Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stories of definition

A few weeks ago I realized a mistake I had been making and corrected it. You may be interested to hear about both the mistake and the correction.

If you have followed Kathy Hansen's wonderful series of interviews with people who work in the story area, you will have noticed the wildly varying answers to her question about what makes a story a story. I used to read some of these and get ... well, not upset, but perhaps self-righteous, or behaving like what my mother would call (in her gifted way of putting just the right words in the right place) "a little snot." As I read more and more of these definitions, I noticed that I would get predictably upset when people defined stories in either of two ways. The first group would say a story was characters acting in time and space in an arc of plot events and blah blah blah Hollywood blah blah. The other group would say a story was people in communities sharing their lives and rending their hearts and blah blah blah therapy blah blah.

My superior definition of story has always been this, as I wrote in my book:
The very simplest definition of a story is: a recounting of events where you wonder what is going to happen, and then you find out. In order for you to wonder what is going to happen there has to be a tension between two or more possibilities (it's why there needs to be a comma in that first sentence). Aristotle called it potentiality, development and result -- meaning, something could happen, something does happen, and what happens means something. There can be other recountings of events that are not stories -- for example, lists of things that happened on different dates, or places you stopped on your way to the coast -- but if there is no uncertainty there is no story. Uncertainty is the reason stories draw us in and engage us, because they tap into problem-solving instincts that have evolved over millions of years.
So there you go. That was the one right way to look at stories, and all other ways were wrong. Aristotle and I knew what we were talking about, and all the duffers out there didn't.

Then one day about a month ago I was asked for the millionth time during an interview: "What is a story?" As I prepared to give my practiced and perfectly correct response I suddenly realized I was completely wrong. Or rather, wrongly complete. And all of those interviews (thanks Kathy) fell perfectly into a story I had never understood until that moment.

Let me explain. My biggest gift in my own story work, other than the "we are all swimming in stories already" moment, was discovering that there are three fundamental dimensions or aspects of story, as follows (and excuse me for repeating this again and again):
Story form is the internal structure of a story: things like setting, characters, plot and point. A good story uses effective narrative form to deliver a message well. 
Story function is its utility to our thinking and learning: things like meaning, understanding and connection. A good story helps us learn what we need to learn, find out what we need to know, or remember what we need to remember. 
Story phenomenon is the story of the story: things that describe context, like where and when and why a story was told, who heard it, how it can and will be retold, and so on. A good story lives on because it sustains the health of the community.
The reason good people disagree on what a story is, contrary to my precious self-regard, isn't that some are right and some are wrong. It is that we are looking at different parts of the elephant.

Everyone gravitates to one or two of these dimensions of story more strongly than the others, and that gravitation colors the way they think about stories and what they think makes a story a story. I was trained in ethology, so I think about cognition (and mimicry and trickery and riots and things like that) a lot, so I gravitate to a definition based on story function. I have paid some attention to the other dimensions, and particularly like story phenomenon, but I still gravitate to what I know best. Other people come at story from other backgrounds and personalities, so they experience different things, so story takes on different shapes to them.

What I am saying is that your definition of story is a story about you and your life. This means that no definition of story can be truly complete without considering all of these dimensions in the same way that no story of humanity can be complete without including the story of every single human being.

Pluralistic nonsense? A story is everything, thus nothing? I have to accept an outpouring of emotion as a story even if nothing happens in it? The touchy-feely folks have to accept a surprising chain of events as a story even if nobody feels anything as a result? Not exactly. We don't need a melting pot of story definition, just some respect for multiple perspectives and maybe some interfaith dialogue. If you live and breathe cognitive science, read Theatre of the Oppressed. If you dream in community therapy, pick up a book on screenwriting. If you design perfect characters, read up on expert systems or indigenous knowledge. Traveling broadens the mind.

What does this mean in practice? Should everybody use every story definition in their work all the time? Not exactly. Different definitions of story have different practical utility in different contexts. That's a good thing. While we should all practice moving outside the story dimension we know best, it is not always the best course of action to include every story definition in the specific contexts in which we are working at any one time.

Reaching an audience? Sending a message? If your stories do not have strong arcs of story events and characters in conflict, they will not prove memorable or motivating. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read McKee and Bal.

Creating an narrative knowledge management system? Learning from your mistakes? If your stories do not present dilemmas, discoveries, surprises and solutions, they will not increase your understanding. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Schank and Klein.

Bringing together a community? Writing to your grandchildren? If your stories do not resonate and connect in context, they will not achieve a lasting positive impact. If you want to know what a story is and isn't in that context, read Boal and Bauman.

And all combinations thereof and so forth and so on. The particular combination of goals in any story project will determine the particular combination of story definitions it can most fruitfully use to the best effect. The more we develop our agility at handling various combinations, the stronger our ability to create effective story projects. I have been as much at fault as anyone else in assuming that my strongest way of defining story was the only way and limiting my ability to build great story projects as a result; but I now see my way to a better place.

So, I'm thinking the next time somebody asks me, "What is a story?" I'm going to say, "What do you want to do?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Context as trap and tool

So I'm looking at an old copy of National Geographic a few weeks ago and I see an advertisement that makes me ponder. And ponder. And write.

Two guys holding things

The advertisement strongly featured two photographs. Here is the first.

Being a visual person, my eyes immediately went to the photographs, and right away my stereotype crew sprung into action. You know the crew I'm talking about, it's those little people inside you who read one sentence of an article, jump to the author's name/affiliation/party/picture, and say "Oh, it's written by a ____, that's why it says that" or "Can't expect anything good/bad/right/wrong out of somebody like that" or any other of a variety of knee-jerk reactions to surface appearances. My crew works as well as yours does (or better!) and here is what the crew came up with.
  1. What a puny vacuum cleaner. Underpowered. There is no way it will be able to pick up all that stuff on the floor. 
  2. Ewww, look at that old couch, what a horrid color. Are those scuff marks on the wall? What is that in the room beyond? More banged-up furniture? Creepy place.
  3. Look at this guy's pants. They look old and dirty. His shoes look old and weirdly out of date. I wonder if he found them somewhere. Cheap thin Wal-mart shirt. 
  4. What is a guy doing vacuuming anyway? Where is his wife? Maybe he lives alone. Maybe nobody likes him. He looks unhappy.
  5. He looks more than unhappy. He looks distressed, in pain. He looks like he is about to cry. Why is he so distraught? Because he is lonely? Because he is --
  6. Wait -- is that sweat on his pants? Could he be working? At a dingy motel or something? Oh. This is very bad. A man using a vacuum for money is about the lowest you can get in this society.
This is not what I thought, mind you, it's what the stereotype crew came up with, and I don't listen to them. (But I can still hear them.) 

Further down the page there was this photograph.

The crew said:
  1. Oooh, rich man.
  2. Golf clubs, open space, nobody in his way. Probably a private course. 
  3. New white pants, spiffy. Look at that sheen, must be nice fabric. Nice black shoes, very professional. Probably had them cleaned professionally. The way that thin shirt lies on him, it must be silk. 
  4. Look at that fancy specialised golf glove, must be important. 
  5. Look at that look of intense concentration on his face. He looks like the kind of guy who knows what he wants and always gets it.
  6. A man like that is on top of the world. That's about the highest you can get in this society. 
A second later, the considered-opinion consortium (they are most decidedly not a crew) commenced their oration on the subject. First they pointed out that doing cleaning work is perfectly reasonable and respectable. They reminded us that we had put ourselves through college partly through working evenings as a janitor at a day care center. It was in fact one of our best jobs ever. We loved buffing the shiny floors, monitoring our tiny queendom of cleaning supplies, and serenading the acoustically perfect bathrooms. Most importantly, doing the physical work of cleaning gave us a welcome respite from thinking in classroom and library all day. Cleaning freed our minds to do the sober work of reflection and mental development. We have often, said the consortium, reflected back on those cleaning days and wondered if we chose wrongly in pursuing an occupation that kept our minds busy instead of calling on our hands to do their part. We implore you, they argued, to recall the man we met who owned a janitorial service and was free to take university courses and explore as he found topics appealing because his needs were supplied by his capable hands.

Similarly, the consortium's reaction to the second man was that, yes, he looks important, but he might be stressed out because of the many people who depending on his decision making power, or the way the department is being run in his absence, or his upcoming announcement of a new and ambitious program. Do not take appearances too strongly, and so on and so forth. Sadly these speeches were given to an empty auditorium because the knee-jerk crew never sticks around long enough to hear the consortium speak, having run off to their next panicked reaction. But I was listening. When both groups had spoken, I reflected and decided that I'd still rather be the golf guy. He just looks happier, I thought. Those looks on their faces are like night and day. You can't miss that.
It was only at this moment, after all the preceding took place, that I realized the man in both pictures was identical. His shirt and shoes were the same, but most importantly, he had the exact same expression on his face. (Look closely, he does.) The people who made this advertisement pasted the same picture onto two backgrounds. Only the context is different. (You could say that the second visible arm in the second picture represents a change in the man, but really that second arm is contextual as well, since it only exists to provide a place to display the fancy golfing glove.) Inside the unchanging parts of the man, nothing is different, but it looks different. What looked to me like sweat and dirt in one picture looked like sheen and quality in the other. And the identical facial expression came across as near breakdown in one picture and top-guy focus in the other.

Seize the day?

The advertisement is from a lottery offered by Dubai Duty Free called Double Millionaire. In this lottery tickets sell for about $550 US, only 5000 are sold, and the prize is two million US dollars. The large text on the advertisement reads, "Live a New Life."

Let me ask you something. How many people do you know who are willing or able to spend US$550 on a 1 in 5000 chance? I know ... let me think ... zero. In fact I think I can say that I have never even met a person who would think of doing this for more than about ten seconds. So probably very few of the people who bought a ticket for this lottery could possibly be seen in that first photograph. They would have to be living in the second photograph before they would buy the ticket. That's strange, isn't it?

