Thursday, November 22, 2012

What has never happened to you?

Here are some ideas that have been bouncing around in my mind for months. I've tried to write them down a few times now, but I keep being held back because the ideas are not fully formed. However, today I correct myself on that point: such thoughts are against my rule on this blog. The rule I set up at the start was: when an idea gets caught in my head, then starts banging to be let out again to travel the world, "I am not worthy" and "I am not finished" are inadequate excuses for keeping it locked up. This is catch-and-release thinking. So here goes, ready or not.

The playful lies of spam

As I have said here before, I love reading spam. I know it's a scourge and a crime, but it's still fascinating. You have to admit that. Not only does spam have an uncanny ability to mesh up with my anxieties of the day (Interested in Your Product! Are you taking on new clients? Comment on your blog!), it is wonderfully generative of new ideas.

So one thing I've noticed lately (without meaning to) is something I shall call the Inverse Law of Spam. It goes like this:
All Spam Subject Lines Mean The Opposite Of What They Say.
I invite you to try this with your own magically convenient (and free!) flow of spam. Some favorite recent examples:
  • Urgent notification
  • Claim your prize!
  • Alert! Alert! 
  • I'm in trouble!
  • End of August statement required
  • Funds for immediate investment
  • Best prices
Trust? No trust. Where are you? Nobody wants to know. Urgency: no urgency. Prize: no prize. Alert: no alert. Trouble: no trouble (and no "I" either, at least not in the "I and Thou" sense). Statement required? No statement; no requirement. Funds: no funds. Prices? No prices; nothing to price. And so on. Even a simple "hi" spam means its opposite: nobody is actually greeting me. Thus, spam is a running catalogue of everything that could happen that is not happening. It's amazing, really.

The subject lines of emails I want to get are rarely contradictory. They actually are happening. If the subject says, "Your order of Really Raw Cashews has shipped!" there really are cashews, and they actually have shipped, and in a few days they will actually be at my house for me to actually eat. If a friend or family member sends an email that says, "How are you doing?" they actually do want to know that, and about me. Recently I got an email from Gardener's Supply, one of the few catalogs I use and enjoy. It said, "Put a Candle in the Window!" I'm not planning to do that, friends, but I believe that there is a candle, and that I could buy it and put it in my window. It's not a lie.

So why is spam inverted? Here's my guess. The people who write spam are trying to get some tiny fraction of the people who receive it to click on it, to sell them something or to deliver a virus or to use their computer as a processing "zombie" or other things I understand too little to even guess at. To do this they try to tap into the wishes and hopes most likely to be contradicted by reality, because they want to create a sort of pull, an attraction, to the lie they are telling.

The pull of spam reminds me of the pull of the Nothing in The Neverending Story. Anyone who got too close to the Nothing got drawn in and found themselves running toward it against their own will. The lies in spam are attractive lies, because they feed on our hopes and disappointments. All confidence artists know how to find and tell these attractive lies, and that is what makes them so dangerous.

But attractive lies are not always a bad thing; sometimes they can be useful elements of play. As a child I remember lying in the woods waiting for a door to Narnia to open (or any other fantasy world I had read about), knowing it was impossible yet wanting to pretend, just for a while, that it wasn't.

I find that spam has this same effect on me. I sometimes find myself clicking on email spam not because I think there is any possibility it could be legitimate, but because it's nice to pretend, just for a second or two, that it could be real. Call it a playful lie, a lie that invites play. I've won a million dollars! Strangers trust me to handle their inheritances and collect commissions! I can buy designer replica watches for next to nothing!

One of my favorites is the email I received recently from God. (No joke, this is the actual email.)
This planet is in danger and I need to know where to go to help you.  You were suggested as someone who may have heard of God (Allah) and it was suggested I email you, personally. I am God Allah and looking to people for purposes previously explained by the Holy Bible. If you want to help or learn more, get in touch with Me.
Emergency Message,
Lord of the Worlds
Author, Holy Qur'an / Bible
Thunderbird "thinks this message is junk mail." Clearly Thunderbird is unaware of my importance in the grand scheme of things!

The playful lies of self-representation

Now a second observation, which followed unbidden some weeks after the first, as the result of several mini- and near-observations in several separate conversations (no names need be named). Let's say you and I meet, and we haven't seen each other in a while, and I say, "So, how've you been?" Very often, I have noticed, the response to a question like this will include one of two categories of playful lie.

The first form of how've-you-been lie is the wish-it-were-true aphorism. These are statements like "It takes all kinds" or "The older I get the dumber I get" or "Youth is wasted on the young" or "Old age isn't for sissies" or "You gotta take the good with the bad." If you listen to the stories people tell before, during and after the these aphorisms, the lived experience of the person making the statement often contradicts the aphorism itself. For example, people say "it takes all kinds," then go on to explain how the kinds they have been dealing with lately are precisely the kinds "it" does not take, if "it" is their well-being and happiness. Or people say "youth is wasted on the young," then go on to explain how they are just as stupid now as they were then, only they wish they could get a do-over anyway. Or people say "old age isn't for sissies," then go on to explain how they haven't been able to cope with the changes of age and feel far from courageous. The aphorism in context is not a statement of fact; it's more of an expression of a wish, a yearning. If only things were this way, people seem to say.

The second form of the how've-you-been lie is the here-I-am statement. Here the person makes a presentation of themselves as being a particular sort of person. Then, as with the aphorism, they go on to tell story after story proving how they are actually the opposite of that particular sort of person. A few examples: "I'm not interested in fame or fortune" (followed by accounts of fame and/or fortune); "I can't complain" (followed by complaints); "I wish I could spend more time relaxing" (followed by plans for amazing new projects requiring massive outlays of time); "I get by on very little" (followed by stories about the great things they just bought). The meaning of the statement lies in the contradiction between reality and wish, though it usually takes some patient listening to find that out.

To give a more extended example, this second form of playful lie was the subject of an argument I had with my sister once. Some time in my twenties we went to a party in a city, and I was dancing with some guy, and he said what do you do, and I said I'm a writer. My sister heard this and berated me (for hours) for lying. She said I could only call myself a writer if I made my living by writing. At the time I was in graduate school for biology, and I wrote only in my journal. Now that I do make my living by writing (among other things), my favorite thing to call myself is ... a researcher. That's another lie, of course. By the standards of many I am not anything like a researcher. I didn't finish my Ph.D., and I don't work at a university or industry think-tank or government agency. I'm a stay-at-home mom with a little nearly-dead business on the side and a long crazy quixotic book project I wish I hadn't got myself into. A researcher? Come on. But that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

From these observations I hereby derive the Inverse Law of How've You Been Statements:
All Statements Put Forth In Answer To The Question "So, How've You Been?" Mean The Opposite Of What They Say.
I invite you to verify this law in your own conversations. I've now seen it happen something like a dozen times with various unsuspecting friends and relatives. One thing I've noticed is, the greater the length of time the how've-you-been answer needs to cover, the stronger the inversion. If it has been only two weeks people are less likely to invert their answers. If it has been two years the law is more likely to hold. 

So why do we do this? Why do we tell these playful lies? Are we spamming our friends? Are we trying to get them to do something they don't want to do?

I don't think so. I think the reason we tell playful lies to the people we know and meet is that we are trying to communicate something of the essence of ourselves. The essence of ourselves is not anything as simple or boring as what we are: it is also what we wish we could be. The "if only" of playful lies is a more complete representation of ourselves than the dull facts of our reality. When I say "I am a researcher" I don't mean I really am recognized as a researcher by any research institution; I mean something more like, if you want to know what I'm really like, ponder that word, because it means a lot to me. The same communication is behind our contradictory aphorisms. When you say "old age isn't for sissies," what you really mean is, I'm doing the best I can. It's hard, and I'm scared and I'm tired and I hurt. But I'm doing my best to hang in there anyway, and if you want to know me that's what you need to know.

So then why does this match up with the playful lies of spam? That's easy. Spammers try to catch on to the essence of what you are, because they hope it will draw you in, even when you know there is no point in doing so. Lies are the doorways to wishes and dreams.

The problem of fiction in story collection

As I said, these observations came to me unbidden. They just happened. After a while I began to think how I might apply them to story work, because, well, I try to apply everything to story work. The place I think these observations apply best is in the difficult problem of using fiction in story collection.

I considered rewriting this essay with the problem first, as though I had pondered the problem then ingeniously came up with solutions; but that's not how it happened. The fact is, I don't think much about the use of fiction in story collection. I've tried it, and seen it tried, enough times to know it fails most of the time. Sure, with a magically motivated and engaged group of creative people, you might get them to "move into fiction" and explore every wrinkle of possibility and impossibility in a story collection. However, most of the people who tell stories in story projects are neither motivated nor engaged. A thin paste of toleration is the best you can usually get.

Also, I don't think fiction, of the hero's journey style, is all that useful -- in the type of story collection that is a part of participatory narrative inquiry. If you can get people to talk about the things that have actually happened to them (which is hard enough) you don't generally need fiction. The truth is compelling and useful enough. I also think it's more respectful to ask people what has actually happened to them than it is to ask them to make stuff up. Asking people to "move into fiction" seems to me like it sends the message that their real experiences are not exciting enough, which means they are not exciting enough. On the contrary, the things that have really happened to people are amazing, and it's worth telling them that.

