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.