Friday, December 6, 2013

Return chapter and (drum roll) completion of first book

The full version of Working with Stories, with all twelve chapters complete, is now up on the web site. I started working on the third edition of the book when I started this blog, in October of 2009, so that makes four years I've been working on the rewrite. It's hard to believe I've been working on this project for so long; the time has flown by. Honestly, I thought the whole thing would take six months. The full rewrite isn't even finished yet, because I've still got another 50-100 pages left to write in More Work with Stories. But the first of the two books is now officially complete. If you are one of the dozens of people who have helped me during this project, please accept my profuse thanks.

As I did for the Intervention chapter, I'll pique your interest with a table of contents for the Return chapter.

Chapter 12: Narrative Return
- - - Why support the return phase?
- - - How return happens
- - - Ideas for supporting return
- - - - - - Supporting return in your PNI practice
- - - - - - Supporting return with your steering committee
- - - - - - Supporting return in your entire community or organization
- - - Supporting ongoing story sharing
- - - - - - Why story sharing happens
- - - - - - Why story sharing matters
- - - - - - Assessing story sharing
- - - - - - Ideas for supporting in-person story sharing
- - - - - - Ideas for supporting mediated story sharing

What's next? Some last-minute tweaks for clarity based on reader comments I've been putting off reading (for fear of scaring away the part of me that writes new chapters), and then a daredevil plunge into the rapids of LaTeX and CreateSpace for final formatting and publication. "My" indexer has been working on a comprehensive, professional index over the past few months, and I'll be incorporating that into the final versions (with live links in the PDF, ePub and Kindle versions). Hopefully the end result of all this work will look, talk, walk and run like a real book.

By the way, in the misty future when this whole project is finally over, I would like to start writing in the blog again. I miss it. I've actually started several blog posts that followed interesting mental perambulations in the past year, but every time I slapped my hand and got back to book writing. I have -- believe it or not -- two ideas for essay compilations based on posts I've written here and posts I have in mind to write here when I'm done with the books. Since this blog used to be about more than book progress updates, I thought some might like to ponder the eventual return of essay writing.

I can still accept feedback for about another week or two, so if you would like me to correct or clarify anything in the book, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Here it is: it's the intervention chapter for Working with Stories. It came out to eighty-some pages with figures. I'll throw the table of contents at you, as an advertisement to get you to look at the chapter.

Chapter 11: Narrative intervention

Ideas for intervention
- - - Listening to stories that need to be told
- - - - - - Narrative ombudsmen
- - - - - - Narrative suggestion boxes
- - - - - - Story sharing spaces
- - - Getting stories to where they need to go
- - - - - - Narrative orientations
- - - - - - Narrative learning resources
- - - - - - Narrative simulation
- - - - - - Narrative presentations
- - - - - - Making stories happen
- - - Helping people work with stories
- - - - - - Spaces for sensemaking
- - - - - - Sensemaking pyramid schemes
- - - - - - Narrative mentoring
- - - - - - Narrative therapy
- - - - - - Theatre of the oppressed
- - - Combining interventions
- - - - - - Diversity = synergy
- - - - - - Where the best synergies lie

The intervention interviews
- - - Shawn Callahan
- - - Karen Dietz
- - - Thaler Pekar

(and then the usual summary, questions and activities.)

Now all that's left in the first book is the Return chapter, which should be half the length of the Intervention chapter, I hope.

For the interested, a few thinking-about-book-production notes, in hopes of feedback.

First, book length. The current in-progress PDF of WWS has 577 pages. This PDF has 92 (though the last 5 or 6 of those are the References section for the whole book repeated). This might lead you to think WWS will be huge when it's printed. Not as much as you think. I've been formatting the book for PDF with only about 450 words per page, mostly out of ignorance and sloth.

But I've been reading about word counts for typical books. Novels are supposed to have only 250 words per page. Non-fiction works of general interest can go up to 400 words per page. But textbooks are often much more dense, up to 600 or 700 words per page. I couldn't decide what to do, so I got out some of my favorite textbooks and counted how many words they had on a page (by counting words on lines and lines on pages). I did this with three books, and each time I got about 600 words per page (for a 6x9 inch trim size). So I'm going to be formatting WWS that way for print and PDF, after I get the last chapter written.

That means that if WWS comes to, say, 700 pages with the last chapter, it's not really going to be that long. It's going to be 700*450/600 = 525 pages. That's not a long book at all, not for a textbook. Right?

Second, layout. I've been struggling with the decision of how to get the books looking good for print publication. Using Word to create PDFs for self-publishing is evidently worse than walking around with LOSER tattooed on your face. I think I've decided to use LaTeX. LaTeX is free; it makes great looking examples; it's widely supported, with abundant examples and answers all over the internet; using it gives me a lot of freedom to make changes in the future; it doesn't create a dependence on a "layout person" who knows what I need to know; and it's just the sort of thing a programmer might enjoy (writing code is always better than fighting with interfaces).