Why do efforts to "move people into fiction" usually fail? I think it's because people are not used to it, or are not used to it anymore, which is the same thing. When someone sits in a story collection session or fills out a form or sits for an interview, their main thought is usually, "What am I supposed to do here?" The setting itself presents them with expectations based on what people usually do in such circumstances. In the setting of a group meeting, a web form, or an interview, people expect first to be asked to provide opinions. Being asked to recount what has happened to them is a bit strange, but they can handle it with some coaching. But think about it: when is any adult today asked to make up a story? By another adult? Never. The request is so strange that people tend to reject it. They laugh nervously; they attack the questioner; they get busy with something; they attempt to transform the request into some other task; they fall back on formulaic answers; they try to pass the buck to someone else. The dances of discomfort and avoidance I have seen when people have been asked to move into fiction have convinced me it is not a tool useful to participatory narrative inquiry. It just wastes valuable time that could be better spent.

In some venues, like in a web form, getting people into fictional space is practically impossible. Written interviews are like messages in bottles: you have very little control over what happens when people encounter your entreating words. People may go one step of the way with you into the world of fiction, but if you move too far and too fast you are likely to find yourself walking alone down the yellow brick road, with your project participants still back in Munchkin land sitting in the upside-down house of reality. Just because you can see the colors doesn't mean they do.

For example, consider this question:
You are at work one day and you get a call from an old friend. They have an interview at your firm next week, and they'd like to know whether you think it's a good place to work at or not. What experiences you have had at work might you tell them about to convince them either to work there or not to work there?
Cool question, right? Not so cool answers. This sort of question creates a fictional journey through two linked rooms. The first room is the story of the conversation with the old friend. The second room, the one you hope people will follow you into, is the story about what happened to the participant at work. What I've seen is that people are often willing to go into the first room, but few people will follow you to the second room. The most common response I've seen to a question like this is, "I'd tell my friend that they should work at our firm. It's a great place to work!" That is a story, but it's not the story you were after. You strode ahead, but they stayed behind. I've seen projects where a question like this has failed to produce useful stories in eighty percent of responses. That's a waste of the valuable time and attention of participants, who might have been perfectly willing to recount their experiences if they had been asked about them in a more straightforward way. In story work the time and attention of participants is the gold you cannot replace, no matter how much straw you spin.

This is only if you ask for fictional stories straight out, mind you. If you help people through a complex sensemaking process the result of which is a fictional story, you can get something worth using. But that requires time and cooperation and and presence and facilitation. Sometimes you have that in the collection phase of a project, but usually you don't. In the simplest case, where you are just asking people questions to collect stories, I haven't yet found any way to get the majority of people to tell fictional stories of any value to the project.

The response I have evolved to this dilemma, of how to get people into fictional space in story collections, is not to. I simply put it aside and focus the collection on what has actually happened to people; and that's fine just as it is. Fiction sounds wonderful, but once you've read through hundreds of non-responses the excitement of its potential fades. It's like they say: falling is not so bad; it's just that little bit at the end that hurts.

But still, I have often thought that it would be nice to find a middle way in story collection, something that falls between fact and fantasy, an ante-chamber to the fictional world, you might say. Something that goes deeper than just the facts without moving into full fabrication. I do sometimes use questions that hint in the direction of fictional states. This question, for example, is one of my favorites:
Have you ever seen somebody do something, and thought to yourself, "If everybody around here acted like that things would go a lot more smoothly than they do now"? Or conversely, have you ever thought, "If everybody around here acted like that things would fall apart"? 
That sort of question doesn't elicit fiction. It only elicits true stories. But it does ask people to step close to the door of fiction, through the implied scenarios of utopian or dystopian states. Similarly, sometimes I'll ask this question:
What's the most surprising story you have ever heard about [the topic of the project]?
That question also opens the door to fiction, because the "surprising story" doesn't have to be true. Few walk through the door, though, open or not. It's not what they expect.

Playful lies in story collection

Now. As a result of the above reflections about playful lies and representation, I would like to put in front of you three questions a practitioner of participatory narrative inquiry might be able to use to invite people to lie playfully in story collection, as a halfway house to fiction. Like I said at the start, these are incomplete thoughts, but I think there might be something useful here.

Consider this question:
If you look back on [the topic of the project], can you think of a proverb that summarizes your experiences in that area? What is the proverb? Next, can you give us an example of a moment in which you felt that proverb was important to you?
Do you see what this question does? It sets up a situation where the participant is invited to tell a playful lie using a how've-you-been aphorism. Here is where they can say "it takes all kinds" then tell a story about how it doesn't. I'm not sure they would do that, but I wonder if some might, the way I've seen people do in conversation. It's an invitation to self-present using a pair of statements, which may or may not be paradoxically revealing of the tension between reality and wishes.

Similarly, you could use this question:
Finish this sentence: With respect to [the topic of the project], I am a/an ___________. Now think: in what moment of the past year did what you wrote in that space matter most to you? What happened in that moment?
This is an invitation to tell the other how've-you-been playful lie, the lie of labeling. Note that (in both questions) I ask for a moment in which the label of self-representation matters most, not a moment in which it applies most. That leaves the way open for a playful lie about contradictions between self-representation and experience. For example, I might say "I am a researcher" then tell a story about child care. (Or, equally likely, "I am a mom" followed by a story about work.) Telling? Of course it's telling.

Once I received the responses to these questions, I would look for agreement and contradiction between the labels and the stories. Then I would link those things up to other things people said about their stories, like that they turned out well, or that the story's protagonist acted admirably, or that they would remember the story for a long time. It could be revealing, don't you think?

This also makes me think of story titles, because those are labels people use to represent their stories. I always ask people to give their stories titles. It's usually meaningful, and it helps in catalysis and sensemaking because it's easier to find titled stories again. But I've never thought before to look for contradictions or tensions between stories and their titles. I have noticed, without meaning to pay attention, that sometimes people give their stories titles that seem ironic or sarcastic. They might tell a story about being shouted down in a meeting, then call the story "Every voice counts." The next time I sit down with a batch of stories I want to see if there are patterns in the titles given to stories. Tensions between titles and plots could be useful information. Maybe I have been collecting playful lies all along and didn't know it.

The third question that comes to mind is the one I put in the title of this post. For a project with a topic and a goal I would write it thus:
With respect to [the topic of the project], what has never happened to you? (Describe what the event would have been like had it happened.)
I thought of this question because of an idea I read about many years ago: that your first memory is probably not really your first memory. It's something called "autobiographical memory," which is essentially a story you tell yourself about your life. Selecting which memory to say was first is an act of self-representation, a selection of one story from the many possible stories we could tell ourselves but don't. The selection of what memory to say came first reminded me of the selections I saw people making in their how've-you-been self-representations.

So I thought: Is there an analogous selection task we could embed in a story collection? How about asking people, not about what has happened, but about what has not happened? That gives people a similar task of choosing one story from the many millions of didn't-happen possibilities. The selection of which story to tell should reveal something about them and their needs and cares. It also edges closer to fiction without causing people to over-react and run away from it.

I have conducted extensive field trials on this technique, and can report that -- ouch! Stop twisting! Okay, okay, I asked my husband and son the question. I used the unadorned version as in the title of the essay, not the topic-specific version I would use in an actual project. I just walked up and sprang it on them. I can't tell you what they said -- it was that telling -- but I can tell you that both of them (a) were taken aback by the question, (b) visibly reflected on it, and (c) told surprisingly meaningful fictional stories, seemingly without discomfort or avoidance. The stories had good solid plots and conveyed meaningful information about the characters of the people who told them (which I happened to know, so I could verify it).

So I think this could be a good idea for story elicitation. It's certainly worth playing with. I invite you to surprise people with it and see what happens (then tell me what happened).

Some other never-happened questions that could conceivably work:
  • What is something that has happened to you in the past that will never happen to you in the future?
  • What is something that everyone assumes has happened to you, but that has never actually happened?
  • What could never happen to you in a million years?
  • What do you never want to happen to you?
  • What shouldn't have happened to you, but did?
  • What should happen to you, but never does?
And so on. On thinking about this I remembered something I wrote in the first chapter of my book:
When I think of people and stories I always think of that line from the Bible: "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." That's what people do. We treasure up things that happen, and things that could and couldn't and should and shouldn't happen, and we ponder them in our hearts.  
Even though I wrote this, I never before thought of asking people about "things that could and couldn't and should and shouldn't happen." I don't know why I never thought of it before. It seems perfectly obvious now.

A final warning. I would still tread carefully when using questions like these. Some people will still walk away from these journeys, even though they don't go all the way into fiction. I would still expect to see lots of "this is stupid" answers if such a question was asked straight out, with no other option, on a web form or other one-way conversation. I would only use any of these questions in story collection if people had the opportunity to either negotiate the meaning of the question (with an interviewer or small group) or choose the question from a list that included other, more factual questions.