Here are some statements by winners of this lottery (and other similar ones by the same group) from press releases:
I’m thrilled to win such a beautiful car! This is my fourth ticket for a BMW and I still cannot believe that I finally won it!
I am still proudly driving my winning car and thankful for Dubai Duty Free for such an amazing prize but winning two million dollars is just truly a great surprise! [This person won twice in the course of 18 years.]

My family and I always buy tickets in Dubai Duty Free’s promotions when we travel. I never lose hope to win a prize and thankful to Dubai Duty Free for making this happen.

It was my first ever visit to Dubai when I purchased my lucky ticket. I was excited to shop in Dubai Duty Free on the way back and to my great delight won my dream car!

It took a long time before I finally got the prize and I’m happy that the prize was worth the wait!
I am so excited to have finally won in one of Dubai Duty Free’s promotions. It’s been seven years since I purchased my first ever ticket and I never lost hope to become a winner. I would like to thank Dubai Duty Free for making my day a very memorable one!
I have noticed a few things about these comments.
  1. Five of these six people have not bought one ticket but have bought at least two and often several. So these are not people who, once in their life, followed a dream and spent a large amount of money on a chance at riches. These are people who spend that amount of money regularly. That places them further away from the vacuum guy than before.
  2. Half of the people mention "finally" winning or hoping to win, which seems to imply that they had some expectation of winning. Granted, the number of tickets sold was small, 5000 for the Double Millionaire lottery. But still, the odds of winning are small enough that people should not think of this as something you can win "finally" by trying several times. It almost seems as though the winners felt they were entitled to win the lottery after buying several tickets.
  3. A partial list of the stated occupations of the winners above: owner of an auto supply business, owner of a trading company, student at a private school, "Promotion Manager" at an international corporation. One stands out because he "runs a gas refilling station" and so is closer to the first photograph. (I notice that man's occupation is more widely reported in newspapers - more noteworthy?)
Please note that I do not mean to disparage any of these people, not the winners and not the lottery providers. I am simply pondering the curious fact that the creators of this lottery chose photographs that represented the material wealth of its audience as far lower than it actually is. Why did they do that? What is it, exactly, that they are trying to show with this contrast? What story were they telling?

My guess is that the story is not about wealth at all. It is about control. The man in the top picture looks miserable because he has to vacuum the floor. The man in the bottom picture looks intent because he doesn't have to swing the golf club. The first man is a loser, a victim, a put-upon pawn. The second is a winner, his own man, on top, in charge. Everyone identifies with the loser because everyone loses, no matter how rich or poor they happen to be. Nobody is as much in control as they would like to be.

Context as trap

Curious about how the advertisement creators composited the pictures, I tried to pull the two guys out of their contexts so I could compare them. On doing this I found out another interesting feature of the advertisement. I used Photoshop's "magic wand tool" to try and select both men based on color alone. Here is the man with the vacuum.

And here is the golf man.

The vacuum man disappears when you remove his environment, but the golf man doesn't. Whether this was done deliberately or by accident, it is part of the story being told. The vacuum man is one with his environment, trapped in it, you might say. The ugly couch matches his ugly shirt, and the smudges on the walls rub off on his sweaty pants. The black line in the doorway runs right through his head! He cannot escape his context but is a victim of it. If he walks out of this picture he will take it with him.

The golf man, by contrast, stands out from his environment and can escape it. He can walk away from the picture (even the golf club) and carry himself intact. Isn't that what we all want, the ability to walk out of the picture we find ourselves in -- the parts we don't like, the smudges and drudges -- and insert ourselves into another picture? Isn't that a potent fantasy, to change your world without changing yourself?

It was turning out to be very difficult to pull both men entirely out of their context given the color issues, so I just pulled the heads out by hand. Here are the two guys face to face.

Can you tell which is which? I can only tell because I know I made a divot in the vacuum guy's head trying to pull him out of the door frame. He's the guy on the right. If I try I can make either of these guys look intent or miserable. Can you? I'll bet you can. His expression is like one of those is-this-a-vase-or-a-lady illusions. It was only the picture they were in (trapped in or strolling through) that made us think otherwise.

I was typing things into Google like "how rich do people think they are" and so on, and I found an essay called Six Ways of Thinking Rich by T. Harv Eker. A relevant excerpt:
Rich people believe "I create my life." Poor people believe "Life happens to me." If you want to create wealth, it is imperative that you believe that you are at the steering wheel of your life; that you create every moment of your life, especially your financial life. If you don't believe this, then you must believe you have little control over your life and that financial success has nothing to do with you. That is not a very rich attitude.

Instead of taking responsibility for what's going on in their lives, poor people choose to play the role of victim. Of course, any "victim's" predominant thought process is "poor me." And presto, through the law of intention that's literally what they get; "poor," as in money, me.
Mr. Eker proposes a bit of "homework" that entails taking responsibility for one's situation -- by not complaining -- for one week. He says, "You can be a victim OR you can be rich, but you can't be both. It's time to take back your power and acknowledge the fact that you create every moment of your life."

So why didn't the lottery owners just show a harried executive, maybe an owner of an auto supply business or a Promotion Manager at an international corporation, at his desk doing things he doesn't want to do? Why push it all the way to unskilled, unwanted, dirty labor? I'm guessing what they wanted to get at was the superlative emotion of powerlessness. They are not selling wealth but the ability to seize control of one's own destiny. They ask people: Do you want to be this poor victim or this powerful man? The implication is that buying the lottery ticket is itself an action that amounts to seizing control. The lottery group wants the lottery customer to see himself as empowered not because he has enough money to play golf when he wants to (which he might have already) but because he is acting out the context of the second photograph, the context of having seized control of his life.

What strikes me as ironic about this is that buying a lottery ticket with one's money is the opposite of seizing control. It is throwing control to the winds. Would it not be better to use $550 to, I don't know, buy books or classes or expert help to develop your skills in some area? Or to reduce your risk in some area so that you would be less vulnerable to whatever hazards are inherent to your context? I can name you ten thousand things I could do with $550, and not one of them involves random chance. It seems to me that if this advertisement has succeeded in convincing people to buy a lottery ticket (which it may or may not have done) it has succeeded in getting them to act precisely opposite to their self-interest. That's powerful, isn't it? That's the power of context.

The meaning of dirt

A story sprung to mind when I saw these two pictures, this one about context in the reactions of other people. It happened one day several years ago when my husband and I were moving to our current house. We had accidentally lived for four years in an affluent suburb of New York city and were just leaving. (I say accidentally because we found a house to rent that took dogs and was within walking distance to the train -- a great feat -- without realizing we had chosen the one cheap block in an otherwise affluenza-infected town. On our first day in the house, my husband met a man walking by on the street, introduced himself and enthusiastically pumped the man's hand in his excitement. "Do you know what I like about this town?" said the man. "People leave each other alone." It was pretty much that way the whole time we lived there.)

So here we were leaving the affluent town four years later, and here I was walking down the street to the drug store as we packed our last load of stuff into a rented truck. We had hired movers, but we had to do a lot of the packing and moving and cleaning ourselves. As a result, on that day I was absolutely filthy. My jeans and t-shirt and hands and face and hair were covered with dust and grime. As I walked down the sidewalk the body language of people passing me practically shouted. It said, filthy, must be the help, not of our class, keep away. People looked away or down at the ground and practically fell into the street trying to keep their distance.

Three hours later we were at the new house. We needed something and I went to the nearby town to get it. (This time it was seven miles away instead of a thousand feet. Ah, country life.) So here I was again, walking down a similar street towards a similar drug store and wearing the same t-shirt, jeans and dirt. Again people passed by and again I watched their body language. What a change. Here the body language said, filthy, must have work! good for her. Nobody moved away. Some people even nodded as they looked directly at me and smiled. The same signs that meant "danger, avoid" in one context meant "safety, accept" in another context. If this hadn't happened on the same day just a few hours apart I would have never noticed the strong contrast.

Recalling this made me think: What if the vacuum man strode onto the golf course? How would people react? How would the man react? Would he censor his own actions? Would he seize the day? Should he? How would he know if he did?

Context as a tool

The skillful or accidental manipulation of context can encourage people to take actions that are opposed to their self-interest and damaging to others. Why? Because the impact of context usually surpasses our awareness of it. This is not a controversial statement; volumes have been written about it by sociologists and psychologists, and the entire industry of advertising relies on it. What I am most interested in, in my context of helping people work with stories to make sense of things, is that for the same reason context can be used as a trap to manipulate it can be used as a tool to empower.

The skillful manipulation of context is often a critical factor in effective narrative sensemaking. Many of the exercises people use in sensemaking involve deliberately moving objects -- stories, facts, opinions, feelings, characters, beliefs -- into and out of different contexts. This is where the power of context is put to use in a most positive way. When we are unaware of context being used on rather than by us, we may be in some danger. But when we control where the man goes and what rubs off on him, we can use that power to inform our decisions and empower ourselves.

What does it mean to skillfully manipulate context in the course of narrative sensemaking? Well, stories are the vacuum and golf guys, of course. They are the things we see as having expressions of pain or concentration on their faces. As facilitators we can manipulate contexts using three types of method.
  1. We can manipulate the interpretation of stories, such as answers to questions about them: Is this a positive story? Did it turn out well? Who is it about? Why was it told? Who should hear it? And so on.
  2. We can manipulate the exchange of stories. We do this when we collect stories from multiple groups and consider them together, or when we ask people from different groups to trade stories.
  3. We can manipulate the construction of larger stories built out of and around stories, in the form of constructed artifacts like landscapes and timelines.
What varies from one context to another? Most often it is groups of people as defined by their relationships, characteristics and/or roles. But sometimes we vary context by time, both in its overall relation to past present and future, and in specific references to time periods (in the first year of the project, after the accident, after the restructuring, etc). Sometimes geography or some other measure of space is varied. Or we vary the topics of stories: dangers and opportunities, stories about them and about us, and so on. Things are getting complex here, so I will just collapse this dimension to a simple "our stories" and "your stories" distinction, where the distinction could be any of group, time and space, or any combination thereof.

