best questions about stories

This is another "came up in conversation" post, based on several recent conversations about asking people to reflect on stories they have just told. At this point I've seen people ask questions about stories (and then watched the responses come in) more than a few dozen times, and some fairly predictable patterns are starting to form. I've observed four dominant factors that make the difference between strong, clear, useful answers to questions about stories and weak, messy, can't-do-much-with-them answers. The best story collections get these four things right.

1. Ask questions that matter and resonate.

Find questions that want to be asked. Don't just pull out a standard list: think more deeply, more emotionally, more aspirationally. Think about what you want to achieve with your project -- its fondest hopes and dreams -- and find questions those dreams want to ask. Pretend you are sitting with the stories and answers. In a perfect world, what do they tell you? Then come at it from the other side: what do your storytellers have to say, want to say, need to say? If you can't guess, collect some unadorned stories before you design any questions about them. Find the place where what you need to hear and what needs to be said come together.

2. Transmit your excitement and energy.

You are doing your narrative project because you hope to achieve some goal that is important to you. What is it about that goal that moves you the most? Does that excitement come through in your questions? Do your questions, as a whole, feel like a contribution to something positive and helpful, or do they feel like a tax form? If you can't tell, try your questions out on anyone you can find who is in your group of interest. Watch their face as they look over the questions. Are your questions communicating your energy to them?

3. Avoid conflation.

One of the worst destroyers of answers to questions about stories is conflation: answers that mean "I feel this way" mixed indistinguishably together with answers that mean "I couldn't find the answer I wanted so I picked this instead." Badly conflated answers usually have to be thrown out because they cannot reveal useful patterns.

The best antidote to conflation is pilot testing of questions. When that is not possible, I use and suggest a simple exercise to detect possible conflation. It goes like this. First, make a list of people with widely varying backgrounds and personalities. It's best if they are in the group of people you will be asking to tell stories, but if that's not possible, just consider people you know or remember. They can even be fictional or historical. The important thing is that they be varied in their perceptions.

Now that you have some people in mind, take your question list and mentally picture each person answering the questions. On each question that has predefined answers, picture the person with their pencil hovering over the possible answers to the question. Is there an answer for that person? Do they find something that works for them? If they can't find an answer, what can you do to help them answer the question? You can also multiply the people by situations and picture them telling stories that come out well and poorly, and so on. When you get to the point where everyone can find an answer in every situation, you have a good set of answers.

 4. Use your precious cognitive budget wisely.

Your cognitive budget is the limited amount of time, attention, mental energy, and patience your storytellers are willing to give you. It's almost always far, far smaller than you would like it to be. Your goal is to have your storytellers use as much of the cognitive budget as possible on telling the story and reflecting on it. Think of it like one of those charity reports that tell you how much of your money is going directly to the people being helped. Reduce your administrative overhead to the minimum. Every time someone spends more than a few seconds on a question trying to puzzle out what you want, you have lost some of their priceless narrative reflection.

Here are some of the worst cognitive budget wasters.

Too many questions. This one is of course the grand-daddy of all cognitive budget wasters. Face it: people aren't going to be as prolific with their answers as you would like them to be. But if you don't meet people where they are, you will waste what they do have to give you. It's kind of like that joke about fighting with your spouse: do you want to be right or do you want to be married? Do you want perfection or do you want stories?

The general rule here is: ask three questions, plus two multiplied by your interest level. Rate the interest level like you would a hot sauce: from mildly interested (one) to wildly interested (five). If you are standing in a shopping center accosting people with a clipboard, ask three questions per story, because you can expect a zero rating on the mild-to-wild scale, and beyond three questions you will get little of any utility. If you are running a kiosk, they stopped didn't they, so that's a minimum one rating, so ask five questions per story. As the interest level you expect goes up, keep adding questions.

You can guage interest by knowing your storytellers well and by testing your questions. If this is impossible, you can hedge your bets by making some of the questions optional. This means separating the questions into groups and offering them in stages. Ask the most important ones first, then say something like "if you are done answering questions for this story, you need not fill these in" or "these questions are optional" or "would you please answer these additional questions?" or some such thing. The optional-stages route puts more of a burden on cognitive budget, so you should only do it if your storytellers are extremely varied or there is no way you can guess at what they will answer (and you need as many answers as you can get). A combination of knowing and testing is the better way.

Too many answers. For multiple choice answers, the number of possible answers you should provide follows the same rule as the number of questions: three plus two times your interest level. When a question has too many answers, people either ignore the last ones or ignore the whole question. I've seen questions with too many answers where the first three answers are disproportionately chosen. This usually does not mean those answers are best; it means people looked at the long list, said "ugh" to themselves, and truncated it for you (but each in their own way!). The result is muddied patterns and thrown-out questions.

Note that above I said having too few answers to a question can be a problem, because people can't find the answers they need in the list. This seems like contradictory advice, and it is! You need both accuracy and brevity, and you need to find the best balance between them.