In summary, inviting people to tell playful lies of self-representation has the potential to draw people closer to fictional exploration in a way that could be useful to everyone involved in a participatory narrative project. That's as long as you remember the words of James P. Carse:
If you must play, you cannot play.
If you try it, let me know.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Do that to me one more time

This is going to be one of those rambling blog posts where I start by describing an experience I've had which nobody but myself could possibly care about, and end by making statements about life, the universe and everything that ... nobody but myself could possibly care about. So if you came here while hopping around the internet looking for bright shiny things: this is not one of them.

The experience I want to tell you about has to do with a quandary I have often pondered: why I can't stand to read novels written since the early 1900s. Yes, it's about that again. If you are interested in reading, and what goes on when we read (okay, when I read), read on.

As our story begins, I was getting close to the end of Dickens. I had only three novels left to read: The Pickwick Papers (not a real novel), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (only part of a novel), and A Tale of Two Cities (read as a teenager and dimly remembered). I always reach a point in my reading of any novelist where I try to draw out the last few books to prolong the experience, and I had reached the drawing-out point for Dickens.

So I went to my bookshelves and began scanning for anything fictional I hadn't already read. I came across a book I had been given (all right all right! lent) by a co-worker a dozen years ago. I knew exactly why I hadn't read it: it was written in 1969. Nearly every time I've tried reading something written recently the attempt has been a disaster and I've gone running back the the "classics" where I apparently belong. But my Dickens needed thinning, so I pulled the book off the shelf and carried it into the bathtub.

The tissue-paper famine

The book I took off the shelf was Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City. As I expected, it explored fascinating topics, raised persuasive points, developed compelling plots. As I expected, I couldn't stand reading it.

Curious about why my co-worker had so strongly recommended this book, I looked it up on Wikipedia. The book is well respected and considered important. It has many fans. Its author won the Nobel Prize in Literature, for goodness' sake. Chastened, I returned to the book, resolved to continue reading in hopes that I would discover its latent wealth. A hint that the book would become post-apocalyptic at some point also helped me keep going. (Love me my end-of-the-world plots.)

The month dragged on. My baths got shorter and shorter. In the tub, I found myself holding the book and pretending to read it while my thoughts were actually wandering far away. I even found myself avoiding the bath entirely by making randomly generated excuses (the enormity of this aberration is difficult to express).

The fact was, reading The Four-Gated City felt like stuffing tissue paper into my mouth and trying to chew it. Nevertheless, I dragged myself through the entire book. The post-apocalyptic bit at the end was disappointingly brief, but even that part, though intellectually interesting, was physically unpleasant, even painful. Normally after I finish a good book I enter into what I call a "refractory period" of a few days where I take a break from reading to respectfully reflect on the wonderful ideas bouncing through my mind. After this book I didn't have a refactory period: I had a recovery period.

The feasting table

After licking my wounds for a few days I felt it was time to return to Dickens. One evening I carried A Tale of Two Cities into the bathtub and settled down. The first few pages ("It was the best of times") were not so much fiction as establishing preamble. But at the moment when I encountered the first description of events in the book:
He walked up hill in the mire by the side of the mail, as the rest of the passengers did; not because they had the least relish for walking exercise, under the circumstances, but because the hill, and the harness, and the mud, and the mail, were all so heavy, that the horses had three times already come to a stop, besides once drawing the coach across the road, with the mutinous intent of taking it back to Blackheath. Reins and whip and coachman and guard, however, in combination, had read that article of war which forbade a purpose otherwise strongly in favour of the argument, that some brute animals are endued with Reason; and the team had capitulated and returned to their duty.
I tell you, people, I nearly burst into tears. I found myself hugging the book (briefly: wet). I was overcome with joy and gratitude. After a month of famine I found a feasting table set before me: succulent meat, thick deep gravy, vibrant vegetables, lush fruits, strong wine.

Why, if these novels were both so well respected, did one leave me feeling as if I was in prison, while the other freed me with joy? Were these both not stories? Were these both not good stories?

Curious, I asked myself as I read: What am I feeling, exactly? The first word that came to mind was euphoric, and the second was endorphins. With this in mind I watched myself read:
The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich. The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction. It thundered at the town, and thundered at the cliffs, and brought the coast down, madly. The air among the houses was of so strong a piscatory flavour that one might have supposed sick fish went up to be dipped in it, as sick people went down to be dipped in the sea.
All of a sudden it dawned on me. The difference was in the metaphors. Dickens' work, and the work of many authors of his time, is pumped full of metaphors. The Four-Gated City, and nearly every other recent work, has far fewer.

The tethered reader

After this thought about metaphors I re-read the passage about Dover while watching myself again. I noticed that I was doing what the words were doing. I ran my head into a chalk cliff and felt the white chalk rub off on my face. I tumbled wildly about, becoming the beach, the stones, the sea. I thundered at the town; I felt the thunder impact my house fronts and cliff faces. I dipped myself from the land into the sea and from the sea into the land.

This was exactly what I had stopped doing while I was reading The Four-Gated City. With one book I was running around doing what it said, and with the other I was just ... reading it.

I recalled a passage in The Four-Gated City that had particularly bothered me. It went like this:
Margaret was almost smiling: she was humouring Martha.
Who now stood up, confronting Margaret. Who stood up, ready to leave. The women were furious with each other.
When I read that the women "were furious with each other" I threw the book out of the bathtub in frustration. This was similar to my "Philip was sad" book-throwing event while reading The Pillars of the Earth (which I wrote about here a while back). In both cases I felt immobilized, disabled, like a dog tied to a stake with nothing to do but gnaw its own feet.

Another example of a frustrating passage in The Four-Gated City sprung to mind:
This, particularly, was the room, which had become, in the last six months, her home. The moment of greatest pleasure in every day was waking in it, beneath the window, which framed the tree whose leaves she had seen stand in solid leaf, then thin, then fall. It was a sycamore tree. 
That sycamore tree reappeared several times throughout the book. That sycamore tree haunted me. I could not do anything with that sycamore tree. I could not touch it or climb it or become it. It was tantalizingly close, yet frustratingly unreachable.

Scope for the sensation

There, lying in the bathtub hugging Dickens and remembering Lessing, I felt I was finally starting to get an inkling of an answer to my decades-old why-these-books question. Maybe I need metaphor-rich writing because metaphors give me something to do when I read. Maybe reading Dickens feels euphoric because the activity of running around while reading feels more ... alive, somehow. Maybe the metaphors are somehow releasing endorphins in my brain, or making it feel more energetic, or ... something that feels good or right or worth doing.

Next I did what any reasonable person would do today: I jumped out of the bathtub and rushed to the computer. I typed into Google "metaphors endorphins."

The third result in the list was an article by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times called "Laughter as a Form of Exercise." I clicked to read it, probably more because it was from the Times than any other reason. I skimmed down the article, and this sentence caught my eye:
But laughter is fundamentally a physical action.
That's exactly how I feel about reading, I thought. It's a physical action. It's more like sensation than thought. So I went back to Google and started typing in "metaphors sense." The word "sensory" came up in the auto-suggest thing, so I chose that. (Google usually knows better than I do what I mean.)

That query drew forth a whole slew of articles like this one reporting on recent research done at Emory University in Atlanta (which turns out to be only one part of a much larger research program finding out similar things). Rather than describe the research I'll just quote a bit from the linked ScienceNOW article.
The right turn of phrase can activate the brain's sensory centers, a new study suggests. Researchers have found that textural metaphors—phrases such as "soft-hearted"—turn on a part of the brain that's important to the sense of touch.
Using functional MRI, the researchers found that:
The language-processing parts of volunteers' brains became active regardless of whether the volunteers listened to the literal sentences or the metaphors. But textural metaphors also activated the parietal operculum, a region of the brain involved in feeling different textures through touch. That part of the brain didn't light up when listening to a literal sentence expressing the same meaning as the metaphor.
I am generally careful when reading accounts of neurological research. For one thing, this particular study was done on a grand total of seven college students, which is hardly a representative sample of humanity. Still, the fact that this sort of cross-linking could even be possible was exciting, because the idea of other parts of the brain "lighting up" connected perfectly with my feeling of "running around" while reading metaphorically rich texts (and sitting frustratingly still otherwise).

One more discovery spoke even more directly to my Dickens-Lessing problem. At the bottom of the first page of Google results for "metaphors sensory" I found a link to an article in the New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul, called "Your Brain on Fiction." That article takes the same metaphor-to-sensation neurological results and connects them to the experience of reading novels -- all novels.

Says Ms. Paul:
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.
I agree that some fiction produces a vivid simulation of reality, but I'm going to have to disagree that all fiction does this for all people. Not all fiction is thick with metaphor. Only the kinds I like are. For the most part, only older fiction is written in this way. This is the crux of the issue.

Yanking books off the shelves

At this point I bounced out of the computer, excited to think that I might have finally found a reasonable explanation for my extreme difficulty reading fiction written in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the writing of nearly every author from time periods before the last century, the metaphors come fast and thick. To read Dickens or Eliot or Dostoyevsky or Hardy or Gaskell is to move among jostling crowds of metaphors.