Now, I can think of four configurations in which we can place stories and contexts: juxtaposing, splitting, merging and crossing. The amount of trust required, and the potency of the output, increases as you move down the list.

Juxtaposed context

Juxtaposing two narrative contexts is the least difficult and weakest form of manipulating context. Here stories are not moved out of their original contexts. Instead the two contexts are placed side by side at their nearly-but-not-quite-joined edges.

If we are using interpretation, juxtaposed context means the patterns of our interpretations of our stories are compared with the patterns of your interpretations of your stories. I often do this in projects for clients. For example, I might look at the relationship between reported feeling about a story (happy, sad, relieved, etc) and perceptions of responsible behavior (reprehensible to admirable). If I can look at the same pattern in patients and in doctors, I can hold up those patterns next to each other and compare them. The formation of patterns, however, is contained within each context.

If we are using exchange, juxtaposed context means our stories are held up next to your stories and we look at them side by side. This is like books that offer translations or adaptations of important texts with the original (sometimes facsimile) and translated versions on facing pages. You could do this, for example, by preparing a booklet that shows sets of, say, three stories per topic from each of two groups, each set printed on facing pages (where the page border is the literal edge of the context). Such a document could be used to jump-start sensemaking in groups working separately or together.

If we are using construction, juxtaposed context means we build something with our stories and you build something with yours, and we compare what we have built. This is a common workshop technique: the bosses build their timelines or archetypes - with their stories alone - and the underlings build their own, and then the constructed artifacts are compared. No stories leave their original contexts, but the artifacts come to the edges of their worlds and peer across the gap. Such constructions remind me of the famous Christmas truces that took place during the two world wars. Soldiers from both sides used honored rituals as constructed protections to peer across into a different context ... for a little while.
I ranked this configuration of contexts as the easiest to do and the least powerful. Why? Because nothing has to leave its original context, so there are no rough edges to sand and no rough feelings to calm. These are safe methods best used when the facilitator is inexperienced and/or the groups are unwilling to try new things or explore new ground. 

Split context

Splitting a narrative context means taking stories from one context and moving them simultaneously into two or more new contexts and considering them separately there. In all methods of this type stories must be collected up front with the intent of providing diversity of opinion and thought, sometimes from neutral or balanced sources such as historical records or news accounts, and sometimes based on prior story projects. The stories are then distributed into two or more contexts of use and the resulting patterns are compared.

If we are using interpretation, split context means we interpret a set of stories and you interpret the same set of stories, but neither of us told them. Again patterns of interpretation provide insights into how the groups are similar and different in their views. This can help to uncover opportunities for finding common ground in areas of conflict.

If we are using exchange, split context  means we read and you read the same stories together, and then we might talk about what we read. As with interpretation the source context is chosen to stimulate discussion by creating opportunities to explore varying views of the same material. This sort of thing goes on every time people discuss a literary masterpiece or a juicy bit of celebrity gossip; but conscious use of the technique can give more power to the sensemaking.

If we are using construction, split context means we create a construction and you create another, but we start with the same stories. Thus the archetypes or timelines or landscapes constructed differ in meaningful ways, which people might then come together to explore.

The requirement to build a source context from neutral or balanced materials up front limits the use of split-context methods, because rarely are people willing or able to put in the time to do that. You cannot simply collect material at random and use it; you have to study whether it provides adequate balance and diversity to feed the processes of interpretation, exchange or construction by people with different stories to tell. This takes time and patient attention. I have built a few stimulative story sets for such uses, and I can say that it does take some serious time to create a story set that is at once balanced, diverse and focused.

But having said that, I think these methods have untapped power because such a story set can challenge people to think about things they might habitually avoid considering. It is especially useful when you are trying to help people get past deeply entrenched assumptions about well-known subjects. For example, I once collected a set of stories about asymmetrical conflict throughout history. These were used in at least two instances to jump-start sensemaking in groups of analysts tasked with exploring new ways to address contemporary asymmetrical conflicts. A critical element in the success of these attempts was finding source material that would overturn assumptions by providing surprising connections. It is easy, if you look back in history, to find instances where today's superpowers were yesterday's perceived terrorists, criminals, drug-runners, and insurgents. The same goes for roles. You can put together stories of dastardly monks and sainted thieves (and even, if you look hard, sainted politicians!) with which to disrupt hardened assumptions and free up discourse and the sharing of multiple views.

People are sometimes unwilling to work with split-context material, considering it foreign, boring or irrelevant. I remember trying to use that asymmetric-conflict story set in a project about corporate conflict and finding people unwilling to make the metaphorical leap to stories about Napoleon and the Opium Wars. Doesn't apply, they said. If you can't give people something they consider relevant they can't split the context with any useful result. The need for bespoke solutions is another barrier to split-context story work.

Merged context

Merging two narrative contexts means taking two sets of stories from two different contexts and placing them both into a third, separate context together. Usually the original contexts are temporarily obscured so as to enable consideration of the third context by itself.

If we are using interpretation, merged context means our answers and your answers (about our separate stories) are considered together. We do this when we ask different groups of people, or the same people at different times, the same questions about their stories. We can then consider one set of patterns created by all the stories without distinction. I typically do a combination of juxtaposed and merged context in considering answers to questions, considering what all the respondents said next to what the teachers and students said separately. Often both of these comparisons are needed to make sense of what is happening.

If we are using exchange, merged context means we read our stories and your stories together as one body. This is the sort of intervention you might do when you want to help two groups of people find common ground. You might ask them all the same story-eliciting questions, like: When you think about values you want to pass on to the next generation, what experience stands out that you would want everyone to hear about? When stories in response to such a question are mixed together into a new context devoid of identifying information about race or class or gender, people can learn some surprising things about people they thought were very different from themselves. Here the technique of late revelation, where you have people read stories and only later reveal the identities of the speakers, can be effective in overturning stereotypes about other groups. You identified with a story, and when you find out that person happens to be a such-and-such you revise your idea of what such-and-such means.

If we are using construction, merged context means together we build something that has our stories and your stories in it. This is what we do when we ask people to consider two or more sets of stories when they build a timeline or landscape or set of archetypes or composite story together. 
Merged context is less often used than juxtaposed or split context simply because it relies more on mutual trust. Merged context is the first one in the list where stories come into close contact with alien stories. I've seen people hesitate to allow their stories to be mixed with those of others, and I've seen people refuse to consider the stories together. They sometimes insist, for example, on having identifying details returned to stories. They might say, "I can't read these stories without knowing who told them." Or they will try to circumvent the process by trying to suss out the identities of storytellers by their grammar or dialect or subject matter. People are so very good at finding out things about other people, especially about their social standing, that it can take some work to bring stories together. Even if people are not in a workshop setting they may balk when they find out that "those people" are also telling stories in the project. In a merged-context project you need to be clear about your goals and ask people to help you meet them. You also need to make sure your goals are goals both groups can put their energy into; otherwise you risk having an unequally merged project, where one group uses both sets of stories while the other uses every means they can find to exclude stories of the other group.

Crossed context

Crossing narrative contexts means transferring stories from one context to another, with a corresponding move of a second set of stories in the opposite direction.

This is the most powerful and most dangerous configuration in story work. I think the main reason it is so dangerous is that crossed contexts surface stereotypes the most strongly. When you show somebody a story and you tell them the story was told by a person in a different group - this is not merging, remember, it is crossing, so you have to let them see the original context - you do not get their considered opinion. You get to hear their knee-jerk chorus, the same stereotype crew I heard reacting to the pictures of the vacuum and golf men above. This can be hugely useful and hugely misleading. Stereotypes are amazingly useful up until the moment you forget they are stereotypes. Since this is a danger to which we are all prone, handling crossed context means watching yourself as carefully as you watch the project.

If we are using interpretation, crossed context means we interpret your stories and you interpret ours. I have only seen this done once, as far as I can remember. It was amazing. People in the two groups attributed completely different motivations to the behaviors they saw in each other's stories. As I recall it, one group ascribed an action to irresponsibility and proposed punishment, while the other ascribed it to inexperience and proposed help. These are stereotypes laid bare. Be careful if you think that simply answering some questions about stories will not impact people, if the groups are far apart. People may forget filling in a survey form, but telling and hearing stories has a stronger impact, and that impact must be considered at the start. Such an impact can be positive, but if badly managed it can deepen a divide. For example, say two groups of people are asked to interpret each other's stories, but the questions are subtly biased so that one group comes off looking better than the other. Or maybe the questions are written so that only one group can understand them, so the interpretations of one group are distorted. The results are unreliable and the people are unhappy. Pilot testing of eliciting and interpreting questions can go a long way towards helping people provide reactions without inflaming emotions.

If we are using exchange, crossed context means we hear your stories and you hear ours. This can be a transforming technique, but it can also inflame conflicts and needs to be handled carefully. One method is to maintain perfect anonymization and privacy of individual storytellers to prevent the singling out of people who "blow the whistle" (especially when their group is the one out of power). Or group processes that rely on transparency and social pressure can provide the necessary support. I am reminded here of the work of Fambul Tok, a group doing story work in conflict-ridden areas. (I am a big fan of this group and recommend their new book and documentary film.) Fambul Tok has brought together the perpetrators and victims of war crimes in Sierra Leone, some of whom live harrowingly near each other, to share their stories with their communities. Here story exchange takes place under ritualized circumstances in the presence of the whole community, and the goal is to create new "stories of forgiveness and reconciliation." What Fambul Tok has taken on is not an easy task. Strong and consistent attention is paid throughout to maintaining safety for all involved and to fostering permanent positive change. This is crossed context working under difficult conditions and creating a powerful result.

If we are using construction, crossed context means we build with your stories and you build with ours. I have seen this done, but only when the groups were not in obvious or strong conflict with each other, like between employees of merging companies or groups of professionals with different roles who regularly work together, like teachers and administrators, analysts and decision makers, historians and teachers, researchers and engineers, and so on. One use is to ask two groups of people to derive some kind of construction from their own stories and the stories of the other group in parallel. This can help groups come to new insights about better ways to work together toward mutually acceptable goals.