So if anybody reading this has used LaTeX for book formatting, I'd love to hear about your experiences with it, good or bad.

More news when I get it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting to priceless

I'd like to start this post by owning up to a mistake. When John Caddell published his excellent book The Mistake Bank a few months back, I promised him I would post a comprehensive review here and on But my level of frustration at my own book being really and truly nearly done led me to put off keeping my promise. So this week I took myself in hand. I barred myself from working on my own book until I had finished and posted my review of John's book.

Having now done this, I can see that it was a mistake to put off doing the review. The promise nagged at me for months, and it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be (it's easy to review a great book), and I learned a lot by doing it. In fact, I think my own book will be improved by having read and reflected on John's book before I finished it.

Now, being a person who overdoes everything, I didn't want to post the usual brief "I know John and he's a good guy" review. I wanted to read the book in detail and comment on every part of it in a way that would help prospective buyers decide what the book had in it and whether it was for them. (That's one reason it took so long to get the review written!)

So here's my review. The indented parts won't go into my review because nobody there will have any idea what I'm talking about.

Chapter One: Bouncing Back

This chapter is all about what you need to do to benefit from mistakes. I found all of the advice here sound, logical, and perfectly impossible to follow. I myself rarely own my mistakes (until much later), let everyone know there has been a problem ("quiet fixer" should probably be my middle name), or reflect on the problem (I'm better at sweeping things under rugs). I finished this chapter understanding mainly my own incompetence at learning from my mistakes. That's positive in itself, because I hadn't realized just how bad I was at it.

Chapter Two: How to Learn from Mistakes

Chapter two is about, guess what, everything I needed when I finished chapter one. It's about strategies to do what chapter one says you should do. The main thing I took away from this chapter was the value of time. I tend to have strong, fast, emotional reactions to mistakes, and to feedback on mistakes, especially from people who either know what buttons to push or blunder onto them. But if I can wait a little while, take a walk, have a meal, sleep on it, I feel differently. Everybody's heard of "count to ten" but I've never thought about it with regard to mistakes before. As I put myself into the shoes of the people in the stories in this chapter, I see how I could take more time to allow myself to learn, like they did.

Chapter Three: Where Mistakes Come From - Recognizing Patterns

Chapter three is about what to do about mistakes after you have calmed down enough to fully admit them to yourself. It's about recognizing patterns that cover multiple mistakes and doing something to fix them. Here the common problems of over-commitment and work pressure spoke to me. I always take on more than I can do, and I'm always twice as productive when I'm not trying to do twice as much work. These are the sorts of mistake engines that churn out one mistake after another, and that's true not only for myself but for a lot of people I know.

My favorite part of this chapter is where John recommends picking out one simple change that can make a long-term difference in the quantity and severity of mistakes. I like that idea: nothing overwhelming, nothing that creates more pressure, just one change, one tweak to the mistake engine that helps it run at a lower speed.
This chapter came to me serendipitously just after a ... discussion ... with my husband about my work practices. The problem is, when I do projects for people, they tend to be meeting corporate schedules, and they need everything done yesterday. So I don't feel like I have a lot of power to "push back" on the amount of time I need to get my work done. I typically tell people a catalysis report will take two weeks to produce, even though I know most projects only get done in that time because I work some 12 hour days, including weekend days, to meet the deadline. I always hope that won't happen, but it always happens. I know why it happens, too. The projects I do now are more ambitious than the projects I did ten years ago, and I haven't scaled my time estimations up enough to reflect that. The end result is a lot of stress for myself and my family.

Recently I was negotiating with an editor to layout and index my books, and she said matter-of-factly that it would take her one month to do the layout and one month to do the index. I didn't balk at that. I didn't try to pressure her. I just accepted her expert estimate of the time she would need to do a quality job. So why can't I do that? Why do I tell people I can do something in less time than I will almost certainly need? Because I'm afraid to lose the work, of course. I keep saying, "Maybe this project will take less time." But the fact is, every single project I've ever done has run over its appointed time in a new and unique way. There will never be a simple narrative project. There's no such thing. It would be better to lose some projects than to keep creating these stress bombs for myself and my family. That's "one simple thing" I can change. It's not an easy thing to change, but it could make a world of difference to the enjoyability and quality of my work.

Chapter Four: Creating the Culture

This chapter is all about dealing with mistakes in groups, communities and organizations. I found it a bit weaker than the chapters before it, but maybe that's because I've already read a lot about organizational culture. I don't think this book would be the right one to read if you only want to think about mistakes in groups; but that's not what it says it's about.

The part of the chapter that resonated with me most was the part about leadership. It seems to me that with mistakes, far more than with anything else, what happens up top trickles down. The boss who bites off heads when people make mistakes, or doesn't let people make mistakes in the first place, impacts the way everyone works. I've definitely seen a lot of that in my work.