But not crowds: more like organized workers moving hand in hand. Often the same metaphors reappear many times in the same book. Sometimes they reinforce each other, building web-like structures that support recurring themes. From A Tale of Two Cities:
It was a large, dark room, furnished in a funereal manner with black horsehair, and loaded with heavy dark tables. These had been oiled and oiled, until the two tall candles on the table in the middle of the room were gloomily reflected on every leaf; as if they were buried, in deep graves of black mahogany, and no light to speak of could be expected from them until they were dug out. 
This is the rented room of a young lady who believes her father to be long dead. The description of the room repeats the same funereal metaphor no fewer than ten times. The effect is like a deeply resounding bell calling out the name of death, death, death. This use of metaphor (which as I said was once too common to mention) goes far beyond simple connection and is better described as complex.

Metaphors can even extend their strands across the boundaries between books. If you have read much of Dickens you will remember his demonic personifications of the thick smoggy mists of London, and how they seem to drift malevolently from one book to the next.

To test this idea, I went to my bookshelves and started plucking out books I have loved reading and books I have dragged myself painfully through. Some contrasting examples follow.

Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.
Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o'clock one morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.
When I first read this, I remember spending some minutes just holding the idea in my mind that the day might "succeed in breaking" only with great difficulty. I played with that metaphor as a child would with a ball.

One True Thing by Anna Quindlen. Excellent book, powerful emotions, strong characters, deep lessons. Very hard to drag myself through.
That January, when they delivered the hospital bed, leaving the den in disarray and the living room crowded with furniture, leaving a long scratch in the oak floor of the hallway because they were careless with a metal side rail, she didn't say anything. She just got in and turned on her side so that she was looking out the window, out the window that looked out on our driveway and the side of the house next door.
Years after reading that book, the one thing that stands out in my mind is that hospital bed. But I remember it in the same way I remember Lessing's sycamore tree: as something seen from a distance, behind a transparent wall. Something I wanted to touch and explore but could not.

George Eliot's Silas Marner.
The questionable sound of Silas's loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave off their nutting or birds'-nesting to peep in at the window of the stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver.
The cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, the questionable mockery of the loom. Throughout that novel early industrial machine are given characters that make them part of the action, not just scenery.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.
In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.
I can't say what you see in that passage, but I see a scene on a painting, or behind a window, inaccessible. I can't go there because I have not been given any way to touch what I see. What if the excerpt went like this:
The broad, capable back of the valley stretched powerfully up to the hillside, inviting Tom to leap astride. A stream like a shining rivulet of warm sweat flowed down its back. There, where the valley could support his weight best, he would build his house.
Okay, I'm no novelist, we can all see that. But I can go to that sentence. I can leap onto and into that valley. I can feel its strength and safety. That's the kind of reading that feels like reading.

Not all the books I pulled off the shelves matched up perfectly with a simplistic pattern of old-rich new-poor. I found a few cases in which my forays into contemporary fiction have gone well. However, all of them were written by people known for their strong use of metaphor.

Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Out of the dimness of the room in which they sat, a white staircase climbed toward the blue-and-white wallpaper of the second floor. Paul D could see just the beginning of the paper; discreet flecks of yellow sprinkled among a blizzard of snowdrops all backed by blue. The luminous white of the railing and steps kept him glancing toward it. Every sense he had told him the air above the stairwell was charmed and very thin.
I don't remember viewing that staircase from afar. I remember touching it, walking up and down it, breathing that "thin" air, climbing the wall myself as the staircase. That staircase is part of the story of Beloved (and part of my memory and experience of the story of Beloved) in a way Lessing's sycamore tree and Quindlen's hospital bed and Follett's valley are not.

Ursula K. Le Guin is a contemporary author whose every written word I have read. From The Dispossessed:
The large, calm room was shadowy and silent, darkening. Shevek looked around it, the perfect double arches of the windows, the faintly gleaming edges of the parquet floor, the strong, dim curve of the stone chimney, the paneled walls, admirable in their proportion. It was a beautiful and humane room. It was a very old room. ... I have been here a long time, the room said to Shevek, and I am still here. What are you doing here?
I can do something with this kind of writing. Not only can I see and feel this room, I can speak to it, and I can become it. I can run around holding it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 
During that interminable night ... Colonel Aureliano Buendia scratched for many hours trying to break the hard shell of his solitude.
Can you feel that shell? Looking at this makes me wonder if this is why I enjoy surrealistic writing so much (Borges, Calvino, Kundera, Kafka). If the whole story sits inside a metaphor the experience is even more physical: not just things to run around with, but also to run around in.

A question: Do you send yourself messages in song lyrics? Do you ever find yourself singing a song not because you heard it recently but because you are trying to tell yourself something? (Just say you do so we can move on.) The morning after all this happened -- the bath, the chalk in my face, the googling, the frantic book-yanking -- I was making coffee, and I realized I was singing the great Captain and Tennille song "Do That To Me One More Time."

A detailed examination of plausible causes

At this point in my explorations a burning question entered my mind: Why on earth did Doris Lessing win the Nobel Prize for Literature? This fact can only mean one of two things: (a) I am the only human being who knows what good writing is, or (b) people read in a variety of ways, and some of them are not how I read. The first of these we can discard out of hand.

This leaves us with the next question: Why do so many people today, unlike myself, find relatively metaphor-poor fiction readable, even enjoyable -- dare I say it, even preferable?

Rather then actually try to answer that question, I'll just pull out my trusty pocket nature-nurture. It's a bit worn but still quite serviceable. Hold on, this latch is tricky to open ...

Perhaps there is natural genetic variation in the extent to which reading metaphors activates sensory parts of the brain. The study I mentioned above only included seven people. Probably there is much larger variation to be found in larger samples. Maybe I happen to be on the tail end of the distribution where metaphorical-sensory activation is so strong that reading metaphor-poor writing becomes painful. If this is true, many more people should inhabit the middle of the distribution, and some will be found on the other side, where metaphors are words and nothing more. Maybe to the majority of people, Lessing's sycamore tree is not blocked off because Dickens' tumbling rocks don't tumble. A thing can only be blocked if there is some reason to want to go to it.  

Or, perhaps the activation of sensory perception in response to metaphorical exposure is an acquired condition. I do read more than most people I know, obsessively so, and I started this bad habit at an early age. (Fond memory: the careful provision, on a winter's day, of the couch nearest the fireplace with a pile of books, a bag of pretzels or peanuts, and a jug of water, so that I need not budge from the spot for the entire day.)

My memory of childhood reading is insufficiently detailed to reveal whether I "ran around" while reading back then, so I can't say whether my preference for metaphor increased with time. But I do remember two things: that around the age of twelve I went through a Greek and Roman period in which I read all the ancient stories I could find (more on that later); and that for a long time my favorite author was Ray Bradbury. Here's a quote I just found from an interview with that great man:
"I have an ant farm in my head," he says. "Metaphors and ideas crawling all over each other."
"I was born a collector of metaphors," he says. "Metaphors are the center of life."
So that answers that.

By the nurture explanation, what I read defined for me what reading ought to feel like, which defined what I would enjoy reading, which defined what I read. In other words, maybe I "run around" while reading fiction because I have spent so much time doing that. Maybe people who have not spent as much time reading run-around types of fiction don't miss it when it doesn't happen.

Where have all the metaphors gone?

How would each of these two positions explain the general decrease in metaphorical density between classic and contemporary novels? I don't think it's necessary to prove that there has been a decrease; anybody can find this out for themselves given five minutes in a library. With exceptions, of course, the overall trend has been monotonically downward.

The genetic-variation explanation provides the simpler story. By this interpretation, when Dickens wrote novels far fewer people read or wrote than today. Maybe at that time a small subset of writers wrote for a small subset of readers, and they all shared similar cognitive proclivities, because paying attention to prose was self-selecting. It was sort of like the early internet: because it was bare-bones technical, only the technical got involved with it. But today the reading and writing of novels has spread out to encompass the entire spectrum of cognitive styles. People with all ranges of natural tendency to connect metaphor with sensation (or not) are involved in both the reading and the writing. So a book that leaves someone like me trapped in sensory deprivation can still thrive in the marketplace of ideas.

If true, this can only be a good thing. In the same way that the internet more closely resembles humanity than it did in its early years, novels today more closely resemble the diversity of human reading styles than they did in their early years. I like this explanation because it does not mean anybody's reading apparatus is broken, yours or mine; it just means we are all different. And we already knew that.

The acquired-condition explanation provides its own story of the sea change in metaphorical density. This interpretation points out that the very first novel-length stories were not told by novelists. They were told by bards who kept their stories in their heads. It is reasonable to assume that this faculty depended in part on the use of sensory metaphors as mnemonic devices. So maybe the first novels carried the heavy use of metaphor over from ancient oral traditions.