People are multidimensional beings, but our contextual labels sometimes make us appear unidimensional to each other. Any two people divided in one way can usually find at least one other thing that unites them, even if remotely. You can nurture such commonalities to help people work with cross-context stories. I remember doing a little research exercise once where I compared stories told by white supremacists and civil rights workers looking for some common thread. I found it. They all wanted a better world for their children. Yes, one group hoped to get it by helping everyone get along, and the other group hoped to get it by killing the other group. But they both wanted it. I've read that the reason Jimmy Carter is such a great negotiator is that he always finds one thing he can legitimately say he shares with those he meets. It might take him hours of listening to find it, but he always finds it. As I recall it he told the story of negotiating with Haitian warlords some years past, and said that he latched on to the fact that they said they loved their children very much. So did he, and they built on that. He strung that slender thread across the chasm. You can help people do that when you help them tell stories across the chasm. You can gear your questions so that they bring out commonalities you suspect people might have (or better, that you know they have based on prior separate story work).

Another mechanism that can help bridge cross-context stories is theatre and metaphorical shift. Taking raw stories and transforming them using timeless structures such as folk tales can help people build bridges through abstract forms. Here is an example and one of my favorite folk tales of all time. This is from the book Folktales from India (edited by A.K. Ramanuaan):

Once a lamb was drinking water in a mountain stream. A tiger came to drink the water a few yards above him, saw the lamb, and said, "Why are you muddying my stream?"  
The lamb said, "How can I muddy your water? I'm down here and you are up there."  
"But you did it yesterday," said the tiger.  
"I wasn't even here yesterday!"  
"Then it must have been your mother."  
"My mother has been dead for a while. They took her away."  
"Then it must have been your father." 
"My father? I don't even know who he is," said the desperate lamb, getting ready to run.  
"I don't care. It must be your grandfather or great-grandfather who has been muddying my stream. So I'm going to eat you," said the tiger. And he pounced on the lamb, tore him to pieces, and made a meal of him.
I love the layers of meaning in that story. I could imagine setting up a project where two conflicting groups of people are not asked to tell stories directly but to choose folk tales for people in another group to read. This would embed the mechanism of crossed context in a metaphorical shell of constructed protection by which groups can communicate across the chasm of difference. This is the basis of some forms of community theatre, which has cross contextual elements.

Vacuums and golf clubs galore

After all this exercise considering all the ways we can skillfully manipulate context to improve sensemaking, when I look back at the vacuum and golf guys I find them cavorting around both contexts, showing each other how to play golf with a vacuum and chase dust bunnies with a golf club. I see them striding together out of both pictures and into the city streets, onto the moon, deep under the sea, and high on a camel's back. They seem happier than they did before, neither trapped and both full of great ideas. That's where we should all be, isn't it?

A final note: I seem to have gravitated towards talking about groups of people as contexts, and about contexts in conflict. I suppose this is probably because understanding how people differ in their views depending on group membership tends to be a part of many narrative projects. And many narrative projects do involve some degree of conflict, even if it is mild, between viewpoints. If you want to build a shelf you use a t-square and a saw, and if you want to help people achieve goals with and in spite of diverse experience you use stories. But you can consider all of the twelve situations I've mentioned here (four configurations, three method sets) where the contextual differences are between stories told at different times, in different places, in response to different questions, about different topics, in different media, to different audiences, in different settings, in person and on paper, and on and on. Many skillful manipulations of context might suit your goals.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Narrative inquiry without the participation

A colleague recently told me about a DARPA-sponsored workshop that was to take place in Washington, D.C. on the 28th of February (a date that has come and gone) to explore new directions for work on story for national defense. The description of the project sounded similar to the DARPA project I worked on from 2001 to 2003, which spawned a similar three-year project for Singapore. Together those projects helped form and/or refine some of the methods and software approaches I and many others in the field still use.

I thought about going to the workshop but decided against it. Partly it is an issue of taking time off from writing, but I also have mixed feelings about how the first DARPA project went. Mainly I was disappointed at how little useful output we produced for the amount of taxpayer money we spent. I had hoped to do more. This was not necessarily anyone's fault, just politics; but still, I'd like to find ways to spend my time that have a stronger positive impact if I can.

Still, listening to stories in order to "scan the horizon" and discover emerging threats and opportunities is as good an idea now as it was then, for governments and for everyone else too. I wish the new group the best in their laudable goals. To do my little bit to help, I thought I'd send some hopefully helpful advice to the program manager of the project. But then I thought, why not make it a blog post? That way the advice, for what it's worth, can help other people with similar goals too.

The workshop had three stated goals (this is from its description):
  1. To survey narrative theories.  These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story?  What are its moving parts?  Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else?  Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?   
  2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts.  What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent?  What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do they influence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends?  How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict?  Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?   
  3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools. How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion?  What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people?  Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?
I'll try to address each point, considering what I would do if I wanted to achieve those goals myself.

Surveying narrative theories

My own survey of narrative theories resulted in my understanding of three dimensions of story: form, function and phenomenon. Pulling in an explanation from Working with Stories:
Story form is the internal structure of a story: things like setting, characters, plot and point. A good story uses effective narrative form to deliver a message well. 
Story function is its utility to our thinking and learning: things like meaning, understanding and connection. A good story helps us learn what we need to learn, find out what we need to know, or remember what we need to remember. 
Story phenomenon is the story of the story: things that describe context, like where and when and why a story was told, who heard it, how it can and will be retold, and so on. A good story lives on because it sustains the health of the community.
So the answers to the questions "what is a story" and "what are its moving parts" can take any of three forms, all of which are correct in context. The moving parts of story form are the tools of the fiction craft: arcs, beats, plot twists. The moving parts of story function are the bones of narrative knowlege management systems: practices, discoveries, lateral thinking paths. With story phenomenon it is not so much that stories have moving parts but that they are the moving parts of society: rumors, urban legends, fantasies.

Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story? Yes. Both are true. Some elements of story are undoubtedly universal, but there are also differences in the way people from different backgrounds tell and listen to and trade and pass on stories. Oral storytelling traditions, with their memorable repetitions, still impact the way some cultures tell stories, but less so others. That is probably just one difference of many. Others might be the interplay of objective and subjective truths; the importance of place in storytelling; the expectations on an audience, to keep quiet or help build the story; expectations about self-expression versus contemplation of collective issues; what sorts of stories are taboo and expected.  I'm not aware of any exhaustive research on this topic, but my own experience in having read tens of thousands of personal stories told by people from different cultures (as well as thousands of folk tales) tells me there are differences worth exploring.

When looking for authoritative definitions in narrative topics, it is important to realize that dozens of fields of inquiry touch on narrative in some way. Many of these fields have different definitions, assumptions and goals, and many of them interact little with other fields. If you want to understand the landscape of human knowledge about narrative, it is worth learning a little about every single one of those fields. Here is a partial list of phrases worth googling:
  • primarily story form
    • narratology - Meike Bal's book Narratology is good
    • professional fiction writing
    • professional screenwriting - of course Robert McKee's Story is the authority here
    • professional live storytelling
  • primarily story function
    • narrative in knowledge management
    • scenario planning
    • case-based reasoning
    • knowledge representation / information retrieval
  • primarily story phenomenon
    • folklore study
    • oral history
    • narrative in cultural anthropology
    • narrative community therapy - for example the Dulwich Centre
    • narrative in community activism - for example the Theatre of the Oppressed 
  • mostly story form and function, less so phenomenon
    • literary theory
    • narrative analysis
  • mostly story function and phenomenon, less so story form
    • narrative inquiry (participatory and otherwise)
    • organizational storytelling / business narrative
    • narrative medicine
    • narrative therapy / counseling
    • narrative psychology 
    • narrative journalism 
    • narrative in law - some universities have started programs in this area; see the book Minding the Law
    • narrative policy analysis - see Policy Paradox and other books
    • narrative in foreign policy - see Thinking in Time and other books
So that's where I'd start if I wanted a comprehensive answer to questions in the first set. I'd visit all of those topics, even if only for an hour or two, and see what surprising resources and connections appeared. (And if I missed some, which is likely, you might find that out too.)

Understanding the role of narrative in security contexts

This section is essentially about tying the research fields related to story phenomenon to psychology, sociology and political science. If I wanted to address this I'd convene people from all of these backgrounds and ask them to work together on a comprehensive literature review and exploration of fruitful ways forward. I don't know that there is anybody working in this particular junction, but I could be ill-informed on that point.

Making stories quantitatively analyzable

This set of questions is both the one I have the most direct experience with and the one I think my readers will most want to hear about. So I'll write much more about it, but I'll broaden the situation to make it more generally applicable.

Let's pretend that you have collected or discovered some stories, say hundreds or thousands, and you want to do more than simply read them. You want to find useful patterns in them that will help you make decisions and detect emerging trends. Participatory narrative inquiry is impossible because the original storytellers are inaccessible for one of any number of reasons. What options are available? Normally the projects I work on rely heavily on storyteller interpretation, for reasons I have written about elsewhere. But I have done some projects where I supplemented storyteller interpretations with analyses of my own, as well as some projects where only stories were available. The results are not as strong, but they can still be real and useful.

Before I start I should say that there is a large and complex literature on narrative methods of inquiry in the social sciences. There is much you can read there if you want to explore those topics. However I must admit that I tend to get in a huff every time I read a textbook on methods of narrative inquiry. The universal assumption that expert interpretation of stories told by others is tantamount to proof bothers me very much. Examples of stories interpreted by experts that entirely ignore the obvious fact that any other expert, as well as any other person, might give a different or even opposite intepretation, abound. I find the "I know what this means" mindset to be very similar to the "I am the world" mindset of some artificial intelligence practitioners, about which I have written previously.