Still, I would have liked to read about dealing with mistakes of interaction, such as mistakenly not letting people make their own mistakes. Recovering from interaction mistakes seems harder than recovering from mistakes related to schedules or processes. Some tips on that sort of mistake would be welcome. Okay, so maybe I've made a lot of that sort of mistake, but probably lots of other people have too.

Chapter Five: Mistakes as Opportunities

This chapter is about recognizing and making the most of new opportunities that come up as a result of mistakes. The opportunity I found most useful in these pages was the third one mentioned, "Make Smart Mistakes." Essentially, this is about taking risks in a careful way so that the mistakes you do make don't bankrupt you. This is a very hard thing to do! In some parts of this chapter I found myself feeling the same way I did in the first chapter, that it all sounds great in theory but in practice I often find myself "up against a wall" and out of options. This chapter is useful in that it reminds me that those walls may sometimes be imaginary or further off than they appear. That's worth thinking about.

The section of this chapter on "Deliberate Mistakes" is refreshing. Although I've certainly heard the term elsewhere, I liked how the chapter gave me ideas on how using deliberate mistakes can be kept useful and not damaging. I used to make a lot of deliberate mistakes when I was younger and had nothing to lose, but with parenthood comes responsibility, and the perceived ability to make deliberate mistakes goes down. I can see on reading this chapter some ways in which I could increase my ability to make deliberate mistakes without going back to the heedlessness of youth.
Another part of this chapter I liked was: Let Mistakes Take You to New Places. I wouldn't write this on, but this blog and my books grew out of a mistake. When I started working at IBM, I entered into a career that relied heavily on frequent travel. I didn't think this was a limitation; I just did what came along and didn't think about the future. However, the moment my son was born I knew I would not want to travel for many years to come. What can a consultant do who rarely leaves home? Write books, of course. I can't say the "new place" my travel-requirement mistake took me to has been a great success - it certainly hasn't been monetarily - but I'm happy to have been able to write my books, which I couldn't have done if I had kept traveling.

Chapter Six: Time

This chapter is all about the influence of time on our processing of mistakes. What I found useful here was a sort of permission to take time after a mistake. I've always beat myself up about not getting over mistakes sooner. I should get some nerve and move on! Why dwell on things so much!

But what John is saying here is that there is a sort of process of grief in dealing with mistakes, and like all grief processes it has its rhythms. Real grief comes in waves, as anybody knows who has lost anybody. Some days you can handle it and some days it washes over you and drowns out everything else. Processing mistakes is like that too. Even what John said about it being normal and healthy to "oscillate" between reflecting on the mistake and stepping back from it seems parallel to the waves of grief, the troughs of which give you time to recover and renew your energy. I found it useful to learn that this oscillating process is normal and natural, just as I have learned the same thing about grief. Maybe I should have known all this, and maybe I did know it, but reading about it in this book has helped me to understand it better.
I'll give an example of a mistake that took the perspective of time to even notice, let alone fix. I woke up the other morning with the abrupt realization that chapters one and two in Working with Stories were stupidly, embarrassingly, reversed. The first chapter, which should have been all about the reader, was mostly about me explaining why I wrote the book and why I should be listened to, because I'm great and so on. It was only in the second chapter that I explained to the reader why the book might be useful to them. Later that day, I went right to work and fixed the problem. It took me years to recognize that mistake, but thanks to John I won't be beating myself up about it this time.


I'd like to go back to a sentence I wrote at the first part of this review: "I myself rarely own my mistakes (until much later), let everyone know there has been a problem ("quiet fixer" should probably be my middle name), or reflect on the problem (I'm better at sweeping things under rugs)."

I wrote that sentence just after I read the first chapter of The Mistake Bank, so it is really how I felt then. Having now read the entire book, I can now say that owning mistakes "much later" is perfectly okay, as long as it does happen; that letting everyone know there is a problem can be done quietly and carefully, and maybe it doesn't have to be "everyone" every time; and that reflecting on the problem can be done in stages and spurts, in between which one can rest. So my incompetences in learning from mistakes may be less disastrous than I thought and at the same time more amenable to improvement.

One of my favorite things about this book is its inclusion of something like fifty true stories from people who have made mistakes and learned from them. And these aren't little forgot-my-keys mistakes; they're the kind of mistakes that take years or decades to learn from. The stories both exemplified and authenticated the lessons in the text. The funny illustrations kept the book moving along well too.

The only thing I'd like to have that this book didn't give me is more depth (in a few areas I mentioned and also in general). I hope John has a sequel in mind, because I'd like to read more, especially in the way he's laid it out here.

In this review I picked out of The Mistake Bank the lessons I felt were most useful to me, but I haven't mentioned lots of other parts that didn't speak to me in particular but might speak to others.  This is a short book, but it provides plenty of food for thought. It's the kind of book you come back to and read over and over, because it will surely mean something new each time you read it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I've just posted an updated version of Working with Stories on the web site.