Certainly if you read anything written "by" Homer you can see how strongly metaphor was used in those times. Here is a bit from the Oddysey in which I count anywhere from four to six sensory metaphors:
No sooner had I reach’d my ship beside
The ocean, and we all had supp’d, than night
From heav’n fell on us, and, at ease reposed
Along the margin of the sea, we slept.
But when Aurora, daughter of the dawn,
Look’d rosy forth, drawing our galleys down
Into the sacred Deep, we rear’d again
The mast, unfurl’d the sail, and to our seats
On board returning, thresh’d the foamy flood.
If metaphors in fiction are a historical remnant, it would make sense that the further we get from orality the less fiction will carry metaphors with it as a matter of necessity. At some point metaphorical density becomes a matter of style, not of utility. This seems to match the variety of forms we see in today's writing.

Concrete actions for the betterment of society

If people vary genetically in how strongly metaphors activate sensory regions of their brains, and if nothing can be done to change this, a certain set of actions and expectations will be called for in the fictional future (all futures are fictional, as are all pasts). The issue will become a matter of deep and abiding respect for metaphorical diversity.

To begin with, all locations on the Fictional Metaphoric-Sensory Activation Spectrum (FMSAS) will be treated with respect and equal rights before society. As a start, any official fiction prize award committee, or faculty of a literature or creative writing department, or literature curriculum, will be populated with verifiable, accountable diversity on the FMSAS.

Laws will be passed prohibiting discrimination against readers or writers of any persuasion, no matter how many or how few metaphors they prefer. The era of mistaken-yet-well-meant creative-writing advice such as "use metaphors sparingly" will end, though probably only as the prejudiced generations pass away. The mixing of metaphors will most likely continue to be seen as anathema for some time, but even this practice may someday find acceptance in a more enlightened society. Metaphor lovers may someday feel perfectly free to admit their proclivities in public without fear of blame or isolation.

Finally, both readers and writers will someday be encouraged not to beat their heads against the walls of their disinclinations but to follow their bliss(es?), metaphorically speaking. I foresee a world abounding with FMSAS tests, both self-administered and, for the more serious or encumbered with excess cash, fMRI based. People will test their dates; parents will have their children evaluated; workgroups will participate in combined Myers-Briggs-FMSAS workshops to improve collective productivity. The age of respect for metaphorical diversity will arrive in bounteous waves of mutual admiration (or, if you are at the other end of the FMSAS, in bounteous mutual admiration without the waves).

On the other hand, if the linking of metaphor with sensory activation is an acquired characteristic dependent on activity, everything can and should and will be done to shape the reading experience so as to expose all citizens to the widest range of metaphorical experience.

Someday, no intellectual thinker will be able to hold up their large, brain-filled head if they cannot demonstrate a superior facility at leaping nimbly from one end of the FMSAS to the other, and to all points in between. As we now speak of singers with perfect pitch, someday we will count among our heroes those with perfect metaphorical-sensory activation control. Prize award committees, faculties and curricula will be populated with the activities of these gifted individuals.

Training in the understanding and appreciation of literature, and in the writing of creative works, will include extensive exposure to varieties of metaphorical density. Flexibility immersion courses will be popular. In these, participants will be voluntarily confined in successive rooms filled with alternating courses of metaphor-rich and metaphor-free prose. Sophisticated medical devices will record stress levels, and participants will refuse to leave their "spectrum rooms" until they have succeeded in attaining their target equanimity matrices. For those less willing to undergo such rigors, metaphorical density coaches are likely to appear, aiding the stumbling as they advance their neglected skills.

There is a role for government in this scenario as well. No opportunity to educate the public in metaphorical flexibility will be ignored. All public signs and announcements will be posted in metaphorical and "plain speaking" forms. Even candidates, parties and referenda on voting ballots will be described both metaphorically ("Should roads be paved by the angels of solitude?") and directly ("Should road crews be composed of at least two members?"). All of this important and necessary work will contribute to the creation of an educated citizenry able to converse in all forms of prose.

It must be noted, if reluctantly, that in the first generation of this reform movement, some poor souls whose early years were spent squandering their potential in reading only one style of writing will need the help of a safety net. We can expect them to rely on remedial aid in the form of government vouchers for private counseling. Sadly, we suspect that few scholars will be willing to help these people, since the early damage to their potential flexibility may be irreparable (though everyone will be at pains to avoid stating the obvious). It goes without saying that those quixotic individuals who do attempt to help the metaphorically inflexible will be ridiculed as windmill-tilters (though their pupils may or may not follow the allusion).

However, leaving the relatively few misfits aside, the greater population in years to come will experience heights of reading enjoyment new to literary history. Never again will any middle-aged woman lie in her bathtub suffering at the hands of an award-winning yet frustratingly unreadable book. No, no. All books will be readable! All readers will be capable! In short, every free human being will enjoy every book ever written and ever to be written. This is the future we can foresee. This is the future we can create.

Or, the situation may have arisen from a combination of nature and nurture intertwined and inseparable. In which case we should just ignore the whole thing and go about our business.

That's what I plan to do.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blog reading made easy and fun

So we just got back from a family car trip. At a rest stop on the way I picked up a cute little brochure called "Born To Be Wild: The Guide to Getting Kids Outdoors." I like to see what people are saying about nature, so I picked one up. The brochure is formatted like a magazine issue, with its large title and some article-headline sub-titles below.

This brochure is designed not (as it appears) to help people get their kids outdoors, but to make it seem both necessary and overwhelmingly difficult to do so (for reasons you will discover in a bit). It does this by the use of messages with larger unspoken (but carefully designed) messages wrapped around them. I find this interesting because stories nest. (I wondered whether these might be stories wrapped around stories, but I can't decide, so I decided to just write the post anyway.)

Let's start with the main title: The Guide to Getting Kids Outdoors. What is wrapped around that message? That kids don't want to go outdoors, of course. Because if they did, would parents have to "get" them there? What if the brochure was called The Guide to Getting Kids to Love Candy? Or The Guide to Getting Kids to Stay Up Past Their Bedtimes? Names of things rely on shared expectations of values like what is easy or hard, normal or abnormal, right or wrong. So if a brochure claims to explain how to "get" kids out in nature, its "extra" meaning, intentionally or not, is that kids have to be "got" into nature and will not "go" there readily or on their own. 

Diversion: I wish I could talk to the people who came up with all the "Reading is fun!" campaigns. Can you think of a slogan less likely to make kids want to read? You know what "reading is fun" means to any sane kid, right? That reading is not fun. That it is so very not-fun that adults feel they have to trick it up with exclamation marks and candy colors. Do parents think children can't see the titles that say "Ten Ways To Make Reading Fun For Your Kids?" Do parents think children can't understand what that means? If you want to convince somebody of something, pay attention to all the layers of meaning, not just the ones with the words in them.

Back to the helpful nature brochure. Now let me describe each sub-title on the cover of the brochure and the extra message wrapped around it.
  • Choosing the right activity. [Better not choose the wrong activity! You don't know which is the right one? That's bad.]
  • Camping made easy and fun. [Camping is not easy; camping is not fun. You have to work to make it that way. You don't know how to do that? Oh.]
  • Our favorite state parks. [Some state parks are great, but some are horrible. We know which are which. You don't? Better not go anywhere, then.]
  • Gearing up for adventure. [You cannot have an adventure without gear. You knew that, right? You don't have gear, you just have stuff? Oh. You'd better not have any adventures.]
At this point I opened the brochure and found some more helpful multi-layered advice. Some examples:
  • The number one rule: Look for camping spots that have a lot to do. [We know the rules, and you don't. I'll bet you don't know what the number two rule is either.]
  • Never been car camping with kids before? Don't sweat. [Car camping with kids is hard. You don't know how to do it. What? You don't even know what "car camping" is?]
  • A small backpacking-type tent will do, but a roomier tent is much better, especially if it rains. [Your tent is not good enough. I'll bet you don't even know if it's a "backpacking-type tent" or not. You are totally unprepared for camping.]
  • If camping, paddling and hiking are old hat with your crew, mix it up with some off-the-chart adventure that'll get the attention of even the most jaded kid. [Nature is boring. Nobody can stand to do anything "natural" more than once. Your kids will get sick of the whole thing very quickly.]
  • When backpacking with children, think diversionary tactics: tell stories, sing songs, and be prepared to bribe them with healthy treats when they get really tired. [Nature is really, really boring. You will have to trick and cajole and bribe your kids the whole way through. Do you really feel up to that?]
At this point I'm feeling pretty insulted, patronized and irritated by the "advice" in this brochure. Most of what could be seen as information is just everyday common sense. Bigger tents have more room in them than smaller tents. Two stove burners are better than one. People get wet in the rain. You need soap to wash your hands. Kids need more adult help before age eight than after. When a kid rides a bike, their legs need to be long enough to reach the pedals. And this gem: "The sea is nothing to be trifled with." I begin to wonder who produced this thing and how they thought it could possibly be helpful.

