on stories, sharing, and the trouble with coherent narratives

I just watched a video by Jake Barton of Local Projects (via Explore) called Story(Us): The Power of Collaborative Storytelling.

In this short film, Jake Barton discusses the importance of not only sharing our stories with each other, but of collaborating with each other to create a unified, coherent, grand Story together. While I really appreciate the value he places on storytelling and the power it has in enabling us to connect and collaborate, I was bothered (surprise, surprise) by his idea that this collaborate storytelling ultimately should (and often does) lead to the recognition that, as one narrator states, “we are all the same.”

Do we need a grand narrative (a singular Story) to have meaningful connections? Must our ultimate conclusion be that our differences don’t really matter, that deep down, we are all the same? These are genuine questions, although I ask them provocatively and with my own responses in mind: “why?” and “No!”

I was troubled my the larger claims of this film from the beginning, when Barton describes the power of the moon landing. He says:

We are able to go up to that thing we see in the sky, the moon. And the fact that that object has been shared by every human in every civilization for decades and centuries and millenia, is unbelievable because then the moment when one human being steps on it, it actually unites an entire world around that idea: We did it.

Such a claim seems to erase all of the politics behind who the “we” was that actually did it (the U.S.) and for what purposes (at least partially, to beat Russia and claim U.S. superiority in space and everything else). I don’t know that much about the space race in the 60s, but I do know that it took place in the context of the Cold War, an extreme fear of Russia and communism and the vigilant practice of an Us versus Them mentality. Even if we accept, in a broader sense, that the fact that someone (anyone) was able to travel to the moon meant something to us-as-humans, what do we make of what happens not too long after Neil Armstrong took his historic step onto the moon, when he and Buzz Aldrin planted a U.S. Flag on the surface? What does the planting of the U.S. flag mean for a common, coherent narrative about Us?

My point in posing these questions is to trouble the idea that sharing and collaborating on stories brings us together by erasing our differences and reminding us that we are, ultimately, all the same. I like hearing stories that resonate with me and that enable me to see how my experiences can be similar to others. And some stories that I hear do prompt me to think, “wow, we aren’t all that different.” But, sharing and collaborating on stories does not require that we erase/ignore/suppress our differences or the political context in which those differences come to matter. The realization that differences matter does not mean that we can’t connect, share, collaborate or get along with others. It means that those connections shouldn’t demand that we create a singular narrative of commonality.

Later on in the film, Barton discusses how the diversity of stories and media outlets for sharing those stories presents us with a big challenge: “Whether or not that diversity for media does create understanding between people.” Barton’s response:

Today, we have the capacity to gather those stories together, to filter them, to make meaning out of them, to curate them and to make a larger narrative that binds us altogether.

Again, I wonder, do we need one larger narrative to bind us altogether? Who gets to filter/craft that narrative? Who doesn’t? What gets left out of the story/stories when we put too much emphasis on a coherent, singular story?

I like Barton’s definition of collaborative storytelling:

Collaborative storytelling can be a better way to understand the human experience. Because it’s necessarily as diverse and gritty and strange and unexpected as any of us could imagine.

What happens to that diversity, grittiness, strangeness and unexpectedness when those stories are filtered and curated into one grand narrative? What would it look like to make connections, to do collaborative storytelling that puts these stories beside each other without one grand, unifying conclusion? What meaning could be produced? What understanding could be achieved?

On a side note, Barton’s Story(Us) video is part of a conference that happened just last week, The Future of Storytelling. As I was scrolling through the list of presenters and their videos, I found one by Margaret Robertson that was especially cool: Stories You Can Win. Here’s the synopsis:

Games have always needed stories, says celebrated game designer Margaret Robertson. For many, the first ever videogame was 1962’s Space War. It couldn’t have been simpler to look at: startlingly abstract wireframes only. Space War could hardly be a smaller story, but it allowed players to make sense of the abstract shapes, of the strange new interaction unfolding before them. And from that point on, games have consistently chased a richer relationship with stories. Technology has always made that hard, though. There were great stories in early games, but ones that you had to sip through the thinnest of straws. Everything we take for granted in other mediums of storytelling was brutally rationed in early gaming.

But now we’ve beaten those constraints. Modern games have scripts tens of thousands of pages long. They record tens of thousands of lines of dialogue and display perfectly lifelike facial expressions and body movement. Natural language conversations are becoming possible with artificial characters. Some game developers even consider that the artificial creations they make can be meaningfully said to be alive. So does that mean we’ve cracked story? Not quite. Story is hard. Story is fragile. Story is expensive. Players chew through it fast, and expect it to be endlessly responsive to their actions. Writing one good straight story is hard enough at the best of times. Producing one that’s expected to last twenty times as long as most feature films and have a hundred credible endings is next to impossible.

So how do we fix that problem? We fix it by letting games work their own particular magic. Games are engines for making stories. Their rule sets and objectives are mechanisms that engender the things that drive stories—courage, failure, shame, greed, sacrifice, surprise—and gives them context and structure. If you build a captivating world and give players interesting rules, then they’ll tell a thousand stories for you. And we fix it by letting games go free range. Whereas you needed to gather round a monolithic PDP-1 to play Space War, now most of us carry one computer in our pocket and another in our backpack. Games are leaking out on to our streets and our parks and our campuses and our beaches, and there is enormous potential to use those environments to tell new kinds of stories. This is what excites Robertson the most as a game designer: being able to give players a stage from which they can start to tell their own stories.