The most interesting thing about the new version is that it has about 300 figures in it. This should put to rest all the "such a long book and no pictures!" comments.

I hope you like the pictures. I thought a lot about what sorts of pictures to put into the expanded book. If you were familiar with the book a long time ago, you'll know that the first pictures were all taken from nature. I did actually take a lot more nature pictures specifically for the expanded book, but when it came time to use them I decided that (a) it would take too long to find places for them all in so much more text, and (b) maybe they weren't the greatest pictures (for that purpose) anyway. (I'll do something with them eventually.)

So I went back to visit a style of illustration I developed in the very first talk I gave about stories in 1999. I used stick people telling each other stories, and it worked pretty well back then. I went to see the old folks, and they were just as keen to help out as they had been before. I think they did a good job helping me make the book more interesting and skim-ready. Here's a sampling of illustrations from the book.

The second exciting thing about the new version of the book is that it's half the book it was. I've split the monster into two parts for good. The parts of the book previously called "Advanced Topics" and "PNI Stories" have been moved into a second book, called More Work with Stories: Advanced Topics in Participatory Narrative Inquiry. I'm calling it the "companion volume" to Working with Stories.

Now, what's left to do?
  1. I need to finish the intervention and return chapters of WWS. They are about half done, and would have been done by now, but one day I said, "I wonder how long it would take to add more figures to the book?" And then it was suddenly several weeks later. Now I need to go back and finish those last two chapters. 
  2. After that's done, WWS will go off to the editor for preparation for print publication, and somehow magically appear on (I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.)
  3. Then I'll finish MoreWWS. There it's the advanced sensemaking chapter; figures for that book (not quite so many but some); and the last 15-20 case studies. 
Then I'm done with the whole darn project, and a new part of my life will beckon, a part not spent thinking about the-book-the-book-the-book every day. As always, thanks to those who have encouraged and suggested; stay tuned for more updates; and keep that helpful feedback coming in.

 Oh and by the way, as part of cleaning up figures that were in the book, I replaced the figures for the confluence framework with ones I think are more clear. If you don't think they're more clear, let me know.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Finally sensemaking

I am proud to announce that I have finally released the pre-publication version of the rewritten Narrative Sensemaking chapter for the third edition of my monster book. You can find it on the Working with Stories web site (look where it says "NEW!").

The chapter came out far too long, and it took nearly a year (half time) to write it, but it's done. I said what I think people need to know about narrative sensemaking. I might not be able to include all of what I've written in the first volume of the series, but I'm not worried about that right now.

The next steps are:
  1. I need to finish the intervention and return chapters. These will be far, far shorter than the sensemaking chapter, probably not more than 30 pages each. I don't have much knowledge to pass on in these areas, thank goodness. Most of the intervention chapter will consist of three may-I-say excellent interviews with colleagues who do more in the storytelling line than I do. Most of the return chapter will consist of various reflections on my attempts to support group storytelling during my Rakontu project, most of which I've posted here or on the rakontu web site already. 
  2. I need to make final decisions about which parts of the book go into which volumes. I said it would be three volumes before, but I've been thinking about that. I may end up with either two or three volumes. (By the way, writing in Scrivener has been a great help with this. Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange hundreds of pages of text in seconds. Definitely recommended for writing long complicated works.)
  3. I need to add more figures and diagrams to Volume One so it is more accessible. I would like to have an average of one diagram per 3-5 pages in the first volume. I also need to clean up and standardize a variety of diagrams I've created over the course of five years!
  4. Next I will hand Volume One over to the editor who will be doing the layout and indexing for me. While that's going on...
  5. I will finish the case studies. I have notes on about 15 of these left to consider. I need to clean those up into readable prose. I also need to clean up a few more essays first posted here that belong in the book somewhere.
  6. Then it's into CreateSpace (probably CreateSpace) for self-publishing, and we will arrive on paper. I'm hoping both volumes can be out in print by the end of the year. I've learned never to say when anything "will" happen, but that would be nice, wouldn't it?
Writing this book has been a long journey: far, far longer than I expected. But it's almost over. Many thanks to the volunteers who read this sensemaking chapter early and gave me essential feedback. Many thanks to the people who have stood by me during this long project. All of you know who you are.

EDIT (July 18): I posted an updated copy of the chapter with small scattered improvements based on reader feedback. Same file name; slightly altered content.

EDIT (Oct 9): This book chapter is no longer available as a separate download. I merged the chapter with the rest of the book when I added the figures.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why I Have Not Been Blogging

See that? It's a puppy. It's cute. It's deceptively cute.

Do you value your time?

If you do, do not get one of these. They are harder than you think.

However: I am writing. The sensemaking chapter is nearly done. It is coming to something like 200 pages. When it is done I will release it by itself, so you have it. The two chapters remaining in Volume One will be far shorter, so I expect (hope) to have VI out in print by the end of the summer or fall or something.

