Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Too hard

Have you ever been pursued by a phrase or word that keeps knocking on the doors of your mind? Something that comes up in conversation so many times that you begin to wonder if its repetition means something? I've been hounded lately by the phrase "too hard." It keeps coming up in relation to story listening.

The phrase seems to come from two sources. Roughly half of the people who have told me that story work is "too hard" refer to the difficulty of getting people to tell useful stories, of dealing with masses of collected stories and other information, and of making sense of what has been collected. Participatory narrative inquiry as a whole seems daunting, and they are wary of plunging in.

The other group of people have reacted not to the difficulty of story work in isolation, but its relative difficulty when compared with other means of inquiry, usually of direct questioning. Story work is too dependent on motivation, and it asks too much of participants. People misunderstand; they walk away affronted; they don't do what they were asked to do. The collected stories are ambivalent, the answers to questions are confused, and none of it can be used to prove anything conclusively. Asking directly for opinions is simpler, less risky.

It seems to me that if I am to regard myself as knowledgeable about story work I ought to be able to develop some response to each of these statements. So I've been thinking, what do I have to say in each of these situations? How can I respond to these reactions?

It's not that hard, really.

Every human being has the essential skills to tell and listen to and make sense of raw stories of personal experience. The main reason I think many people find story listening overwhelming at first is that they start out in the wrong direction. They try to learn about stories: what they are and are not, how they tick, how to put them together, and so on. It seems an obvious way to go about learning, but I don't think it is useful, at least not at first. The best thing to do first is simply to be with stories, to get to know them, to walk and talk with them until they become as familiar as everything and everyone around you.

There are two ways to be with stories. The first is to be with recorded stories, which you could say exist in a semi-dormant, slow-growing state, like a slime mold as it lies dissipated across the forest floor. Don't look for Hollywood stories or novels, but smaller, more intimate, more natural, wild stories that lie closer to the origin of stories as agents of community sensemaking. Find books of oral history interviews, folk tales, records of conversations, old letters, old diaries, things people actually said about things they actually experienced.

You might think, by the way, that folk tales don't fit in here. But people didn't always use folk tales the way they do now, as mass-media entertainment. In times past folk tales wove through everyday life in the form of lessons, warnings, messages, questions. People told them, or referred to them, just as we refer to proverbs now (which are mostly ultra-compressed folk tales) in everyday speech. Any book that presents folk tales close to their original forms, usually recorded from elderly people, will capture enough of their everyday meanings to work for your purposes. Avoid illustrated folk-tale books with only one or a few tales in them; avoid themed collections chosen to make a point; avoid reading only the works of one author. Pick up broad collections instead like the encyclopedic Folktales from India or Italo Calvino's collected Italian Folktales. When choosing between two collections, pick the one that says its entries were changed the least from the way the old folks told them.

The other way to be with stories is to encounter them in conversation. This is the excitable, fast-moving state of narrative life, like a slime mold in the rapid coordination of assembled movement. To encounter stories in this way, plant yourself in a busy coffee shop or social gathering and listen. You will hear stories enter into conversations, hesitate, jockey for position, join forces, seize control, retreat in confusion. Take a notepad and start writing down the things you hear. Eventually you will start to pick up on nuances you blundered past at first, like someone retracting a story poorly received, then reframing it and attempting another introduction with the same story arrayed in more suitable attire for the group.

Which of these methods of being with stories is more natural to you will depend on your own background and personality. I love to read far more than I love to sit in busy coffee shops, so I seek out large bodies of recorded stories. You may find listening to stories in conversation more to your liking. The two types of immersion complement each other, so a combination of both is best, but either will teach you much about stories.

Whichever form of story immersion you choose, what will happen to you as a result is likely to be similar to what happened to me and what I've seen happen to other people. You will start to develop a sense of the shapes and functions and movements of stories that no explicit explanation can give you. This will give you the confidence of experience to support your first steps in actively working with stories. How many stories does it take to get to this point? It has to be different for every person, but I'd say if you have not spent time with at least one or two thousand stories yet, you need to spend more time with stories. I wouldn't keep a count, though: when it happens you will know.

After you have been with stories for long enough, all the books about how stories work will not confuse you; they will help you make deeper sense of what you already know. This phenomenon is not unique to story work. It is a pattern you will find in any endeavor that involves natural complexity. Someone who has been with gardens for twenty or thirty years is not confused or intimidated by books on gardening; the confidence of experience gives them a context in which they can make sense of advice and instruction.