Re-imaging Home

At the beginning of September, I set out to document the process of reconstructing and re-imagining home after losing it when my family sold our farm in 2004 and my mom died in 2009. I wasn’t sure exactly what this process would look like or what I would imagine, create or produce. All I knew is that I wanted to spend some time making sense of my experiences struggling with and rebuilding from loss. The result of my efforts was a series of three digital videos about what home means (or has meant) to me.


The first video/story that I created was “My favorite part of the walk.” It’s a story about walking along the Minnehaha Creek path with my son Fletcher right after we moved to South Minneapolis in 2004. It documents my material connection to a neighborhood. I have lived a few blocks from this creek for over 8 years now and, when I walk on the Minnehaha Creek path, I can physically connect to memories of what I did and who I was in the past (when Fletcher and I used to take walks with the stroller or when I’d bike with the kids to camp during the summer or when I first started running). Because I moved around so much as a kid and adult (9 cities, 17 different homes), this physical connection is important to me; it’s evidence of my existence beyond the present.


The second video, which isn’t crafted enough (yet) to be called a story (I think?), is simply called “Home.” It focuses on some footage of my mom and I each talking about the importance of the farm and how it figures into our understandings of home. It was filmed in 2002, right after I had a miscarriage. In a general sense, both of our definitions involve home as nurturing:


These definitions of home as nurturing raise important, troubling questions for me: What other resources do I have for being nurtured? How do I balance my need for nurturing with my need to nurture (as a parent)?

Private Space: A Room of One’s Own?

In this final video, I put two home tours, one given by my mom in the late 80s (I think) and one given by my dad in 2000, beside each other in order to raise questions about home, belonging, memory and privacy. The tour led by my mom was originally almost 25 minutes long; I edited it down to around 3 minutes. I’m really struck by what I chose to keep in and what I edited out. In the footage that I kept, she spends a lot of time talking about her private, quiet moments and spaces in the house. I end the tour in her study as she describes her appreciation for her inner sanctum, a space where she can do “all the fun things she likes to do” and “not have to worry about how it looks.”

I have always appreciated that my mom was a private person; I’m a very private person too. For me, home is a space where I can retreat, be myself and “not have to worry about how I look” (or act).

I started writing this post last week and it’s been sitting on my dashboard, just waiting to be published. A few minutes ago I was scrolling through some old blog posts and I found one from last March, An urgent need to document my process/ing. I was struck by how part of my description of why I write in a blog and have created a virtual space fits in with some of the definitions of home that came out of my digital stories from September. Here’s what I wrote:

My need for leaving a trace isn’t just about providing others with my reflections; I leave a trace as a sort of chain, connecting my past selves and their stories with my present and future selves. This need for a chain of connections is important for me because I feel particularly disconnected from my selves, their stories and the worlds in which those stories were created.

In the past eight years, I’ve had to come to terms with the loss of two grounding forces that enabled me to link together the chains of my selves throughout the years of many moves and transitions: the loss of the farm that had been in the Puotinen family for almost 100 years and the loss of my mom.

The farm was sold in 2004 and my mom died from pancreatic cancer in 2009. Both were devastating losses. The farm had been my most important homespace; it linked me to past generations and served as a location for retreat and connection. My mom had been a kindred spirit and the person with whom I shared countless hours, hiking and talking and being curious about the world. She was also my biggest source of stories, since my memory seems to fail me a lot, about who I was when I was young.

When my family lost the farm and then my mom, something happened to my chain of past and present selves (which were already precariously linked because I have a habit of forgetting/ignoring that which has already passed); it seemed to fully break and with it, my links of belonging…to a family, to a community, even to the past selves that I once was.

I think one of the reasons I write in this blog is to create a space where I am building up an archive of ideas and experiences that I can access, remember and engage with now or tomorrow or ten+ years from now. This archive not only serves as proof of my past/present/future existence, but it enables me to craft (and imagine?) and perform a self that endures through time, space and a range of sometimes contradictory experiences and that is connected through (rooted in? beside) past selves and to generations of family members and various communities.

I like putting the idea of my virtual space-as-home beside other homespaces.

living the questions

Happy October! It wasn’t entirely intentional, but September turned out to be a month of revisiting and exploring one troubled state that I’ve written a lot about over the years: grief. Grief over a dead mom. Over feelings of home that no longer exist. Over a career path that I’m no longer so passionate about. Now that it’s October 1st, I’m ready to shift my emphasis away from grieving and back towards living. I’m really drawn to, sometimes in spite of myself, the binary of grief/life. I like playing with the tension that surfaces when I put these two beside each other.

I was reminded of my desire to refocus my attention on (joyful) living, as I was reading Sue Hubbell’s wonderful book, a country year: living the questions. In particular, I came across a sentence in which she provides (at least) one explanation for the subtitle of her book. I decided to tweet it:

Just prior to this sentence, Hubbell explains the different approaches that she and a yellow and black argiope (spider), have for making a living from bees. She contrasts both of these approaches with the honeybee’s methods for living. She remarks:

I love how she puts so many different creatures (not all human) beside each other as equally important characters in her book. And I love how she focuses on the beauty/wonder/excitement of so many different ways to approach the big questions in life.

I appreciate how Hubbell makes a focus on questions central to her writing by subtitling the book, “living the questions.” I’d like to put this phrase beside Paulo Freire’s “feeling the force of a question” in Learning to Question:

 …the point of a question is not to turn the question, “What does it mean to ask questions?” into an intellectual game, but to EXPERIENCE THE FORCE OF THE QUESTION, experience the challenge it offers, experience curiosity, and demonstrate it to the students. The problem which the teacher is really faced with is how in practice progressively to create with the students the habit, the virtue, of asking questions, of being surprised (37).