Did I mention I'm splitting up the book into three volumes? I may not have.
  1. Introduction and Basic Guide to Participatory Narrative Inquiry.
  2. PNI Storybook: Everything written from my own experiences, including all case studies (20-25) and all sections written based on my notes (like "What to expect when expecting stories"). [EDIT: I should have said that this volume will also include several case studies from the experiences of other people who have graciously allowed me to include them. Not new case studies: the same ones as previously were included in the second edition of the (one) book.]
  3. Advanced topics in PNI: Mostly essays from the blog, plus some parts trimmed out from Volume I to keep it from breaking anybody's foot if they drop it.
If all goes well, all three volumes may be out by the end of the year.

Wouldn't that be something.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tick tock tick tock tick

This post is about a little thing I've been thinking about for a long time. It's not a story thing, it's more of a complexity thing, but I'm allowed to talk about that here because I said I would.

I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. Most of the time when I do this I'm watching the branches and leaves move around. Sometimes there are squirrels, and then it's called squirrel TV. Our dogs were big fans of squirrel TV before they lost the ability to see as far as the window. I watch it now in their memory. But the squirrels are only on the set once in a while; the leaves are 24/7. You might think there would be nothing to watch in the winter, but the beech trees keep some leaves on all winter, so I'm good. I find that when I put on the right music (physically or in my mind's ear) the experience can reach cinematic production quality, as long as I maintain the concentration to push out all other sensations. (I'm good at ignoring. It's a gift.) When I used to ride the train to the city I did the same thing: with the right music piped into my ears, and my eyes glued to the window, I could produce excellent "day in the life" montages as we sped along past people doing whatever it was they did all day.

One of the things I like to watch when I look out the window is how, when the day is mildly breezy, individual leaves will suddenly take up oscillating patterns, clean as clockwork, ticking back and forth on their little stems. Sometimes a leaf will do this for thirty seconds or a minute, and sometimes even for several minutes. I always watch to see if a leaf that stops oscillating will take it up again later, because, you know, now it knows how. They never do. What happens instead is that another leaf, on the same tree or on another tree, takes up the pattern and starts its own tick-tock movements, in perfect imitation of the leaf that came before it. I find it fascinating that in a sea of complex, erratic, unpredictable motion, these little islands of regularity appear and disappear so - I was going to say pleasantly, but that's not systemic enough. So regularly.

Those leaves remind me of a conversation I had once with a person with whom I was discussing the differences between complicated and complex patterns. He said something like, "You say a complicated pattern repeats and a complex one doesn't, right? But how do you explain the fact that complex patterns sometimes do repeat?" I said, "They repeat until they don't." What I meant was, when a leaf is oscillating, it looks like it's connected to some perfectly engineered device governed by a mechanical timer. But that's an illusion that bursts when the leaf suddenly stops. Complicated patterns repeat because somebody or something made them repeat. They stop repeating when somebody or something stops them repeating, or when they break down and need to be fixed (after which they repeat again, if somebody or something makes them). Complex patterns repeat because they started repeating, and they stop repeating because they've stopped repeating. Keep in mind, of course, that the patterns we see in our world are rarely purely complex or complicated. Even those oscillating leaves I see out of my window have been influenced by the complicated design of the house that separates us.

Patterns that repeat until they don't remind me of raising a child. Many of the patterns parents see in growing children repeat, and repeat and repeat, until suddenly, one day, they stop repeating. I remember when my son was two and three and four, he always begged to be picked up and carried instead of walking. Once my husband was giving in to one of these pleas, and I said, "Why do you keep picking him up? He can walk." My husband sagely pointed out that one day our son would stop asking and would never ask again, so he was going to enjoy the burden while he could. He was right: only a few months later the pleas to be picked up stopped, and that part of our journey together was over. I've come to expect such sudden changes to apparently infinite repetitions to happen frequently. I've also come to accept that I will never anticipate these changes sufficiently to be prepared for them to happen. It's always too much and too much and too much, right up until it's gone and you wish it was too much again.

Raising a child reminds me of ontological oscillation. This is one of my favorite concepts from Weick's writing on sensemaking. Says Weick:
If people have multiple identities and deal with multiple realities, why should we expect them to be ontological purists? To do so is to limit their capability for sensemaking.
Ontological oscillation is what happens when a person or group making sense of any topic does a tick-tock dance back and forth between views and methods and versions of reality. At some point they stop oscillating and make a decision. Then another topic, on that tree or on another tree, takes up the pattern and starts its own tick-tock movements. Is ontological oscillation complex? Sure, partly. It certainly has a lot of interacting parts, as we bounce around our lives encountering changes and viewpoints and experiences. And again, our expectations about repeating patterns don't always match what happens. People watching ontological oscillation sometimes mistake it for fickleness or "flip flopping" when it's just the way people think. I've been accused of changing my mind often. My sister once famously told me that I swing like a pendulum on any topic. But, I told her, eventually I come to rest somewhere, at least on that topic, at least for a while. The real question is not why we do this but why we think we shouldn't. You know what I think? I don't believe anybody thinks they should stop ontologically oscillating; they just wish everybody else would. It's inconvenient. People would be easier to figure out if they would stick to the same opinions.