Finally I open the nested inner panel and find out where it came from. The large central section is a mini-catalog of camping equipment from a major outdoor equipment retailer (a fact impossible to discern on any more visible part of the brochure). Here is the description of the first item in the mini-catalog:
Angstrom pack. A fastpacking favorite. This hydration-compatible 30-liter pack features a zip rain cover to keep your gear dry during all-day treks when it's pouring.
And the messages wrapped around that:
You don't know what any of those words mean, do you? Look, you'd better just buy this, quick, and let us render you capable of camping. Otherwise, truly, speaking as an expert here, you have no hope. You do realize you will be walking through pouring rain for whole days at a time, don't you? You didn't know that? Oh boy. You really need this.
Now I understand why all the messages have other messages wrapped around them. The whole brochure is meant to convince me, the parent, of four things:
  1. Children hate nature.
  2. As a dutiful parent, I must drag them through it anyway for their own good.
  3. Being in nature with children is overwhelmingly difficult. I can't possibly do it on my own.
  4. I desperately need help pulling off this required but horrible parental duty. Who can help me? Oh! These nice people with these magically helpful supplies! Scientific supplies! Angstrom supplies! What saviors!
Do I think this advertising campaign is evil for placing this mostly-fake-advice brochure in highway rest stops where unsuspecting parents will think it comes from a park service? No (okay, mostly no). Do I think the major outdoor equipment retailer is evil for doing this? Not especially. The "you are lost without us" ploy is as old as the hills, and if one group is doing it so are many others.

Do I think consumers need to pay close attention to messages wrapped around messages, and stories wrapped around stories, in the "helpful" information we find placed around our world? Yes.

And by the way, I can help you do that. (Joking, joking :)

[P.S. In the first posted version of this post, for the first several hours, I named the "major outdoor equipment retailer." Later I took it out, mainly because I know nothing at all about them. For all I know they may do many wonderful things, and I decided I didn't want to rush to condemnation without some serious fact-checking. Or I could just take out the name. If you saw the post with the name in it: you are getting verrrry sleepy ... ]

[P.P.S. I understand that people need to sell things, I really do. But when the side effect of such "helpful" information reduces the likelihood that parents and kids will choose to step outside their house-car-mall bubbles, that's a sad, sad thing.]

Monday, October 1, 2012

What goes around

Here is a little pestering idea you might want to be pestered by. I started this blog to pass on pestering ideas, so there you go, little idea, move along.

When Google first got exciting, it was because it was more accurate than anything else out there. It was more accurate because it relied on the web of meaningful links people had put in place, for their own individual and group purposes, by hand, without using Google. I don't remember the details, and probably you don't either, but somehow Google made use of the fact that on a web site about turtles there were links to other web sites about turtles, so when you searched on turtles it could use those links to rank results with turtle-related words in them. Essentially, the reason Google was so reliable was that we didn't rely on it.

Have you noticed lately how, more and more, people say on their blogs or web sites or whatever, I'm not going to bother to link to that, just google it?

Have you noticed the results of searches on google getting worse?

Maybe the more we rely on it the less reliable it becomes. Google helps those who help themselves?

Interesting, huh?

Changes passing by

A few curious things I have been playing with, things you might also find interesting. All in the category of change.

File:REA woman works washboard.gif1. A change in working and being worked for

Seen at our local historical museum: an old-time ribbed-metal and wood washboard with an instruction that reads:
Don't rub too hard! Let the board do the work.
Let that bounce around in your mind for a while.

2. A change in moving and being moved

I thought it was a typographical error the first time I saw it. In a Dickens novel he referred to people walking on a city street as "passengers." Then I started seeing it again and again. Here's an example from Oliver Twist:
It was within an hour of midnight. The weather being dark, and piercing cold, he had no great temptation to loiter. The sharp wind that scoured the streets, seemed to have cleared them of passengers, as of dust and mud, for few people were abroad, and they were to all appearance hastening fast home.
From The Old Curiosity Shop:
It was the beginning of a day in June; the deep blue sky unsullied by a cloud, and teeming with brilliant light. The streets were, as yet, nearly free from passengers, the houses and shops were closed, and the healthy air of morning fell like breath from angels, on the sleeping town.
Clearly these "passengers" are not riding but walking. In some places, where Dickens has need to speak of carriages and coaches, he amends the simple "passengers" to "foot-passengers," as in this quote from Nicholas Nickleby:
Presently, the coach came; and, after many sorrowful farewells, and a great deal of running backwards and forwards across the pavement on the part of Miss La Creevy, in the course of which the yellow turban came into violent contact with sundry foot-passengers, it (that is to say the coach, not the turban) went away again, with the two ladies and their luggage inside; and Newman, despite all Mrs Nickleby's assurances that it would be his death--on the box beside the driver.
My guess is that in Dickens' time the separation between conveying oneself (passenger as passer-by) and being conveyed (passenger as cargo) was just beginning to be required. The online etymology dictionary says the conveyance meaning ("one traveling in a vehicle or vessel") was "attested" (in use?) as early as the 1500s. But certainly Dickens must not have felt it was confusing to his readers to use the term to mean people walking by as late as the mid-1800s.

In our time nobody would ever refer to someone walking as a passenger, or even as a foot-passenger. It would simply make no sense. The word now means being fully conveyed. A free online dictionary describes a passenger as "a traveler riding in a vehicle (a boat or bus or car or plane or train etc) who is not operating it." Apparently there is also a slang use of the word as "a member of a group or team who is a burden on the others through not participating fully in the work." If something has gone all the way into metaphor, it's pretty firmly situated in its meaning; it has to be for the metaphor to work.

What does it mean that we now see ourselves as not moving but moved? I don't know, but it must mean something.

3. A change in knowing and being known

We have recently been watching The Andy Griffith Show on Netflix. It is simply fascinating. The other day we saw an episode about privacy and information, called "Stranger in Town" (Season 1 Episode 12), that anybody who is interested in society in the age of the internet will want to watch. It sets all sorts of mental gears turning.

File:George Nader Andy Griffith Elinor Donahue Andy Griffith Show 1961.jpgI'll give you a brief synopsis. A man shows up in Mayberry, Ed Sawyer. He is a complete stranger, but he knows many details about everyone in town: names, habits, quirks. The townspeople respond with some distrust and fear, though they are mostly too mystified to know how to react. Is he a spy? An alien? A Hollywood agent? A long-lost relative? Someone with a loose screw? In the end, as usual, Andy the sheriff calms everyone down and finds out the innocent cause of the mystery. Turns out Ed heard all about Mayberry from an Army buddy of his who was born there. When he left the Army he found he liked the place so much that he renewed his buddy's subscription to the local newspaper. That's how he knew about everybody and everything. Once Andy explains the situation everyone welcomes the nice, if over-eager, man to the town, and he settles in.

What I found amazing about this episode was how I felt watching it. You might think that in this day and age I would find Ed Sawyer's ability to find out a paltry amount of information about people quaint and pleasant. Surprisingly, I felt more alarmed at the state of affairs (in the first part of the show) than the townspeople did! At one point Opie (Andy's 5-year-old son) ran out of the sheriff's office onto the sidewalk, and I had a strong emotional reaction: Don't let Opie go out alone with a stalker like that hanging around! The whole thing was almost like a twilight-zone episode, it felt so creepy. It felt even creepier that Andy (the law) was so accepting of the stalker. Evidently in the 60s such a plot was seen as television-cute (as all of the other Mayberry plots have been so far). It does not seem so now. My guess is that because we all know how people can find out lots about each other, we can link it more strongly and obviously to intent: negative intent, nasty intent. And apparent evidence of negative intent is more alarming than any mystery.

That's how I felt, anyway, watching it. I'm curious to know how other people watching that show today would feel. If you watch it, or have watched it, tell me how it seemed to you.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


People: I am writing this post wearing my Firefly t-shirt. Meaning: it is a Day of Great and Courageous Challenge. (Yes I am that much of a nerd.)

Today, after many months of toil, I finally released a more-complete-yet-still-incomplete version of my monster of a book, Working with Stories. The two catalysis chapters (basic and advanced) are in it, coming to about 120 pages together. All the chapters now have summaries, questions and activities for self-study. Many parts have been re-read and cleaned up. References have been collected and an improved "further reading" section has been written. The Scrivener-Word-PDF mangle has been dealt with, for better production next time.

What's left to do? Chapters on sensemaking, intervention and return, all of which should be far shorter than what I have written so far. More notes on case studies to be cleaned up into prose. A few more diagrams and pictures. Indexing and preparation for print and Kindle self-publishing.

If you like this book, or you like the idea of this book, or you have told me in the past that you would like to help me finish this book, now is the time to step forward. As I finish the book over the next (cough cough) months, I am in desperate need of two things, which only you can supply.
  1. Encouragement. To a person undertaking a years-long effort like this one, the work can seem like mining deep in the dark for jewels that may or may not exist when brought into the light. My biggest obstacle at this point is the need to maintain belief in the book's right to exist, which rests entirely on its utility. I know the book itself still wants to be finished -- it has told me so -- but I am no longer sure the world wants the book to be finished. If the world were to tell me it wants the book to be finished, I would gain much energy to keep mining.
  2. Discouragement. Self-published, self-edited books are always too long. At more than 700 pages, even without the several chapters yet to come, I know the book has grown into a monster. But I just can't choose parts to cut out! All the sections have such cute little faces! You, my readers, can do what I cannot. Please tell me which parts are not useful, because I am incapable of performing this service for myself. Clarity and utility are at risk, I tell you. The book is poised to eat itself. Someone must take an axe to it, for its own good. All reasonable opinions will be gratefully, greedily accepted.
That's it! I would say "watch this space for updates" but really, you must have far better things to do. When I have more to say I'll make some noise. Count on it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What makes a good story listener?