It seems - to me - like some researchers who use and promote narrative analysis see expert interpretation as something that adds value, while I see it as something that removes value and should be used only as a tool of last resort. In my experience, applying expert interpretation to a story is like using a chain saw to harvest tomatoes. You will get something out of it, but it may not have much use in practical terms.

So, when I think about what options you have if you have stories but no interpretations, the options form into groups of increasing difficulty and decreasing utility.

Option group one: Asking proxies

If you have stories and you can't ask their tellers what they mean, you might be able to ask people close to the tellers what they mean. This could be people related to them in some way - their grandchildren maybe - or people similar to them in some way. For example, say you have a thousand anonymous stories told by customers of your product. Would it be better to consider the interpretations of (a) an outside expert, (b) your CEO, or (c) other customers? Of course the ideal is all three, because the more interpretations the better your view. But if you could collect only one set of interpretations I would suggest asking your other customers.

Sometimes you can't find anyone close to the original storytellers. Perhaps they are isolated or long dead. Perhaps nobody who is related to them or like them will talk to you - they are activists against your policies, for example. In this case you need to move on to the next group of options.

Option group two: Examining storytelling events

The second way you can work with stories without intepretations is to watch storytelling - the narrative event - to look for interpretations storytellers have embedded in their stories. People include meta-narrative content (essentially, a story about their story) in their stories all the time, and it's not that hard to find if you know what to look for. There are even some stock phrases people pull out when they want to communicate their story's importance or truth or authority or unimportance or triviality or entertainment quality. For example:
  • I learned a lot!
  • When I told Joe he was surprised about this...
  • I never saw anything like this before!
  • I shouldn't be telling you this but...
  • Have you ever heard anything like this before?
  • I will never forget that day.
  • Listen, I happen to know that ....
  • This is just my experience but ...
  • Maybe you heard something different, but...
  • This just beat all!
  • I laughed and laughed!
  • Can you believe this?
There are many other meta-narrations people use to signal their intent as to how they would like people to interpret their story. I don't think there is one fixed list of these, but most people are pretty good at picking up on them, since we hear them every day.

People also communicate information about why they are telling their story by the intensity of the words they use to describe their feelings. In one part of the story they might say "I didn't like that much" and in another part they might say "I was devastated." People turn the emotional intensity of their stories up and down as they speak in order to communicate which parts of the story they most want others to hear. I've always thought it would be great to have what I call a "ranked thesaurus," where words are ranked by their emotional intensity, value, complexity and other meta-information they provide. If you had such a ranking you would be able to chart the emotional rollercoaster of a story by the word choices made. The peaks and troughs of the ride would tell you things about the storyteller's intent.

If you have audio or video records of storytelling events, you can go much further into watching storytelling. You can watch prosody, or the rhythm and intonation of our speech, which is another way we add meta-information to our stories. If you have video you can watch body language. If there are others on the recordings you can watch audience reactions and the way the stories change as a result of the interchange.

Another way to watch storytelling is to watch the pattern of story back-and-forthing. You can do this in any situation where stories are told in response to other stories: in a chat session, in a room, over the phone. The way stories invoke other stories can provide information you can use to understand the intent of storytellers. There are many other nuances in the negotiations that take place as people trade stories - the field of conversational analysis is related where it touches on narrative.

Option group three: Analyzing texts

Studying exactly what was said in a story is still outside the realm of expert interpretation because anyone can agree on the words that were used. But it is weak in its ability to detect true intent, which puts it lower in the value scale.

Concordances are lists of non-trivial words in story texts - houses, dogs, weapons, iPods, babies - the things you see in those "wordle" pictures on the web. When a person mentions something in a story, it means that thing matters in some way, and that can mean something across many stories. For example, say you have three hundred stories that mention babies, two hundred that mention weapons, and fifty that mention both. Concordance methods can also include words placed close together - did they say "baby" within five words of "weapon" and so on. I don't think there is that much value in concordance all by itself, just because there are so many reasons people might mention the same word. It's a weak indicator of meaning. But if concordance can be combined with other information that is more emotionally meaningful, such as prosody or proxy evaluations, it can increase in value through juxtaposition. If stories that included the word "friendship" were more likely to have been seen by same-community proxies to have been told "to defend a position," that is a pattern you can examine.

Evaluation statements are phrases where people express a value they set on something. There are not that many ways to say whether something is good or bad, and you can search for and collate these statements. The simplest thing is to look for obvious value words like "good" and "best" and so on. That gives you the roughest approximation. Next you can look for other ways of expressing value, like "I liked that" or "that's fine" or "I was happy." I don't think you can automate this entirely, because finding the value statements doesn't easily show you what was being valued. But a system that highlights possible value statements and helps people enter data about the thing referred to are still a step up. I haven't done this, but I can imagine annotating a set of stories with metadata like "government - bad" and "family - good" and seeing what comes of it.

Statements of fact are another useful thing anyone can see and mark in stories.  Statements of fact are not the same as actual facts, but they can be telling nonetheless, especially when they disagree or are clearly wrong. Rumors are especially full of stated facts - everyone knows the government was behind that - so they may be especially worth mapping in projects where public opinion is being considered. These are not hard to find; you just look for places where people claim that something is true or untrue, like "nobody reads newspapers anymore" or "people annotate their stories with meta-narrative."

To be honest, though, I haven't spent much time on textual analysis of stories. I've done it here and there to try out ideas, but have never been very happy with the results. The output is full of false positives, dead ends and weak trends. If it has to stand alone I wouldn't trust it to tell me anything important.

Way back in IBM in 1999 I did a little research project where I put a variety of batches of text through one of the data mining tools IBM was selling at the time. Some of the texts were non-narrative listings of facts, some were conversational, some were newspaper articles, and some were short stories, movie scripts and folk tales. I tested tools for clustering, summmarization and feature extraction. All of these tools did very well on fact lists and news items, but very poorly on the stories. The problem was that the stories contained so many nuances and subtle variations of word use that the software was befuddled. It's hard to parse a story because it depends on a structural form that operates at a higher level than word use. The crux of a story may appear to a textual analysis system as a part where nothing important is happening.

Here's a bit from Bleak House, which I've just been reading:
"You may bring the letters," says my Lady, "if you choose."

"Your ladyship is not very encouraging, upon my word and honour," says Mr. Guppy, a little injured.

"You may bring the letters," she repeats in the same tone, "if you --please."

"It shall be done. I wish your ladyship good day."
No computer would understand that her ladyship has just taken a dramatic step in her last (seemingly unimportant) statement by embedding two meanings in the word "please" - one stilted and the other beseeching. She has crossed a threshold into a space in which she and Mr. Guppy are aware of the secret the letters contain, and she asks him to help her without forcing her to admit anything out loud. He takes the hint and moves on. A concordance that simply throws that "please" up onto a shelf with all the other pleases in the novel would be useless to understand this scene. Many stories are like this, and not just novels but the anecdotes we tell every day.

I did bring away two conclusions from trying to use automated textual analysis to look at stories. First, nearly all textual analysis systems that exist to date concentrate their efforts on nouns. In stories the nouns are not as important as the verbs, followed by the adverbs. If I was put in a box and forced to build an automated textual analysis system for stories, I'd go after those. (When I wasn't trying to break out of the box, that is.)

My second observation about textual analysis of stories is that I think to some extent people do use textual cues in reading stories, but we can't articulate what it is we are doing. If a computer were to watch a group of people interpreting stories, they might find out things we hadn't noticed we are doing. You could even do things with those devices they have now where you can track what words people are looking at and how long their eyes linger. An automated system trained in this way might find unanticipated ways to do what we do naturally.

But again, the closer your proxies can get to the storytellers the better you will fare in such an enterprise. An algorithm trained on the actions of people who share much context in common with the storyteller will derive different methods than an algorithm based on watching people from a different group. I've watched myself read stories, and I do read them differently if I know I share a lot in common with the storyteller than if I know I don't. Have you ever caught yourself reading three lines into an article, then going back up to the top to check the name of the writer for clues to their similarity to yourself? Probably few people can avoid taking such context-detecting actions, and they surely impact the way we read things.

Option group four: Asking story experts

This group of options crosses the line into expert interpretation, but it keeps the expertise in the realm of narrative and away from the subject matter of the stories themselves. When I have few answers from storytellers or when the answers present a garbled picture for some reason, I develop an emergent set of story subjects or gists. These are shorthands for story plots, like "I did my part but somebody else didn't" or "We help each other out" or "I faced a difficult challenge and succeeded."

The way I do this is based loosely on grounded theory and generally takes the form of three passes through the stories, thus.
  1. First I write up one or more gists for each story, not caring much about reuse. If a particular story cries out for a gist I have already written, I will copy it and paste it in, but I don't force conformity. 
  2. The second time through I read the stories again and compare the gists for each to my overall list. At this time I also whittle the gist-list down so that each gist is uniquely meaningful (none are redundant), each is populated sufficiently (none have few stories), and the total number is manageable (typically around twenty or so). 
  3. Then I go back and read the stories a third time. This time I am not allowed to create any new gists or do any lumping or splitting unless I feel a story presents a serious challenge to the organization derived. When I finally feel like each story has been well described by its gists, I am finished.
Does this process of gist production insert my own bias? Yes of course it does. But it limits the bias to describing the events of the story. I try to keep things defensible, so that if I link a story to the gist "I did my part but somebody else didn't" I picture myself making a case for that explanation in front of an assembled body of storytellers who nay-say it. If I can't defend the placement I remove it. But most of us are masters of self-deception, so I only use this method when I feel it is necessary. It would be better to multiply it and have two people create two emergent sets of gists. This is definitely better but not always possible.