Ontological oscillation reminds me of ice ages. My son and I were reading something about ice ages once, and it said something like this: "Small, or minor, ice ages have occurred fairly regularly about every ten thousand years, that is, up until about ten thousand years ago, when they stopped happening." We laughed; but actually, there is no way of knowing whether that statement is correct or incorrect. It is impossible to say whether an oscillating leaf is in fact oscillating when it is between oscillations, unless you know and can control why and how it is oscillating. It becomes a matter of habit to say whether something will continue to repeat.

Ice ages remind me of rocking chairs. I love doing anything that has a tick-tock beat to it: swinging, rocking, gliding, pacing, tapping. Some people say this is self-soothing, but that's not what it feels like to me. It feels more like participation. When I rock it feels like my tick-tock heartbeat has expanded out into and through my whole body, through the chair, and into the universe ticking all around me. It's not turning in; it's reaching out. My husband, on the other hand, never tick-tocks. When he sits on any of our rocking chairs or gliders or swings, he just sits on them. And he never paces, and he always thinks repeating patterns will stop repeating. I usually think whatever has been happening will keep happening for a while longer, because it's been happening, hasn't it? I used to think I was right and he was wrong, because, you know, we're married, but eventually I realized that we're both right. He's always right eventually, and I'm always right for a while. So here's my idea: Maybe if you enjoy regularity you find it in the world around you, and if you don't you don't. Or maybe it goes the other way around. Maybe the more you see regularity all around you, the more you want to participate in it. Maybe this is just another one of the many fascinating ways in which people can complement each other.

Rocking chairs remind me of Cloisterham. Actually, that one's more like, in the middle of writing this blog post I picked up The Mystery of Edwin Drood and read:
A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity.
So there you go, a whole city that prefers repetition. Would it have more rocking chairs than a city with different expectations? Maybe.

Cloisterham reminds me of fads. Fads set up a pattern for a while and then mysteriously disappear. You might say fads don't oscillate, but I tell you they do, because every fad oscillates with its own anti-fad. I realized this the other night while my son and I were watching Cars for the twentieth time. When we reached the scene where the punks put on a Kenny G. song to lull the Mack truck to sleep, I paused the video, like I always do, to explain that this is funny to adults because that particular Kenny G. song was both loved and hated when it came out in 1986. Fads ricochet all around society, probably with a tick-tock pattern if you were able to map it but let's not, until they stop bouncing and fade away. Take the pet rock fad, which started bouncing around when I was nine. I remember going through my own private oscillations on this, alternately ridiculing the idea's lack of substance, wishing I could buy a pet rock myself, carrying around a real rock in my pocket pretending it was a real pet rock, throwing out the rock because the whole thing was stupid, then finding another rock that seemed even more like a real pet rock. By the time I had enough money to buy a real pet rock, there were no more pet rocks to be had.

Fads remind me of an iPad game called Slingshot Racing. What you do is, there are these tiny cars that run around a tiny oval racetrack, and you have to click on the screen (tech faux pas! tap on the screen) to tether the cars to tiny towers that slingshot them around the corners (ends? short sides?) of the oval. It sounds easy but in fact it's devastatingly hard to tap and release at exactly the right times to start the tether and stop it without smashing your tiny car into a tiny wall. That's kind of like catching and riding a fad. You have to discover that the potential for a fad exists, and not just any fad; one you can make money on, say by selling rocks or playing the saxophone in a particular way. You have to tether the fad to you at just the right moment, then hold onto it just up until the moment when it's about to fade, at which point you release it before you start looking stupid. Few succeed at this game. Some tap too early and suffer ridicule, that is, until after they're dead and gone and suddenly on the tip of everyone's tongue. Some tap too late and, say, put out Scrabble for the iPad at the out-of-touch price of ten dollars, only to reduce the price after being scooped by every programmer with half a brain. Some release too early and sell their rights to the next big whatever for a hundred dollars, then die in flop houses. Some release too late and become parodies of their own former successes. Riding the wave of a fad depends on predicting accurately when the leaf will start tick-tocking and when it will stop.

Slingshot Racing reminds me of blogs. Blogs are repeating patterns that repeat until they stop. They are to some extent under the conscious control of their creators; but then again, there are complex forces at work in them as well. Readerships change, lives change, fields change, media change, methods of communication change. When to tap, when to release? Or maybe tapping and releasing doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is finding a rhythm that feels good and not worrying too much about how long it will go on. That's what the leaves do. I like it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Support the Mistake Bank book! Right now!

Hey everybody, John Caddell's Mistake Bank project, about which I've written here before, has swung into high gear in the final days of getting it out as an awesome book, with a Kickstarter campaign. Drop everything and go get your advance copy!