The other thing you will notice after you gain some experience being with stories is that you will begin to feel ready to interact with them. You will find yourself eliciting stories by asking questions whose answers are stories, and you will find yourself asking questions about stories people have told. People often find interacting with storytellers an especially daunting aspect of the work. They say, "What should I ask? How should I ask? What will people say? How should I respond?" What they don't realize is that this sort of thing becomes much easier after you've had a good soak in stories, especially in conversational stories. When you listen to people exchanging stories for long enough, you will see how storytellers surround their stories with evaluative information, and you will observe how audiences incorporate questions into storytelling events. You will see that this doesn't always happen in words. Sometimes it involves a language of gestures and grimaces. But you will see it happen, and you will learn what to expect.

Once you understand the question asking and answering that naturally goes on during storytelling, asking people questions about their stories will become easier. It will become less an act of interrogation than of participating in the conversations that naturally revolve around stories during storytelling events.

How many questions do you have to ask about a story to be asking people about their stories? One. You don't have to ask people to fill in long questionnaires. Just ask them how they feel about their story. Or ask them if they think lots of people have had experiences like that. Or ask them who they've told that story to before. Or ask them how long it has been since they told that story.

So in summary, I would say to the person who says story listening is "too hard" because they don't know where or how to start: this is the best way to start. Soak yourself in stories, then start interacting with stories, and you will have a much easier time doing anything you want to do with stories afterward.

Above all, start small and build your skills. Everything is something.

It really is that hard.

The second group of people who have said story listening is "too hard" have not been daunted so much as disappointed. Typically they have come from a different discipline, usually qualitative or quantitative research, and they have tried going the narrative route and found it frustrating. The problem in this case is not so much that people don't know where to start; it's that they are used to things being faster and easier. They seek to gather conclusive evidence for or against something, but find they can't. Or they expect people to tell stories and fill out forms quickly and clearly, but find people drag their feet or misunderstand or walk away. Or they want greater volumes of stories to give them clearer answers, but find diminishing returns for their efforts. Or they want firm answers but find themselves wading through conflicting interpretations and mixed messages. It's all too hard.

Story work is hard. It is not clean or clear or simple. It is high input, high risk and high output. I find there is a tendency, probably common to all human beings, to jump past the first two parts of that sentence and pay attention only to the last part: high output. But all three parts are equally important. If input is not high enough -- yours and every participant's -- or if things go wrong, the potentially high output of story work could be low or nonexistent, or even negative. Nobody should work with stories in organizations or communities without a full awareness of this fact. The reason story work digs deeper than other methods of inquiry is the same reason it is more likely to fail than other methods of inquiry. It is hard because it is good, and it is good because it is hard.

All of this makes working with stories hard to popularize. It's not an approach that spreads like wildfire. I'd rather it be slow than wrong, and I'm not in any hurry to change the world, so I don't mind if the majority of people stand off and view story listening from a distance.

But still, I do find it sad when people get frustrated with story work and give it up, because the high output part is real. Stories can work wonderful magic. I cherish those moments when I've seen people come to transformative insights that have freed up unimagined sources of energy to solve impossible problems. When participatory narrative inquiry works well, it's like that moment when you bite into the one perfect tomato, the one you finally grew after three years of blight, dog disasters and worm invasions. That moment is one you remember every time you touch the soil in the spring, because you know that someday it will happen again. There will be a lot of dirt in your fingernails before that happens, but you don't mind. That's how you feel when you know: but some people give up before they know.

So, what do I want to say to the person who has tried the narrative approach and has found it "too hard" because it asks too much and is too risky? It's the same thing I want to say to the daunted: soak yourself in stories. Why? First, because before you have a good long soak in stories you can't see the values they bring to inquiry, so you can't sustain the high input required. Second, because until you understand the life of stories you won't know where to place your high input, and you won't know where the risks lie. Like a gardener who tries to grow food without learning to love the soil, you will bring failure upon your own efforts. Most of the people I've seen come to story work from other fields have not been willing to be with thousands of stories and learn how they live. They just want results, and that's part of why they get frustrated. They aren't in the world of stories to settle down, just to visit. But the world of stories doesn't open itself to casual visitors. Only the locals know the soil, and only the locals grow the best tomatoes.

So if you want to work with stories, and you come from other lands of inquiry, and you don't want to be frustrated and disappointed about how hard story work is, respect stories enough to get to know them well. Stay the course and you'll be more likely to end up satisfied.

Above all, start small and build your skills. Everything is something.

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