There is also structural analysis, which is the consideration of story form by itself. It looks at things like characters, settings, plots, conflicts and story arcs, and essentially treats stories like they are movies or novels. I have used some methods of structural analysis to supplement storyteller answers at times. Some questions I have asked myself are:
  • Who is the protagonist of this story? Is it an individual, group or role?
  • Who acts in conflict with that person or group or role? Who helps them?
  • What scope of time and space is covered by the story? How many people does it involve - a few or many?
  • Which official roles are important to the story? Police? Aid workers? (etc)
  • Do certain events of interest occur in the plot of this story? Is there cooperation? Deception? Self-deception? Discovery?
  • Which genre of fiction does this story best resemble?
  • How much non-narrative content is included in the story?
These sorts of questions do involve some expert interpretation, but it is (like the gists) more defensible than statements about what the story means. One can make the case from the way the story is told that it is about a particular person, and people can agree on that. It would not be difficult to get a few people trained in narrative analysis to seek agreement on structural analysis of a body of stories. However, like textual analysis, I think it is a weak option best used in concert with another.

Option group five: Asking subject-matter experts

The very worst option for making sense of stories, in my experience, is to ask people who study the people who told the stories to interpret them. Why? Because they tend to have very strong opinions - based on their own experiences - about the storytellers, for or against. The most biased interpretations of stories I have seen have been made by people who consider themselves experts in the subject matter of told stories. If I had no choice but to work with subject matter experts in dealing with a batch of stories, I'd look for experts who disagree, or experts who come from different educational or geographic or cultural backgrounds, or experts who are expert for different reasons. I would try to increase the diversity of views in some way to counteract the shared assumptions held by experts in any field. There is no field of inquiry, academic or otherwise, that does not have its arguments and schools of thought; so why not use that to your advantage?

Another thing you can do when you expect the interpreters of stories to have strong unexamined (or even examined) assumptions about them and their storytellers is to confuse the assumptions by removing information about context. You can "scrub" stories so that they hide gender identities, localities, references to religion, and other contextual tie-ins. I once had some confidential stories I wanted to use to demonstrate the success of the narrative approach. How could I make my point without revealing the actual stories? I thought about the situation described in the stories and translated each story into a different subject matter domain, keeping the structure of the story intact. The real situation was highly sensitive and the fictional one was not, but the mixture of conflicts and goals was similar enough that the underlying patterns still made sense.  This took some work, but when I finished I had a data set that perfectly demonstrated the utility of the sensemaking system without revealing the original stories. If I had to use the interpretations of subject-matter experts on a set of stories I would consider doing a similar translation to a domain in which the assumptions of the experts would not be called into action. If you are an expert in, say, energy technology, you will respond in a different way to a set of stories translated into the domain of, say, biomechanics.

In addition to removing context, it also works to insert distracting context. On a project whose purpose was to help executives improve their leadership skills, Dave Snowden and I intermixed stories about contemporary leaders with ones about historical leaders - Helen Keller, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, and so on. In another project we injected stories of historical conflicts into a data set based on recent events. The historical stories were not disguised, but they were intermixed without notice so that when viewing contemporary stories, project participants would discover unexpected linkages. Here the goal was to stimulate people to break out of old ways of thinking, but the same technique could be used to help subject matter experts avoid interpreting stories based on knee-jerk reactions. For example, if you wanted to ask experts to interpret a collection of stories about political violence, you might inject some stories about political activism, state suppression of free speech, utopian or dystopian communities, and so on. The point would be to disrupt the tendency of experts to fall back on easy answers without reflection. These sorts of methods of keeping experts on their toes, along with as much diversity of thought as can be found among experts in a field, would help to buffer the impact of accepted-thought bias.

One last method of guarding against interpretation bias is to ask experts and value their opinions, but also ask non-experts - people on the street - and compare the answers. This does not mean that experts are wrong or that people on the street are wrong. It means that their differences can be instructive.

Summing up

So those are all ways in which anyone can make sense of a group of stories without the ability to ask their tellers what they mean. Some of them are similar or identical to what you can find described in textbooks on narrative inquiry and some are based only on my own experience helping people collect stories and make sense of them. Which of these techiques are best? Each has its benefits and detriments. My recommendation is, if possible, to mix multiple approaches so that you can bounce different sources of information off each other. In that way the different methods can help each other over their various difficulties like the deaf watching while the blind listen. Together they are bound to find something they can use.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

From garment to fiber in story work (part two)

This is the second part in a two-part blog post reflecting on stories and story work through the lens of a journey through the world of textile crafts. You probably need to read the first part first to understand what follows.

DIY story world

What is the narrative equivalent of sewing your own clothes, weaving your own cloth, and growing and spinning your own yarn? Well, out of stories people generally build ... stories. We build larger stories that explain the way we are, how we got to be this way, what we expect to be soon, very soon, and what others should expect of us. People string together stories like beads on a string. It's "I was held back in school and my confidence was ruined" then on to "nobody supported me emotionally in college" and ... you can guess the rest. One of my favorite examples of a story built of stories was in the authoritative sci-fi show Red Dwarf, where Rimmer finds out that Ace, his alter ego in another universe, was also held back in school, but interpreted the setback as a challenge to succeed, and did; whereas Rimmer held it up as an excuse not to try, and didn't. Story after story from Rimmer's life was used to build a story of self-pity in Rimmer's life and enablement in Ace's life. Eventually, as I recall it, Ace inspires Rimmer to dash out into the future and become the himself he might have become ... or, maybe he chickened out, I can't remember.

Anyway, if people build stories out of stories in the same way that people build food and clothing and shelter out of plant and vegetable matter, what do they need to do that? If there were a DIY center for stories, what would it look like? People do this at many levels simultaneously: individual, family, community, organisation, society. I'm not going to think about all levels at the same time in an exhaustive mental survey. Instead I'll just ricochet around the spaces and see what happens. The four elements I can think of that people need to create their own constructed elements of life are: materials, tools, instructions and workspaces. I've been reflecting on each of these while thinking of my textile journey, similar journeys in the world of woodworking and cooking, and stories.

Stash, beautiful stash

What are the materials of story construction? It depends on whom you ask. If you define a story by form, stories are made of characters, settings, plot points, conflicts, arcs, and so on down the screenwriter's laundry list. If you define a story by function, stories are made of goals, plans, actions, expectations, surprises and discoveries. If you define a story by phenomenon, stories are made of rumor, gossip, belief, perception and truth. All of these are legitimate materials for story construction, and which you think matters most probably says more about you than it says about stories.

Where do story materials come from? All around us. Every breath is a story, every glance, very tic and twitch and smile. We don't need to go anywhere to find stories; we just need to pay attention to what is going on around us. When I think of people harvesting stories I always think of this little line from the Bible: "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." That's what we do when we are paying attention: we treasure up things that happen, good and bad, and we ponder them. That's all there is to it.

One thing that stands out as a constant element in all craft and DIY discussions is the importance of a stash. The uninitiated might believe people go out and buy materials for every separate project they undertake, but that is not the case. Everyone who does any amount of construction has a materials stash. A stash is a combination of poor planning, opportunism and hope. I used to have a large fabric stash but lost it or gave it away years ago, and it is interesting to see how it is reassembling itself as I begin to sew again. Sometimes I choose a fabric simply because I love it and want to use it for "something." Sometimes I choose a fabric for a project, but it turns out not to be right for that project but perfect for another. Some items join the stash because of an excellent close-out or "mill end" price and wait until their destiny arrives. A stash is really made up of stories. It is a repository of projects completed, in progress, interrupted, planned, envisaged and hoped-for. It is a record of the past and a substrate for the negotiation of meaning and identity in the present and future. Rather than supporting a simple relationship between material and purpose, the threads of cause and effect in the stash form a complex web of suggestions and cooperations. A maybe-project might join up with a maybe-material and solidify to form a definite creation.

Some stashes are carefully organised in elaborate color-coded boxes and bins, while some are so confused that new items are added simply because old items cannot be found. Systems for stash maintenance abound, but everyone knows it is not the number of bins you have but how much time you spend that determines the beauty of your stash. For example, my scrap wood is in a mess right now, but that's only because it's winter. One of the first signs of spring is the ecstatic trip to the lumber store and the renewal of hope in the form of a well-stocked stash. I recently spent an afternoon reorganizing my nails and screws into a wall-sized inventory system where I can see at a glance how many nails or screws of each size are available for a project. I often stand in front of the array and let ideas for new woodworking projects swim through my head.

In any stash, elements vary in size from full project portions (enough to make a sweater, when I get around to it) to adequate-but-small scraps (enough to make a pocket, if the occasion comes up) to the tinest of scraps only useful for rag rugs and other reconstructions. All of these items find their places in new projects. A pocket of silk may work its way onto a flannel jacket, and a line of fleece selvage makes a great tomato tie. Resourceful reuse is a point of pride for serious crafters, to the point that complaining about an overwheming stash is a barely-concealed play for dominance in any discussion of craft.

So, what is a story stash? It is just all the things that have ever happened to us, and all the things we have ever heard about happening to anyone else, and all the things we think or wish or dread could happen to us, since we started remembering things. At the level of the individual this is easy to think about. Some stories in our stash are taken out often and used to weave or sew garments of great value (being stories, they improve rather than degrade on copying). For example, some people say that the very first thing you can remember happening in your life says something about your image of yourself, because it is not really the first thing you remember; it is the start you have chosen for the story you tell to yourself about yourself.

Some people have wonderfully organized story stashes. You've met these people - they can tell you what they were doing in 1994, 1995, 1996, and so on. Others have jumbled story stashes where memories are organized not by year but by emotion or image or smell, and even the distinction between truth and fiction is not clearly noted on the annotating label. Some people spend large amounts of time organizing and reorganizing their story stashes, in company and in solitude, while others toss in new experiences and slam the door before everything comes tumbling out. Likewise, some people keep broad swaths of nearly-complete stories in their stash - a shirt needing only a button to complete, for example. I've noticed that older people tend to have a lot of nearly-complete garments in their story stashes, probably just from having gone back to the same project so many times. Other people never seem to keep much more than scraps in their story stashes, or even just fiber that needs a lot of coaxing to make its way up the staircase into something you can wear.