The book is called The Mistake Bank: How to Succeed by Forgiving Your Mistakes and Embracing Your Failures. Here's what I like best about it.
  • The book contains more than fifty real stories John has gathered about mistakes and learning from them. Actually I think John has collected far, far more stories than that over the several years he has been working on this project. But he has selected fifty of the best, and organized them to illustrate lessons we all need to learn about benefiting from our mistakes. If the stories in the book are anything like some of the ones I've seen on his Mistake Bank blog over the years the book will be excellent.
  • This whole project is an excellent example of narrative work: real stories about real people collected and arranged in order to help real people meet real needs! It's not lectures, it's hard-won experience! This is bringing stories to where they need to go. And it's participatory too, because John has carried on correspondence with many people about the project over the years (I'm happy to count myself in that group). So this isn't just what John thinks you should know about mistakes, though that is certainly a lot; it's the product of broader experience than that.
  • I expect to learn a lot from reading the book, even though I've read a lot of the Mistake Bank blog posts. Seeing the stories selected, organized and illustrated, making up a coherent presentation makes a big difference. I can't wait to see what sorts of lessons he has in store for me in my own work and life. (At this point I've got the making of mistakes down pat, but it's that follow-up part about using them fruitfully that I'm keen to get some insight into.)
John was the first person who ever wrote to thank me for writing my book, years ago, so let me be the first to ... ooops, lots of people have already thanked John for his great work. So please, get on over there and help John's Kickstarter campaign push over that final line. It'll be a mistake if you don't!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


My last post on this blog was nearly two months ago. That's the longest gap I've had so far in, what is it, three years? I am writing nearly every day, but it is all going into the book. The book? It's still plodding along like the dear little dogged thing it is. It says to say hello. But the issue I wanted to tell you about is, I can't seem to come up with anything to write about on the blog.

I have tried to come up with things to tell you, and I have come up with things, but they've all been the sort of everyday thing you tell the people you live with. Do you really want to hear about The Pickwick Papers (unexpectedly enjoyable), the new iPad (still in the it's-my-turn-can-I-have-it phase), the wonders of laryngitis (do not whisper; it makes it worse), circular knitting looms (anybody want a hat?), the undying love affair between cats and boxes? Of course not. At least not on this blog. It's supposed to be about something. I could start a "funny little things I think of every day" blog, but that would probably bring to an end the funny little things I think of every day. Besides, other people think of funnier little things.

There is exactly one thing I have noticed in the past two months that I think is worth mentioning here. It's about noticing things worth mentioning here. I keep a list of 30 some blogs that I skim every so often, using my ... button you push in the thing at the top of the window. The other day I was looking at one of those blogs, and the blogger said, "The other day I was looking out the window and realized this little thing that I'm going to tell you about now." When I read that, I realized this little thing that I'm going to tell you about now.

I'm not the only one running out of things to say on their blog. Lots of other people are seeking fodder for blogs and coming up with nothing but dregs, like little things you realize while looking out the window. Here's an idea. Maybe there is a limit to the number of witty yet profound observations any one person has in them about any one topic. If blogs are like serialized novels, why don't they end? And when they do end, why is it always apologetically done? Why should anyone need to apologize for being done talking?

The whole thing reminds me of marriage. In the first few days and weeks and months of a relationship (that is going well) you tend to have those long, soul-baring conversations in which you explore in detail landscapes of thought and belief and fear and aspiration, the kind of conversation where you get together over dinner and it's suddenly morning. But after a few years of married life, there is no point doing the same thing over and over, and time presses, so the ratio of reference to content increases. Sometimes I joke that after being married twenty years we can just say, "Honey, how about we have argument number twelve today?" Though in reality words never need cross the air: a gesture or glance, or even an object out of place, can say the same thing.

(And here I simply must insert a reference to Through the Looking Glass:
'We must have a bit of a fight, but I don't care about going on long,' said Tweedledum.
'What's the time now?'
Tweedledee looked at his watch, and said 'Half-past four.'
'Let's fight till six, and then have dinner,' said Tweedledum.
'Very well,' the other said...
The fight being more reference than content in that case as well.)

I'm starting to think the same thing happens on blogs. After you read fifty or a hundred essays written by anybody, you start knowing what they are going to say before they say it. Some of the blogs I used to read every word of I still look at, but I'm mostly just checking to see if they are still saying the same sort of thing they said back then. They are.

I am too. The other side of it is that, as a blogger, you start to get tired of explaining everything over and over. I've noticed that the longer people blog the more they increase their own ratio of reference to content. I do it too. Instead of spending paragraphs explaining a position, people just say something like, "Regular readers of this blog will know I advocate X." (Meaning, I don't chew my cabbage twice, so the rest of you can go look it up.) Maybe above a certain ratio of reference to content a blog has turned into ... a book. And guess what? Books end.

