Two posts in a row! Hooray! To be honest, I miss writing in the blog. It was fun. I'll see if I can start doing it at least once a month again. However, I will need to hold myself back from writing those long essays that took up weeks of my time. Must not get in too deep. Must not get in too deep.
Anyhew, I have been thinking a lot about the PNI Institute lately. We started it six years ago, and it has not grown into what I hoped it would become. This is what I was hoping to create:
- A lively discussion
- A free online quarterly or biennial peer-reviewed journal for PNI practitioners, with papers that spread techniques, share tips, recount experiences, and play with ideas
- An annual or biannual online conference that brings people together to brainstorm, learn, talk, share experiences, get to know each other, and help PNI thrive
We have done the first of these things, with 60+ phone calls during which we talked about many things PNI-related and PNI-adjacent. In that sense the effort has been a success.
However, I still want to do the other things. (I always say "do the other things" in a JFK voice.)
On our last phone call in September, we talked about doing two new things:
- We will hold a series of three special calls, starting in January, to discuss The Future of PNI and the PNI Institute (please say that in a Carl Sagan voice). We will talk about how we could ramp up to a bigger and better PNI Institute that better supports PNI practitioners.
- I have set up a survey to find out what people want from the PNI Institute in the future. If you have used participatory narrative inquiry, or even if you are just interested in it, I would very much value your opinion about what the PNI Institute should do to support you. (Please fill out the survey in your own voice.)
Wait - one more thing.
A colleague recently sent me an excellent question about PNI in practice, a question that had come up in a workshop. I answered the question, and then I thought - Hey, wait a minute. I used to have a "mail bag" series on the blog, where I would post answers to questions I got in email. I stopped doing that, but it was a good way to feed the blog.
So here's the deal: if you have a question about PNI, send it to me in an email. If I think everyone would benefit from the answer, I'll answer it here. (Otherwise I'll just answer it to you.) Deal?
Now, I don't want to push this blog post off the top of the blog, because I want people to fill out my survey. So I'll just tack my "mail bag" answer on to this post.
The question was:
In our story sharing session yesterday, we had a discussion about removing data such as a telephone number and a name that someone mentioned in their story. Some people said they thought removing the information would hurt the integrity of the story. Others said it wouldn't. What is your opinion?
What belongs in a story and what doesn't belong depends entirely on context. In some groups and
communities, at some times, about some topics, and in some circumstances
of story collection and spread (meaning, who told the stories and who
will see them), the inclusion of personal information can contribute to
the integrity of a story. However, context can change in a second.
When people are sharing stories in person, they constantly renegotiate what belongs in the story and what doesn't. For example:
- A person who is in the middle of telling a story might suddenly change tack and reduce the amount of personal information they reveal when a new person enters the group.
- On the other hand, if the new person shares telling rights and can corroborate what the storyteller has been saying, the storyteller may gain confidence and add more personal information, because they now have backup.
- If a person they are nervous about leaves the group, a storyteller might shift to
telling the story more openly. Conversely, if that person was providing the storyteller with social support, the story might suddenly become more circumspect.
- Say a group is walking together and they pass from a quiet corner
into a busy hallway. The story that is being told may suddenly shrink
until the group gets back to a quieter place again, when it may expand.
In other words, from moment to moment, stories shift their shapes depending on the shifting contexts in which they are being told.
The problem with collecting stories is that once a story has been recorded or written down, it can no longer adapt to its environment. It has been frozen in one contextual state.
Thus when you collect stories among groups of people who are talking to each other, their stories might become frozen into states that make less sense, or sound strange, or even pose dangers to the storytellers in other contexts.
It doesn't seem to me that people are aware of this. They don't notice that they are renegotiating the shapes of their stories as they talk, and they don't realize what freezing their story in one context and thawing it out in another is going to do.
Of course, sometimes there are no
freezing-and-thawing problems. But when the topic is personal or
emotional, freeze-thaw damage can be significant. And it's invisible. It's not like people are going to tell you that they regretted participating in your project once they saw their story in another context. They'll just walk away the next time you ask them to tell a story. Or they'll tell you a safer, less meaningful story. And you won't know why.
I feel like it is the responsibility of the facilitator to help people avoid falling into situations they would never be in without the artificial freezing of their stories. That's why I ask people to leave personal information out of the stories they tell, even if they are talking to other people in person, and even if it supports the integrity or meaning of the story in the present context, because what they say will be heard in other contexts than the one in which they are telling it.
I have even gone so far as to remove personal information from stories to protect storytellers from contextual changes they didn't see coming when they told the stories. For example, in one project where stories were collected over the web, lots of people put their names and phone numbers, and the names and phone numbers of other people, into their stories (even though we asked them not to). If that information had been kept with the stories and posted somewhere, say online, it could have led to harassment of some people. I felt that it was important to take that information out of the stories, partly because I myself didn't know in what contexts the stories would end up being read.
For the same reason, I like to give people in story collection sessions the option to review their transcripts afterward and ask for changes. Hardly anybody ever asks for changes, or even asks to see the transcripts, but I think that knowing they can change what they say later on helps people to open up and trust the process.
I guess I would say that storytelling is both powerful and dangerous, and that the power of stories to communicate and make sense of the world cannot be accessed until the danger inherent in telling stories is kept under control.
That's my answer to one of your questions - now what are your answers to my questions?