Do people use organization systems to manage their story stashes? Sure they do. This is why we have photo albums, hard drives, scrapbooks, heaps of old postcards, framed drawings, even all the little knicknacks that each contain a story about who gave us that when we went to the place where we saw that. This is why people buy houses, because they are tired of moving all their stories around from place to place. It's their stash. The fact that, as I said above, we have all this other non-story stuff mixed in with our story stash, like tissue paper in the material drawer or pine needles in the wood pile, inflates our stash and makes it harder to keep our stories at our fingertips.

All right, what about communities and organisations? That's where I think the metaphor starts to become more useful, because it is where I begin to see some gaps. These are some ways I've seen story stashes go wrong in communities and organisations, and some ways to avoid such problems.

The stop-and-go story stash is one where everyone gets all excited about collecting stories for a particular project or need, for a while, but afterward the project gets forgotten and the stash rots away. Six months later a whole new stash is collected, but the stashes are never brought together into a coherent inventory because there is no continuity. This is like people who get so excited about building a shed that they buy way too much wood, but then they leave the extra wood sitting out where it rots and can't be used to build the new and even more exciting shed they simply must build the next year. (This and all other craft situations are rhetorical and not based on actual events in the life of the writer.)

In contrast, people who manage a healthy story stash recognise that part of their commitment to the system is the responsibility to find suitable successors when they are ready to move on to other projects. Spare materials are not left to rot but are sheltered in expectation of reuse at a later date. In the world of narrative knowledge, such shelter may take the form of annotations that increase utility to those coming after: after action reviews, notes to administrators, stories of the projects and of the system itself. A self-perpetuating story stash tells its own story, and it continues to do so long after it is first created. We inherited some materials from my father-in-law's stash of materials for tinkering with bits of wood and metal, and every glance at it still tells us much about the man who once built and used it, so much so that we still find ourselves unable to disturb the stash to use any of its materials. It coheres, like any good story should.

The mish-mash story stash is one where lots of stories have been told, say on a forum or in interviews, but the stories are in such disarray that the only way to find stories to suit a particular project need is to painstakingly read each one. This is like the people who keep buying nails of a certain size over and over because they can't find any nails of that size, even though they are pretty sure they must have bought some at one point. Organisations end up with story stashes like this when they are willing to let people tell stories and save them, but don't want to commit to having anyone put in the time to manage the collection. They buy the bins, but nobody takes the time to put anything in them. Sometimes a mish-mash stash (say that six times fast) includes elements inherited from previous "legacy" stashes, and nobody knows quite what to do with those parts, so nobody does.

In contrast, a healthy story stash is maintained both with habitual, daily order (putting things back where they came from) and periodic reorganization (sorting out the nails) when things seem to be getting out of hand or when a new need arises. There is also some attention paid to the continued quality of the overall stash in meeting the needs of new projects. One develops a sense for how project-ready the stash is at any time. At the moment my sewing stash is a bit over-ready due to my eagerness to start up again, but my woodworking stash is in need of reinvigoration and I can plan nothing larger than a shelf. Stash awareness is not just of quantity but of quality at all positions along the staircase of manufacturing, from newly harvested to nearly built. So a good story stash is not only in order but also well balanced and available for projects starting with many levels of pre-built pieces. Such a story stash might have raw anecdotes at one level, stories that resulted from group exercises at another, and polished marketing materials at another, all related through meaningful links. In this way projects never fail for lack of material that suits the unique needs of those enthusiastic to build.

The just-for-show story stash is one where the stories are filtered upon entry so that the stash is not a true record of the narrative life of the organisation but rather a message-laden vehicle. This is like show stashes of people who don't actually intend to build anything but want to make sure visitors see they have fine fabrics or excellent wood they could use to build fine-quality crafts if they should so choose. Such a stash is anathema to true craftsmanship, since it is collected not to be used but to display the owner's ability to choose not to use it. These are the "tell us your success story" farces where employees or customers are encouraged to tell their stories while being given strong signals that only certain stories will be accepted, upon pain of removal (of story or person).

In contrast, a healthy story stash portrays the character of the organisation with all strengths and weaknesses intact. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their stash. I remember pawing through my mother's stash long ago, and I can tell you that mine is like hers in the same ways I am like her, and it is unlike hers in the same ways I am unlike her. The story stash of a community or organisation should reflect the character of that body in the same way. When there are two stashes, one for show and one for use, tensions will arise. For this reason a healthy story stash must be frequently refreshed with new material that maintains a diversity of thought and viewpoint while supporting the goals, concerns and culture of the organisation. This might be a monthly influx of new stories told in response to questions based on current events or gaps to be filled in advance of upcoming projects. As a result the stash supports serendipitous connections that connect incoming materials with projects that spring to mind as patterns form. People can stand before the shelves and think of what might be possible, rather than simply what is permitted.

The bins-in-bins story stash is one where told stories are quickly harried into their correct places and never let out again. This is like the stash of a well-meaning but self-limiting crafter who thinks all materials should be perfectly in order - the one best order - at all times. The problem with such a stash is that serendipity dies: the satin never falls against the burlap. A certain amount of slack is necessary for an effective stash, and a healthy story stash manifests this need. Knowledge management systems are prone to this problem, because people want to organise but not reorganise. What many don't realize is that periodic reorganisation can contribute to a reinvigoration of knowledge. Many crafters gain a ritualistic pleasure from spending some quality time with their stash once a year. In the process new ideas emerge and old project ideas come back to visit and see if their time has come.

A practice popular among crafters is the stash swap, where people trade their unwanted disappointments for the treasures others don't want. You could imagine story stash swaps going on between organisational departments, at different levels, from different functions, and so on. Another phenomenon is the re-stash, where people who have lost their homes through natural disasters receive gifts of stash selections from the abundance of others. This would be similar to starting a new project group with "blasts from the past" in the form of stories collected during previous projects. Another thing crafters particularly enjoy is disseminating new and creative ways to organize materials in thought-provoking arrangements. My nail-and-screw wall is one example, but I've seen many more ideas on creative ways to use old CD boxes, filing cabinets, fishing tackle boxes, and a wide array of appropriated items. This works for stories too. Why not append collected stories to a financial report? Or constantly change the anonymous stories posted in the hallway leading to the lunch room? Or start every group meeting with a customer story? And so on. As you can see there are many creative ways to keep story stashes lively, most of which will provide energy and inspiration to those involved.

Tools of the trade

Now let us consider tools. In the craft or DIY store these take the form of simple and complicated machines: screwdrivers, hammers, saws, hooks, needles, sewing machines, looms. Screws and nails and thread don't qualify, because to be a tool something has to be taken back out after the project is complete. So a nail is only a tool if you take it out and use it again afterward, and sometimes you do that, say to punch a hole in something, so in that context it is a tool. Similarly in the world of stories something is a tool if you can remove it from one context and reuse it in another. Generally there are far fewer tools in the world of stories than there are in crafting or woodworking. You might think a report, say, on collected stories might be like a tool, because you can use it to influence policy or hammer home a message. But if you take that report very far out of context - pull the nail out of the beam - it will not operate in the same manner elsewhere. The only things that qualify, I think, as tools in the story world are methods for making sense of stories and software tools.

In any toolbox there is a range between tools that can be legitimately used in many contexts - the screwdriver, hammer, awl, and crowbar come to mind - and tools that only work effectively in narrow circumstances, like telephone wire strippers or chalk lines. The more involved the craftsperson the greater their proportion of specialised tools, but the lower their dependence on them. Meaning, if I know very little about a topic I am not likely to own or know how to use specialized tools. If I know just enough to be dangerous, I have probably bought some specialized tools but can only use them the way it says to on the box. If I am an expert, I can make a wire stripper into a screwdriver and a screwdriver into a wire stripper. It's like the buttonholer on a sewing machine: beginning sewers say it's daunting, intermediate sewers see it as life-saving, and expert sewers find it cute and occasionally expedient. Specialized tools distribute knowledge into the tool by embodying it. At the lowest level we can't link to the distributed knowledge there because we can't jump the barrier to use it. At the highest level the knowledge is in us, so we don't need the distribution anymore.

We see this in story tools as well. A novice at organisational story work can use only the simplest methods: collect some stories and tell people what they said. Later they learn to use some specialized methods in which they help people manipulate stories with a purpose in mind, but they can only do exactly as the published method describes. A master story facilitator can blend any available methods and materials into gossamer garments of insight and inspiration.

A center that supports story work, like a fabric or DIY store, must support people at all levels of tool use. You can tell how much people know about a craft not by which parts of the store they visit but by which parts they avoid. Rank novices go straight to the nearly-built and let's-pretend-you-built-it kits and avoid going near any tools with complicated names or functions. Those with more confidence avoid kits like the plague - heaven forbid they should be confused with novices - and go instead to the tools with the most exotic sounding descriptions. The experts avoid no aisles and gaze with calm equanimity on all available tools, confident in their ability to use everything somehow.

How can a story system support all levels of expertise in working with stories? It needs some nearly-built kits that require only a few decisions or actions to build a simple story from memories or events. People buy these all the time in the form of "memory books" for weddings, new babies, family reunions and other ritualised family events. The analogue in organisational terms is the yearly report, which follows a standard kit-like narrative form (we took your money and did great things with it, usually) that requires little creative effort. Project reports and other official stories are often completed in kit form.

Specialized tools in organisational narrative usually take the form of named, published methods such those in my own book. People pick up these tools and start using them as prescribed, simply at first and then with increasing sophistication as the tool becomes familiar to their hands. One thing a DIY store often has is a simple organisation of tools into grouped functions: these are for sanding, these for drilling, these for fastening, and so on. People need help to navigate the range of possibilities offered by an otherwise bewildering array of tools. Similarly, any system that presents story tools for the use of people in an organisation should help people navigate quickly and with little error to the solution they need. A matrix of needs and solutions, for example, would be helpful.

