Thursday, August 9, 2018

Works in progress

This is not a here's-something-to-think-about blog post; it's a why-hasn't-she-been-posting-anything blog post. Just so you know going in.

Store-bought stories (yes, still) 

In between other things, I've been working towards finishing the book of essays I started writing almost ten years ago about how we don't tell everyday stories as much as we used to. Its working title is (still) Store-Bought Stories: Essays on the Interplay between Commercial and Conversational Storytelling. It will include the fifteen or so essays I've already written on this blog on the topic, plus a few more I'm working on now.

I originally thought the essay on The Neverending Story would be the last essay in the book. But after I finished that essay, I realized that the book would be inadequate without three more essays:
  1. a reality check, to see if things really have changed (I call this the "Am I Wrong" chapter);
  2. a better look around for hopeful signs of positive change ("Points of Light"); and 
  3. advice for those who want to keep things moving in the right direction ("Manifesto").
This past winter, I started working on the "Am I Wrong" chapter. I began, as I always do, by looking around for things I could read to answer the question. When the number of "must read" books reached fifty, I forced myself to stop looking and start reading.

At this moment I am fifteen books into the pile, and two things have happened.

First, the "Am I Wrong?" chapter is now called "I Am So Very Much Not Wrong." I went looking for evidence that the trend I thought I saw was real, and I found abundant evidence, overflowing evidence. Nobody has written a book specifically about the decline in everyday story sharing, but there are hints and pieces of the trend littered all over the place, in many books on history, culture, and criticism. It's definitely a thing.

Second, when I hit the fifteen-book mark, my brain could hold no more, and I had to stop reading for a while and start gathering my thoughts together. I now have an outline with the major points of the essay, along with many quotes gathered from the books I've read so far. My plan is to finish typing these quotes, then read the other fifteen books in this particular pile, then type those quotes into the outline, and finally flesh out the writing in each section.

(If you're curious about the typing-in-quotes thing: I only use about a tenth of the quotes I type in, but I like to read over each set of related quotes in one place to get my thoughts together for that section. It's too hard to remember points and arguments I found scattered across dozens of books. I don't know if other people do this, but I depend on it. In the distant past, I copied excerpts by hand onto index cards, then sorted and resorted them as I worked out the structure of the writing. Now I type everything into a document on the computer. Typing each quote helps me think through the issues. I often read the quotes out loud as I type them, and I usually add some notes to them as well. I typed in hundreds of quotes for Working with Stories, and I throw together a few dozen for every essay I write. That's all in case you want to write non-fiction and you're wondering how people do it.)

The particular pile of thirty books I am halfway through stops just before the internet started, because one of the things that became clear early on was that I was going to have to treat the internet as a step change in story sharing. The internet-age books (another ten or so, plus some essays and articles too recent to have solidified into books) will support their own chapter (so yes, that's four chapters left to write). The ten books left after that are on a variety of topics like community organizing, celebrity culture, and fan fiction. I also pulled twenty of my older books off my shelves for a quick skim, to make sure I'm not forgetting some critical insight.

So that's what I have been up to. To motivate myself to tackle these great piles of books, I designed a cover for the Store-Bought Stories book a few months ago. I was going to show it to you! But some time went by, and now I hate it with a vengeance. That's a good sign. I'll probably take another break from research to redesign it soon. Pretending the book is real helps me keep working on it.

I also wrote a table of contents and a whole first chapter for a popular book whose goal would be to help people reskill themselves (and their families and communities) in story sharing. I ended up hating that attempt as well. I'm not sure a popular book wants to be written on that subject (or wants to be written by me). I decided to put that project on hold until this book is finished and see how I feel about it later.

If you are interested in the topic of Store-Bought Stories, let's talk. I am still looking for a few more people to read drafts of the book and send feedback (when I'm ready for that). I plan to post the rest of the essays here, as I have posted all of the book's essays so far. But I will still need some volunteers to read the book as a whole, for proofreading and to check my final editing and presentation.

Other works in progress

So what else is happening? Our monthly Zoom calls at the PNI Institute are going well. We are in the middle of a series of calls going through the uses of participatory narrative inquiry for all of the goals set out in Working with Stories (discovering insights, catching emerging trends, making decisions, generating ideas, resolving conflicts, connecting people). The calls are now being recorded, so you can listen to yours truly and a bunch of other PNI practitioners (and some interested others) talking shop every month.

I have also been writing more blog posts for the site -- one on weak signal detection and one on future planning might be interesting to you. If you'd like to get a monthly digest of posts, you can sign up there to receive our newsletter.

Also, I've been doing a lot of coaching lately. I just love helping people learn to use participatory narrative inquiry. I've been inspired by the courage, curiosity, and imagination shown by the people I've been coaching. Good things are happening in the world, people. Good things.

A taste of what's coming up

I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from my reading so far. Here's one by the great Lewis Mumford, in Technics & Civilization, on the influence of the factory clock (emphasis mine):
[W]hile human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time -- what Bergson calls duration -- is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves only in one direction -- through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death -- and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born. (p. 15)
From Ashby's With Amusement for All on the blind ambition of the mass entertainment industry:
For the entertainment mainstream, the effort to divine public preferences was clearly largely a guessing game. "The much-wooed audience does not make 'demands,'" as a leading student of the media has written. "Public opinion, such as it is, speaks with a vast silence, or with a background yammer that is incessant, indecipherable, contradictory." (p. 438)
From the confusing-yet-essential Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow on what happened to community life:
The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life -- a shimmer of national life -- and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it. People began to lose a sense of what distance was and of what the usefulness of distance might be. . . . Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. (p. 47) 
And finally, the biggest surprise I've found so far has been a pattern I've taken to calling "the escape is the trap." Over and over, mass entertainers have wandered into the discovery that the best way to get our money is to sell us fake versions of the things mass entertainment took away from us. I will have much to say about the many examples of this pattern later, but here is just one example, from Ashby's With Amusement for All:
In 1930 . . . the station manager Glen Rice turned to it [deception] in a desperate effort to help his struggling KPMC in Beverly Hills, California. After "disappearing" for several weeks and stirring speculation that something awful had happened to him, he appeared with a story about how he had gotten lost and stumbled by accident into an unknown "hillbilly" community that refugees from the Arkansas Ozarks had established in the California mountains a century earlier. He claimed that some of the residents were musicians and that he had invited them to perform at KMPC. For several weeks, he milked the story for all it was worth, saying that the hillbillies would arrive soon. On April 6, he excitedly informed the radio audience that they were, indeed, on their way: "Yes, yes, I see them getting off their mules, and there they are. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the hill billies!" The musicians were, in fact, professionals from around the country with considerable experience playing jazz and other kinds of music. ... [T]he label hillbilly tapped the kinds of antiurban, antimodern sentiments that still gripped many Americans. In contrast to the phony and artificial, the mythical hill country supposedly represented what was homemade, authentic, traditional, unpretentious, and rooted. (p. 246)
In other words, our disdain for the phony and artificial has been routinely played upon to sell us the phony and artificial. Our new world of store-bought stories, says George W. S. Trow, "hasn't anything to do with a human being as a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being as a human being is weak and willing to be fooled: the human being's eagerness to perceive as warm something that is cold, for instance; his eagerness to be a part of what one cannot be a part of, to love what cannot be loved."

Now that's something to think about.

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