A correspondent was recently reading over old emails and found an answer I wrote to a question he posed about a year ago. He thought other people might find it useful, so he suggested I post it. The context was: my correspondent wanted to hire people who could collect stories, and he also wanted to hire people who could train people to collect stories. The question he asked was, "What makes a good story listener?" Here is what I wrote.

The first thing in finding people who can work with stories is that they have to think in stories. I used to think everybody did this but have come to the conclusion that it is like handedness: some do and some don't, and all points in between.

To explain what I mean: I am [was at the time] preparing a blog post that refers to an advertisement I saw in a magazine last week that had two juxtaposed photographs in it [it was this post]. I saw the advertisement and my eyes went straight to the photos, which I scrutinized heavily and got very excited about. There was some writing on the bottom of the page but I mostly ignored that. I brought the magazine to my husband to show him the exciting photographic juxtaposition. He completely ignored the photos and went straight to the sweepstakes scheme described, which to him was amazing. (After he explained it to me, it was amazing to me too, but I didn't notice it until he explained it.)

If I was hiring somebody to compare photographs, I'd hire me. If I was hiring somebody to evaluate schemes and plans, I'd hire my husband. So, you want people who notice stories the way I notice pictures and the way my husband notices schemes and plans.

It's almost like the world has many beings swimming around in it, but for some people whole species are transparent while others are solid. One person can see the stories perfectly but can't make out the opinions, and somebody else can see the opinions but the stories are just thin shimmers of light. If you watch people tell and listen to stories, you can tell pretty quickly whether they think in stories or not. Do stories come out of them all the time? Do they ask the kinds of questions that result in stories? Or do they ask other questions?

But I'm not sure about curiosity as it applies to story listening. I've known some incurious people who did a great job collecting stories, and I've met some curious people who couldn't let things flow. Listening to stories is a sort of yin skill, receptive not creative. Some of the best storytellers are the worst story listeners. I myself have to work pretty hard at listening, at least to people. With people I am always thinking of what I would like to say next. Strangely in nature I don't do that, maybe because I am more respectful and humble. That is why I was a better ethologist than cultural anthropologist. It is also why I like to work with stories other people solicited, because I can't rush in and ruin things.

I would say useful qualities for a story listener are patience, the ability to keep quiet and listen, the ability to observe and notice, the ability to build trust, the ability to help people feel safe to talk. Have you ever met a person who everybody tells them things they had not meant to say? I have met a few people like that, where I just spill things out because I can somehow feel they create good places for stories to come to rest. Stories flock to them. A good test is, when you talk to the person do you find yourself saying, I don't usually tell people this but... If you find yourself censoring your speech instead, that person is not going to be a good story collector. I would venture that everybody on earth can name a person stories gather round and a person stories keep a safe distance from.

So yin curiosity is perfect, but yang curiosity can ruin things by turning everything into an inquisition or probing experiment. Meaning, curiosity is useful if it means people can wait and see what unfolds. It is not useful if it means people can't stand to wait and try to force things through taking action. Great story listeners practice wu wei, or doing by not doing.

Also, rigor and punctuality can actually be quite useful because it can put people at ease: it communicates stability. I'd rather tell my story to somebody who is following a routine they know well than to somebody who might throw away the rules any second. Some of the best people who do oral histories are plodding sorts. Their arms are open, but not reaching.

So now, if you want to look for somebody who can train people to do that. I would say, all of that plus a strong ability to introspect. Because they have to know why what they do works, how to explain how it works, how to tell if other people are doing it, how to help other people do it, and how to help other people fix things when it isn't working. And also how to tell if people will not be able to do it and should give up and try something else.

To give an example, I've now taken three organized yoga classes. The second teacher was a dancer, and she seemed to assume we could all bend our bodies into pretzels. I got hurt trying to do what she did and had to quit the class. She probably didn't even notice. The third teacher was just learning yoga herself and, though she was enthusiastic and meant well, she only knew one way to do yoga. She didn't know why what worked for her worked or why what didn't work for any of us didn't. She was not that much better than a taped presentation.

My first yoga teacher, on the other hand, was amazing. She knew yoga inside and out, but most importantly she could look at anybody in the class, or place her hand on your arm, and know instantly how what you were doing was working for you or wasn't, and how to fix it so it did work. Sometimes I would be struggling and failing, and she could come over and make one tiny adjustment and suddenly everything would fall into place, and then explain why it fell into place so I understood. That was a great teacher. So, I guess a good trainer for story listening is good at story listening, and good at listening to the story of story listening. If that makes sense!

How would I engineer an interview to find such people? I would ask them to do this, over the course of ten or fifteen minutes:
  1. tell a few stories while I listen
  2. ask a third person to tell a few stories (and listen to them and maybe fill out a form)
  3. watch somebody else do what they did in step two
  4. talk about what happened in the first three parts
A person who is good for the job will be able to come up with insightful observations in all four sections:
  1. about their own stories
  2. about the stories they listened to
  3. about the stories the other person listened to
  4. about the whole process of telling and listening and its variations in the first three parts
If you go through that whole thing and the person doesn't notice anything, they aren't going to be able to listen to stories well or train anybody to do it well. Like my second and third yoga teachers, they will not know what is working and what is not, nor where to lay their hand to fix what is not working, nor how to explain why they laid their hand there then.

Of course that bar may be set too high, but you should be able to see differences among people by having them all do this. I have met people who would notice twenty useful things during that ten minutes, and I have met other people who would notice nothing. It's curiosity but of a particular flavor. A yang-curious person might not be able to wait until the end and would blunder in to force an outcome without producing understanding - like it was a machine to be fixed - but a yin-curious person would notice things that would help people improve their own skills.

As to resumes and curricula vitae, it's hard to tell. People write what they think they are supposed to write, which is generally not stories [Note: see the work of Kathy Hansen at A Storied Career for more on resumes and interviewing and stories]. I guess it would be useful to look for things they have done that show attention, patience, receptivity, noticing, yin-curiosity.

Watching. You want good watchers, and good watchers of watching.

As usual, hope it's useful! And thanks for the suggestion and the great question, correspondent!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Hm. It has been so long since I posted on this blog that Blogger changed the editing screen on me. Tells you something, doesn't it?

I just wanted to update anybody who might be wondering what I've been up to. I finished the catalysis chapter! I was all ready to post it about two weeks ago, but then I took a good look at what I have written so far. I realized it would be silly to put up another chapter without fixing all the "to be completed" bits in the previous chapters. So I've been going through and fixing things, including making sure every chapter has nice textbook-style end matter: summary, questions for discussion, activities, references cited, annotated recommendations for further reading. Nice and clean. Also, I'm fixing up all the places where I say "see page xx" where the "xx" means "put in some way to link pages later." Later is now.

With the catalysis chapter, I have finished 15 chapters out of an expected 22. It's mostly downhill from here. The hardest chapters have been written, and for what remains (sensemaking, intervention, and return, basic and advanced, plus the rest of the case studies) I have lots of notes to work from. The basic intervention chapter will consist of three excellent interviews with colleagues who know more about the use of narratives in that sphere than I do. (If you are one of those three colleagues: thanks so much for your help, sorry it has taken so long to get your stuff in the book, and I still promise to send you what you said so you can check it before it goes in!)

The catalysis chapter did take forever, but lots of other things have been going on that have slowed things down. My husband took on a new job that reduces my time flexibility somewhat. I've been working half time since 2003, but now it's even more half-time than the half-time it was before. Our family's homeschooling journey has been ramping up in ambition and scope as my son gets older. Also, our two very old dogs are going through their last few months with us, and our house has been transformed into a 24/7 dog hostel as we see our friends through to the end of their days.

So when will the book be done? When it's done, I guess. I've had this fantasy of showing up at the family Christmas party with real, physical copies of the book to give to my family members ... for the past three Christmases. Maybe I'll make it this year. I hope people can get some benefit out of the book even in its incomplete state, which is partly why I decided to clean up what I have before I write the rest of the chapters.

Why haven't I been writing in the blog? I've been kind of pondering whether I should still have a blog. I started the blog to write the book. (And I don't know why ... she swallowed the fly.) The blog has helped the book, but the blog has hurt the book too. Now maybe it's time for the blog and the book to part company. When the book is done the blog will have no stated reason to exist, so why continue it?

Another thing is, having a blog can be a pain. Every thing that happens you think: good blog material? Just a few mornings ago I woke up from a bad dream. In the dream I was at a conference somewhere, and I had been asked to give a talk on "Learning How To Learn." I sparkled, I engaged, I inspired. I had no idea what I was talking about. Then I woke up from the dream, and instantly a thought sprung into my head: good blog material? And then: stop doing that! Life is life, not blog material!

Another thing is, I've done a lot of opining in the blog. I didn't start the blog intending to opine, but the opinions kept sneaking in anyway. I don't think I like that. If I want to write an opinion blog I should start a different blog. I should call it "The Hand-Wringing Declinist" or "The Decline and Fall of the Way Things Were When I Was a Kid." That sort of place would be the right place to tell people the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, instead of sneaking in "and wouldn't you know, this is all about stories!" into each post. Then when I think of starting an opinion blog I think: let's not and say we did.