What about experts in the use of story tools? How can they be accommodated in the story system? What forms of support do they need? Do you know, I am less concerned with story experts being supported than with them being prevented from ruining the system's support for novices and intermediate users. There is a danger, when systems are built too much for experts, of intimidating novices away from the use of the tools they need. I'd either build a separate system for experts or let them use the system in a way that hides their activities from novices. Many DIY stores have separate "contractor" checkout lines and service centers that keep them away from the vulnerable novices in this way. My advice is to let story experts provide advice and help when it is needed and asked for, if they can behave themselves, but don't let them take over and keep everyone else locked in passive dependence.

Another possibly useful aspect of physical tools is that every tool tells stories. When I look at my sewing machine it tells me about all the things I have used it to do. The same is true for my jigsaw and other woodworking tools. Tools become repositories of the stories of their use, some hidden from obvious view. I remember a time last summer when my son came up to me with a tool and asked what it did. I said, "Hand it to me and we'll find out." I didn't remember what the tool did, but once I had it in my hand, the tool and my hand told me the story of its use by the way they moved together; then I knew. So, what would organisational story tools look like if they retained their stories of use? Perhaps they would accrete stories about times people had used the tool. Why couldn't they? A description of how to carry out a story method could easily be annotated with such stories; and that could improve the tool's effectiveness in the organisation.

Tell me how

The next component of a DIY story store is instructions. These are the equivalent of the books, patterns and classes provided for beginning crafters. Here I must confess to being an instruction bigot. I read manuals from cover to cover. I scoff at duffers. I buy books written for professional contractors because I want to know how to do everything the right way and the whole way, even if in actual reality I cut corners and do everything wrong, for illustrative purposes of course. It is a character flaw, I know.

A few weeks ago I spent a lovely me-time afternoon at the fabric store paging through hundreds of patterns I could use to build an entire wardrobe of stunning outfits. In the end I put them all back and bought some patterns for children's clothing. This was not because I didn't feel capable of sewing my own clothes, noooo. It was because I felt I should not descend to such a novitiate level. I should build my own patterns from clothes I already like. This was a temporary and quite stupid rise of pride, because the moment I got home I wished for a nice set of printed instructions to follow. It also clearly marks me as a non-expert intermediate sewing snob, because I care whether I use the crutch, while an expert would use the pattern if it suited, with no threat to identity. I do know how to make patterns from existing clothes, but I last did it decades ago and should have not allowed myself to puff up in such a way. But I couldn't help it; I became incensed by the difficulty ratings in the pattern catalogs. Apparently nobody knows how to sew anymore. About eighty percent of the patterns I saw were in the "easy" or "very easy" category, with only about twenty percent rising to the level of "average" or "advanced." It reminded me of Garrison Keillor's joke of the town where all the children are above average. (I also smugly noted that the piratical coat we had built was in the "average" category, marking my first return to sewing as far above average in difficulty. Another sign of snobbery: treading on the heads of those beneath.)

I also noticed another thing that at the time seemed all of a piece with the disgraceful decline in skill, but now seems less blameful. In one special section of the catalogs, all of them, were historical costumes for use in plays and societies in which you have to wear special clothes in order to quaff mead and lance orcs. Nearly all of those patterns were in the average or advanced categories. I do not doubt for a second that the great majority of people who sewed such outfits in the past were far superior to we modern idiots in these things. As I have lamented elsewhere, we do not know what we once knew. However, things are as they are, and the pattern companies are only working with the material of reality. Those who build systems to support the use of stories must live with the same decline in widespread skills. We must go to where the people are.

The word in software interface design circles is that tooltips, those little pop-up messages that tell you what that thing you are pointing at does, are life-savers. I agree and rely on them a lot, both in building and in using software. I think it has become a sort of reflex to hold our mice over things we don't recognise and wait for them to call out what they do. I remember once when I had been working far too hard, I was out driving the car and actually pointed my finger at a road sign expecting it to pop up a message. (I turned off the computer for a few days. I know a message from myself when I see one.) This is the new reality: people don't want to sit down with a two hundred page manual and scale the mountain of understanding. They want steps cut into the mountain with little catchy signs next to each one. Try this step! How about this one! Here's a fun one! It makes sense to support the use of story tools this way too. I'm rewriting the story-method parts of my book right now (or should be except that I'm writing this blog post which seems to go on and on), and that makes me think that I should have a "quick start" and "explore more" section for each method. Instruction bigots cannot survive in tidbit world. We must adapt.

I am nearly done here; just a few more things to tack on to the end of this building project. The other day I was learning how to card wool off the internet. (That sort of statement still sounds funny to me, how about you?) I found two sources of information. First I found several hobby carders like myself, even some pretty good ones, describing at great length why you should move this thing past that thing in just this way, and how if you do this wrong thing you will end up with this mess, and so on. I watched the videos several times and still could not put their explanations into my hands. I could never seem to do what they said I should do. Then I fumbled onto two videos of expert carders, one in Morocco and one in Mexico. These two women gave me the exact opposite lesson. They looked at the camera in a bemused way, as if someone were watching them breathe, and they didn't explain anything. They just carded, over and over, the way they obviously learned from their grandmothers. I watched them do this about twenty or thirty times while holding the hand carders and clumsily moving them around. Then, all of a sudden, I got it. Now I can do it, though I still can't say exactly how it is I'm doing it. Somehow that spark of understanding passed from them to me and now I have it. If I take care of it, I think it will grow.

I've been thinking since this carding epiphany that story understanding is a lot like that spark. I wonder if this is why apprenticeship is so useful in fields where articulation is difficult, like in story work. I try to explain to people how to work with stories, but I am like the hobbyists explaining how to move the hand carding tools around. How do you explain something you can't explain? People need to just get out there and listen to stories, and then they will suddenly get it. But I can't stand in front of people carding, and besides, I'm just an intermediate-level story carder myself. I wasn't born with it like those people were; you can see it in their faces. Talk to a real live griot if you want to see the real thing. I think what I try to do is help people gain enough confidence that they can hold the tools in their hands, watch an expert at work, and suddenly get it, even if they are not entirely sure what they received. One problem is that there are so very few real story experts today. Once in a while you meet a person who has a great facility with stories, and they are a joy to watch. But in twelve years of doing this work I have probably met only a few such people. They have not all been acknowledged experts at story work, either: some people just have that spark and think in stories, and you can see it in the way they live their lives.

One thing I would be excited to support is some equivalent of whatever efforts brought those videos of the Moroccan and Mexican carders to a Youtube video. Where are the story carding experts today? Can we see them at work? Can they show us what they do, so we can watch it over and over until we suddenly get it? Where would I look for such a person? I'd look in intact communities. It would almost have to be an old person. It might be a materially rich or poor person, but it would definitely be a person rich in community context. It would be someone who, when you go to a place, everyone asks if you have met them yet because you should if you want to know the place. When people get to that position in the community they probably know how to work with stories, and not just telling them but listening to them and building things out of them. You know, treasuring them up and pondering them. I'd like to watch those people work.

Space to work

My final category of things people need to build their own stories is workspaces. In crafts and DIY these vary from entire buildings to corners of cluttered cabinets. Like tools and stashes, workspaces tell stories about their owners. The workspace of organisational story work is the people themselves, and more precisely it is the people in conversation with themselves. The memory of the people in the organisation, and all the things that aid and transmit that memory, are like its stash. The equivalent of getting things out of the stash and assembling them into something bigger requires people to interact. So I'd say conversation is the story workspace. One reason many organisations and communities today, as opposed to those in the past, are less active in habitual story construction is because conversation requires time spent without a purpose that is clear in advance. Asking people to generate a collective effort without unstructured time to converse is like asking someone to sew a garment or build a cabinet without giving them anywhere to lay out the pieces. They just don't have enough space to work in.

I've been looking around on the web at workspaces people set up for crafting to see what they can say about story workspaces. To begin with, everyone cites the need to economise their use of space. One thing I've noticed about my own craft workspaces is that they expand and contract constantly. Sometimes I need to lay out a great quantity of material or wood, but I don't have the room to maintain that level of dedicated space all the time. In a similar way, organisations are typically limited as to the time they can give to apparently purposeless conversation. When the need arises people do expand their conversational space, whether the expansion is sanctioned or not. People can't help but come together to make sense of things that are astir in the community or organisation, like possible mergers or layoffs. It is a mistake to curtail such workspace expansions, because they are projects that need doing.

Second, craft workspaces are private places. One commenter on a forum said something like "I need to be able to close the door on a project so you can't see its clutter from the living room." What they really meant, probably, was that they aren't ready to show the in-progress project to the world and they want to keep things put away until the time is right. Certainly I can understand that. Walking into the middle of a story workshop and demanding to see results would be similar to barging into a project where I might be building a shed and might be having an accident. I'm not ready to display either outcome yet. For that reason story workspaces must have means of temporary protection for ongoing work, even if it is ongoing for months. Tentative explorations on sensitive subjects demand closed doors, even if they are opened for show once in a while.

A third thing I see people building into their craft workspaces is some way to control or put away clutter during times of intense concentration. This is also important in story work. We do this by asking people to tell stories about a mutually agreeable topic of concern and put the clutter of other stories away for a time. A general story exchange should be serendipitously open, but a session of intense concentration should close up the bobbin boxes and clear the space for action.

The last thing I often see in craft workspaces is the proud display of crafts built in past projects. People use these to present their workspaces to the visiting world, but perhaps more importantly, they display their works to inspire and motivate themselves. Story workspaces should have these displays as well. If people are telling stories in a space, for example, would it not be motivating to see thumbnails leading to previously built sensemaking outputs such as histories, landscapes or constructed characters? These can serve as ritual touchstones that remind people of their purpose in working together and their confidence that they can achieve the goals they set.

So there you go, we have reached the end of our meandering journey through the textile and do-it-yourself world with an extended metaphor for company. I hope it has been helpful to some. It has been a lot of work for one metaphor, but don't worry - when I make a metaphor do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra. (That's from Alice in Wonderland, if you forgot. Which you shouldn't. Go and read it again!)