Answers that are too similar. Question designers sometimes try too hard and design overly fine-grained answers. For example, if you are asking "when did this story happen," how much resolution do you need? Do you need to distinguish between events that happened six months and a year ago? When I'm looking over answers I often find random assignments when the meanings of answers are too close together. People rarely have the time or energy to make precise distinctions between feelings. It may sound useful to differentiate between whether people told a story "to explain" or "to inform" but storytellers often will not want to slice things so finely.

An exercise that works here is to explain the differences between answers to yourself (or in a group). If the explanation is long or confusing, maybe you don't need two separate answers. Justify each small difference. For example, say you have "frustrated" and "irritated" in your answers to your "how do you feel" question. Why do you need both of those? What situations are you trying to separate? Do they need to be separated? Do you want to use some of your cognitive budget on having people assign their feelings to those small categories? (Sometimes such a fine division is necessary; if so, be sure to free up some budget from somewhere else to make room for it.)

Nowhere to put non-response responses. This can be a point of pride: sometimes the people designing questions do not want to admit (even to themselves) that those responding may not want to choose an answer. Admit to yourself that sometimes, for some people, they will not have an answer, or will not want to think hard about it, or will not want to tell you what they really think.

My favorite example of this was on a project where we were doing a pilot story collection to test some questions. On the "how do you feel about this story" question, most of the respondents chose the answer "good." They did this for all sorts of stories, from the mundane to the catastrophic. What happened was, not seeing a non-committal option, they decided that "good" was the non-committal option. The clear message was that for this particular set of people telling stories about this particular topic, some of them needed a way to say "I'd rather not tell you that." When we added that answer to the questions, the utility of the story collection improved. Some of the worst misfires I've seen were ones where respondents could not find a place to put non-responses and muddied up the real responses with them.

Inconsistency or poor grammar. I know this sounds silly, but trivial things like subjects and verbs that don't agree, such as "How long ago does the events in this story take place" can stop people up. (One of the worst offenders is the non-question with a question mark at the end, such as "Please rate this story?") Or, say you start out your questions with first-person questions like "I live in..." and then three questions later switch to second-person questions like "How old are you?" You'd be amazed by how much this sort of thing can derail people. Be ridiculously consistent in how you ask your questions. Snags in the flow of the question-answering conversation waste cognitive budget.

Be careful here: once you've been iterating on a question set for a while it all begins to seem perfectly logical even if it isn't. Try your questions out on somebody you can watch, and see where they pause and ponder. Where does their pencil hover? Is it because they are thinking about the story, or because they are trying to figure out what you mean? Increase the former and reduce the latter.

Not being skim-ready. Yes, you know every nook and cranny of your question set; but your storytellers will be skimming it. (Another blow to our precious pride.) A common problem is to write a question like this: "How much do you..." When people are skimming and encounter a question like that, they have to look at the answers to find out what the question is about. Memorize this fact: people don't look at the answers. They skim the questions, and then they come back to the answers, when they think the questions are worth answering.

For this reason, each question has to stand on its own. It has to communicate the intent of the question with or without the answers. The same thing holds for the answers -- they must stand alone as well. Yes, I am actually saying that people forget what question they are answering while looking at the answers to that question. (All who have done this and marked the wrong answer in consequence raise their hands.... Now I have to go back to typing....) So the above question should say "How much do you like ice cream?" And then the answers should say "I like ice cream a lot" and so on. The rule is: don't make people grope for context. That wastes cognitive budget.

Confusing question order. Order your questions like a conversation. Make them flow naturally. If you were asking someone questions in person, which would you start with? Having to switch gears or answer questions in an order that doesn't seem natural wastes cognitive budget.

One thing I've found is that the "how do you feel" question likes to be asked right after the story is told. Doing this also sets the stage for the questions that come after it. It communicates to the storytellers that you will be asking them to think about their personal feelings about the story, not asking them for facts and figures. In general, the further away you get from the story the less vivid their emotions about it will be, so it is often best to ask the more factual questions later. Asking factual questions first can put people into classification mode and reduce their emotional response where you need it most.

Cultural confusion. The issue of whether your storytellers are "educated" is important in asking them questions about stories. By "educated" I don't mean smart or well-informed. I mean something closer to cultural homogeneity, more like "educated about the way people usually ask questions in surveys." Social scientists are used to throwing around precise terms, graphs, scales, ratings, and other social constructs, and sometimes they forget that not everybody is equally used to these things. For example, if your storytellers are not academic scientists, the question "How do you feel about this story?" is far superior to "Please rate your emotional intensity with respect to this story." And if they are academic scientists, the latter version will probably work better than the more conversational, candid, personal form. Think about the mindset of your storytellers and meet them where they are.

And be consistent: don't mix casual statements like "I like my work" with more formal statements like "I am satisfied with my current situation." The answers you write are the storyteller's part of the conversation. If you give them a voice that consistently matches what they would really say if they were speaking to you, they will be more likely to find answers they can choose, and they will waste less time finding them.

Happy question asking, everyone!