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!)


John Caddell said...

Cynthia, I would like to thank you for making me late to work today ;). Instead of waking up in my hotel room and immediately starting my morning yoga practice, I glanced at my RSS feed to see if there was anything new. And your posts came up, so I had to glance at them, then read a few paragraphs, then, of course, twenty minutes later I was still reading.

It's OK. I was better served learning about carding wool and weaving fabric than I would have been getting to the office at 8am.

I don't identify with the make your own clothes mindset, unfortunately. I am very happy to buy clothes at the Gap and other places. Of course, I treasure old clothes (such as the super-heavy wool overcoat I swiped from my father-in-law that is perfect for a mid-January meeting in New York City), but that's not what you're talking about, I think.

It does seem to me a little like my affinity for musical instruments and making one's own music. You don't even want to know what we have lying around the house, but it's at least a half-dozen guitars, violin, viola, piano, 2 kalimbas, drum kit, etc., etc.

My parents had only a dozen or so record albums that they listened to rarely, but they had get-togethers at our house weekly where everybody sang and my father played one chord on the guitar. Sometimes there was a piano player.

When I think about what CDs I'd want to bring to a desert island, I would reply, "I want a guitar with a few extra sets of strings." It's a similar sense of engagement I think that you feel with weaving, sewing and the like. The sense that you are part of the creative experience and that even (especially) the mistakes are an integral part of the production. You can add an extra pocket if you want, or you can change a chord to make the song sound different.

Anyway, lots to think about here. I am interested in how a Rakontu-like story stash can replace (almost completely useless) knowledge management systems for customer service organizations. That's on my "someday" list.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hey John! It's great to hear your voice and encouragement. I added a sentence to the first part of the essay on how to interpret my words if making your own physical objects doesn't resonate. I don't mean to privilege the physical! The contextual conduits I'm talking about can be in any part of life, and in my estimation your music making qualifies perfectly. I wish I had such abilities, but I only learned to play exactly what was written on the page. Learning to compose my own music is on my "someday" list.

I love your desert island metaphor, and I've thought something similar when I've seen "books for a desert island" lists: I'd want whatever it is you need to make paper and ink from palm trees :)

Your old coat IS actually what I'm talking about, because it has a context that connects you. Making things yourself is one way to arrive at such a contextual connection, but it is not the only way. I'd say the ideal state would be a combination of the two: everything we use and see and hear has been made by somebody we feel connected to. I should listen to your music and you should wear my cloth (wanna swap?). That's how people lived a long time ago, and I miss it. It's a sort of prehistoric knowledge management and decision support system. I wonder what we can learn and use today from it.

Speaking as my own lawyer: I disclaim all responsibility for damage or injury caused by the reading of interminable blog posts. Well, most of it anyway (^&^)