Whadya think?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lonely for ...

So yesterday I get in the mail the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and it's a double dose of loneliness in one day. The Atlantic has an article called "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" while in the New Yorker it's "The Disconnect." I read these with interest, partly because I've been writing similar things about how we don't tell each other stories as much as we used to.

Even though I'm generally in the choir on these things, I can't help but notice something is missing, and it's the same thing I see missing from every prominent declaration of the new loneliness. Consider this quote from John Cacioppo, "the world’s leading expert on loneliness."
“Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,” he writes. “But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.” The “real thing” being actual people, in the flesh. 
Wait: "the real thing" means people, and only people? Every non-human contact can only be a "surrogate" for human contact? Do these people realize what they are saying?

The human species has been around for at least a million years. Up to about a hundred years ago the majority of people were habitually conversant with the natural world, or, as it was then known, the world. If we redefine loneliness in terms of human contact only -- by saying we can only be considered lonely if we are lonely for people -- we risk ignoring a source of loneliness that might be even more powerful.

Imagine a world full of people, a world in which nobody is ever lonely ... for people. But in this new world it is possible to live an entire life without seeing one leaf, hearing one bird, touching one pebble, feeling one raindrop or gust of wind. If we can no longer be lonely for life itself, are we still alive?

The frog interview

I just got back from a social outing. Our pond is a frog pond, and it's getting to be time for the frogs to lay their eggs in the water. Every year I try to catch the frogs in the act of laying their eggs, and every year I miss the event and discover the egg sacs already there, anchored to branches under the water. So this afternoon, mindful of the time, I started out walking from the house.

Halfway there a red squirrel sounded the alarm: large animal coming! But this guy didn't just sound the alarm: they never do. He conversed with me. He stared straight at me, chittering, stamping, running up and down the tree, defying me to come closer. To each move I made he responded, escalating the tension. Finally I moved away (toward the pond, where I was going in the first place) and he sounded a triumphant call. I've been accosted thus by many a proud squirrel, and I defy you to say they intend nothing communicative by it. When we started on our project to build a playhouse a few years ago, I was leveling the space and laying out concrete blocks for the foundation when a squirrel came within a few feet of my face and delivered a five-minute lecture on the proper occupation of space in the forest. I listened with respect, and I have recalled that lecture many a time as I made sure our construction avoided presenting any hazards to our neighbors in that part of the woods.

Getting back to today. As I approached the pond I could hear the frogs going at it: a complicated chorus of calls was sounding back and forth as they negotiated the deposition of eggs and sperm into the right places. I was excited to have gotten closer than ever to the event of egg laying. I stood for a long time just listening. I could see little ripples on the pond where the frogs were dancing together; but I wanted to see more. I tried to advance quietly, but of course they heard me and stopped singing. I knew what to do next. I walked up quickly and sat down in my pond-watching spot, ready to participate in the frog interview. Time passed. A different squirrel started up a different confrontation, not towards me but towards some other ne'er-do-well, perhaps a deer, off somewhere past the pond. Flies buzzed around. Trees sung songs.

At some point I realized the interview had begun. A frog had swum up right in front of me and was staring directly at me. Now we began the formal process. I knew that I was to prove myself by remaining stock still for as long as was required; meaning, until the frog moved. Frogs are the absolute masters of stock-still, so I knew the challenge was difficult. The first frog that came up was a young, small one. After a relatively short staring session it swam off, apparently satisfied with my performance. Then a larger, more authoritative frog swam up and began the stare. This time I simply could not make it. Three times I tried and three times I failed. My fingers got numb, or my toe got jammed into my boot tip, and I simply had to move. The interviewing frog immediately spun around in the water and disappeared: interview over. By the way, to the uninitiated the interviewing frog would have seemed to be doing nothing but floating in the water, seemingly dead or unconscious. When the wind moved the water the frog moved with it like a floating twig. But I noticed that no matter which way the wind blew, the frog carefully and subtly bent its body so that its eyes never strayed from mine. During these three failed interviews I could see other frogs off across the pond, waiting and watching to see how the interview would turn out. A few times they even started up with a few hesitant croaks, but the interviewer declined to respond with an all-clear, so they continued to wait. Finally, sensing their rising impatience with my ineptitude, I rose to leave. I'll come back tomorrow, ready to try again.

I don't blame the frogs for being suspicious; I've seen what happens to them. Every year there are millions and millions of tadpoles. You can pick them up and run them through your fingers. Later in the year the numbers thin to thousands, and a year later there can't be more than twenty or thirty frogs in the pond. Some of them go elsewhere: we find the travelers roaming about looking for new ponds to settle, and sometimes give them a lift across a dry spot. But many must be eaten. That's another event I've wanted to see. I'm sure some kinds of birds must eat the tadpoles, and I've come to the pond at the time when this should be happening, but I always miss it. I see birds coming and drinking, but never dining. To cross that boundary I must surely endure additional interviews of an even more demanding nature.

I defy anyone to claim that the social experience I just described contains nothing but "surrogate" forms of sociality. For nearly the entire run of human existence, interacting only with other human beings has been an aberration, a deadness, a loss: loneliness.

Strange games

Here's Henry David Thoreau in Walden:
You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns. 
Later he describes a game of tag he played with a loon that sounds a lot like my frog interview.
He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.
I'll bet you twenty dollars that when Thoreau wrote that, any random person would have had a dozen stories to tell just like it in response. Not so today. But nobody ever says anything about that kind of loneliness.

You may have seen news articles about a man named Robert Biggs, who claims to have been saved from an attack by a mountain lion ... by a bear. A wild bear. According to Mr. Biggs, he had known the bear for a long time, having hiked the same trail for decades. He believes the bear saved him because it knew him and considered him a friend. There have been documented cases of wild animals helping people before, mostly dolphins and apes; so while I can't possibly know what happened to Mr. Biggs I concede the possibility. What I find amazing about this story, though, is the nasty tone of the many deriding comments about it. Here are a few fairly representative comments:
This is a really cool story. But he left out the part aliens fought off the bear before he time travelled from la la land.
So he was attacked by a duck, and a rabbit saved him? I don’t blame him for embellishing, the last time I was attacked by a duck I had to use martial arts. They are blood thirsty.

If I ran across a mountain lion and a bear, I would use my secret Dim Muk Kung Fu moves to immobilize them for 30 minutes with my deadly one finger touch. 
One thing I've noticed about the comments on this story are that many of them involve fantastic or gaming elements: aliens, magic, mind-altering substances. The idea of interacting with wild animals is evidently so far outside of "normal human" experience that people have to refer to things they know better: movies and computer games. As a visiting kid said one time while we splashed in our local river, "This is just like a movie!" High praise indeed.

Visitors in our own world

The stories of my frog interview, Thoreau's loon game and Mr. Bigg's bear all contrast with the presentation of nature I see in campaigns imploring people to "visit" and "see" nature. Have you noticed those ubiquitous posters in which children stare wide-eyed at butterflies? Have you noticed that the children are never doing anything? It's almost as if nature has turned into a museum of nature, an abstraction of itself, an idea without a reality. People who "visit" nature expect to see things, and they might even hope to see things happen, but they don't expect to have things happen to them.

Even though I grew up in the country and should know better, I have found this nature-as-theatre idea taking root in my own expectations. I find myself constantly surprised to discover that nature doesn't just sit there as I watch it. It jumps up and plays with me. Squirrels chastise me, birds surround me, hawks survey me, deer watch me, grouse fly from me (from me!), bears assess my motivations. I can't stand back and watch: I'm drawn in, engaged, included. It's not a zoo, it's a world. It's the world. It is the same world as it was before. The only change is that we have somehow got the idea that we don't belong here anymore, that we are visitors in our own world. It's no wonder we are lonely.

People say people are lonely, and they think people are lonely for other people. But what if people are lonely for more than just people? What if they are lonely for life itself? And what if life is lonely for us, and misses us?

Which is worse: the loss of the gift you miss, or the loss of the gift you have forgotten you ever had?

P.S. David Abram's book The Spell of the Sensuous says much of what I said here, and better too.

P.P.S. Having finished this post, I went to have dinner and noticed my copy of The Atlantic sitting open to the picture for the article "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Guess what the picture shows. It's a man and woman holding hands while looking away from each other at computer tablets. But look beyond the man and woman. Guess what they are standing in. Are they in a yard? In a forest? On a hill? Near the sea? Nope. They are in an empty space, blank, devoid of all life. Seems pretty lonely to me, people or no people.

P.P.P.S. The next morning this post sounds all show-off-y, holier-than-thou, I have a pond and you don't. But you don't have to live in the woods to reconnect to life. The world is so lonely for us that even a little potted plant will be your friend if you let it. My favorite cartoon of all time (surpassing even the Far Side explanation of dinosaur extinction) is one I saved from a newspaper a long time ago. It showed a very old man sitting on a bench in a giant concrete city, conversing happily with a tiny flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk. Nature is good company.