So, am I done talking? The real question in my mind is, am I allowed to say that? Why do I feel like it's not a blog if I end it? (That would ripple back through time, of course, so that it never was a blog either.) I've tried to follow "blog etiquette" when writing this blog (respond to comments, feed the blog, include links, feed the blog, fix typos, feed the blog), but I can't find any etiquette about how to stop talking gracefully.

So off I went to see my helpful friend Google. I typed "how blogs end" and got ... not a thing. "How blogs start" gets tons of relevant links. "How many blogs get started every day" also came up (unbidden but welcome). A search for "how many blogs end every day" got, again, nada. The only relevant thing I got was an article called, "Too Many Blogs?" It reminds me of all the junk in our garage that seems destined to follow us for life.

A search for "ending a blog" was more fruitful, with all of three relevant links. An I'm-ending-the-blog post said, "I regret closing the blog and I owe readers an explanation." Another, similar: "It's been a hard decision, but I feel it's time I move on to other things. Like an even better blog!" (So, not an ending at all.) Elsewhere, a blog post gave advice on "options available to bloggers who have decided to end their blog but who don’t quite know how to do it." Why the stigma?

You've probably noticed how most people end blogs: they don't end them at all. They just post less and less frequently, with an increasing ratio of apology to content, then fall off entirely and stop trimming the spam. Eventually the whole thing ends up looking like a secret garden, abandoned and overgrown. I'll bet you've stumbled onto a few of these abandoned blogs on the web; I have. I usually back out quickly, careful not to disturb any ghostly cobwebs. In their day these blogs were happy, healthy places. Could they not have been put to rest with more respect?

And why do people consistently use the language of life and death to describe blogs? Why do we say a blog has "died"? (I just did, without meaning to, when I said "put to rest with more respect.") If a blog is over, if a person has got to the end of what they have to say about a topic, hasn't the blog succeeded rather than failed? I guess you could ask the same question about a person's life. If a person has got to the end of all the years they had to live, have they succeeded or failed?

So far the web has been all about growth, but life is never only about growth. I wonder if there are more societally healthy ways to move past the initial growth stage of the web than we are using now. Like ritual. Don't you think it's strange that we have rituals around starting blogs but none around ending them? What causes the atmosphere around blogs to be so fixated on starting and growing, but never ending? Is it some sort of collective denial that we might run out of interesting things to say? Is it fear of the ultimate drop-off in posts that is coming to us all?

I do have one hypothesis. Most books are written by one person, and we expect books to end. Magazines and newspapers, however, are rarely written by one person, and we don't expect them to end. What if the one-author blog is a misplaced confusion of writing into the space of collaborative, systemic endeavor, in which an expectation of continuance makes sense? What if two distinct species of writing have become confused?

What? You say. Do you really think nobody should write a blog unless they write it with other people? What about the opportunity blogging brings to the individual to be heard, to speak about unpopular topics, to break from tradition, to leave herd mentality behind? I'm not countering any of those things. What I'm saying is that maybe we need two sets of expectations about blogs, or two kinds of blogs, or two words for blogging. One should be for institutions populated not by individuals but by roles taken on (and then passed on) by individuals. Such a system could indeed last a very long time, and often does.

A separate word and set of expectations could then apply to the individual blog, which would be understood to come about because a specific person had some specific things to say about a specific topic. Such a blog would naturally come to an end when the person had finished saying the things they had to say (and we would no longer pretend that any one person had an infinite number of things to say, though a revolving membership certainly could). Then when the individual blog came to an end, we would not say it "died" but would say it was completed. Or that it succeeded. Why not? Think of the guilt dividend.

I will end the post with an appropriate joke.
A head walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a drink. After he is finished, bang! a torso appears. So the head asks for another drink and after he finishes, bang! arms come out of the torso. So the head asks the bartender for another drink and when he has finished, bang! legs appear.
The head is thinking, ‘Hey, this stuff is great,’ so he asks the bartender for one more drink for the road and bang! his whole body disappears.
The bartender turns to him and says, ‘You should have quit while you were a head.’
Postscript: dinner, bath, turn using the iPad, maybe not in that order. I feel a rising need to stand in the way of a probable event while I still can. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, I often have the following conversation.
Me: I'm dealing with this issue right now. Isn't it interesting? What do you think of the issue? Isn't it interesting?
Well-meaning lovely people: I'll help you, person in distress.
Me: I'm not in distress, I just think this is interesting.
Lovely people: I'll help you, person in distress.
Me: Sigh.
It's like I have this big "Save the idiot" sign stuck to my forehead. So, if your hand is poised to add a comment saying something like, "Don't stop blogging! We like you! You can do it! Have confidence in yourself!" Stop: think: then tell me what you think of blogging and how blogs end and how we talk about that and what that means about ... anything you like, really. Just not about me. (No offense intended to the lovely people, who know who they are and how lovely they are.)