Edit and Forget It?

Back in December 2012, I decided to craft a brief digital story using footage of my kids from 2009. I didn’t spend that much time quickly editing it down. Maybe an hour or so? A few things that I cut but that I can still recall (even without reviewing the footage) are:

  1. At the beginning of the footage, my daughter Rosie (who was 3 at the time), was sucking on a toy. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but when I did, I said “Hey! I thought I hid that a few weeks ago! How did you find it.” Throughout the footage, I repeatedly tell her to stop sucking on it. And she repeatedly refuses to listen.
  2. Before heading outside, the kids stop and put their shoes on. I’m struck by how easily and quickly Rosie is able to put on her own shoes.
  3. At the very end of the footage, while Fletcher (my son, then 6) and Rosie are “riding” the broom, they run into the fence. Rosie falls down.

When I first showed the kids this video, Fletcher was disappointed. What had happened to the part where they ran into the fence and Rosie fell down, he wondered. I was surprised that he could remember this fleeting moment from almost 4 years ago. I told him that I had edited it out. Why? I have a fuzzy memory of deciding to take it out because I wasn’t sure that Rosie falling after hitting the fence would be something that we would want to remember. Plus, I was originally crafting this moment for my love in fragments project. Rosie falling at the end of their cute “ride” around the backyard didn’t seem to fit. 

Last night, Fletcher (who turns 10 next week) and I watched the video for the 10th (20th?) time. And, again he lamented the loss of his favorite part. So, this morning I re-edited the digital story and put back in 6 seconds at the end. Instead of replacing my original story, I added Fletcher’s version as a new Vimeo video with the following description:

An updated version of Fletcher and Rosie singing and saying the word “poop” a lot. In the original version, I cut the ending short, leaving out the part where Fletcher and Rosie run into the fence and fall down. Fletcher was very disappointed. To please him and to ensure that repeated watchings of my story didn’t encourage us to forget Fletcher’s favorite part of that event (even before I showed him the video footage last year, he was talking about that day and remembering running into the fence) I decided to re-edit the video.

Working on this footage again has prompted me to think about the power of editing in shaping which experiences/events in our lives are meaningful and important, and which are rendered invisible. Having spent years reading and engaging with theories on deconstructing texts/narratives to challenge dominant readings and to look for the blind spots and the suppressed/repressed moments that are forgotten because of those dominant readings, this idea of editing as shaping is not new to me. But, it’s good to be reminded of it, especially when I envision one of my roles to be that of family storyteller.

Even as I try to craft stories that avoid becoming master narratives (the Story of an event), I find it difficult to avoid not allowing my particular point of view to dominate. Some may argue that this is just an inevitable part of the process, but I wonder, are there things we can do, strategies we can try, that allow us to move beyond (or move beside?) our limited perspective in our storytelling and account-giving? And, what might this look like in our written or visual accounts?

In the midst of writing this post, I’ve come up with an idea that I’d like to try. I want to give my immediate family (as in, STA, RJP and FWA) a few minutes of video footage to edit. I think it should be footage that hasn’t been edited before. Then, individually each of us will spend a little bit of time editing it down into a 2-3 minute story. The kids can easily use the iMovie app to edit and craft their own stories, which is really cool. Finally, we will screen the videos for each other and discuss them. Will we tell the same stories? Use the same footage? How will our perspectives differ?

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.

the Shit rock

As I write this blog post, in my peripheral vision, just below my screen and fairly close to my keyboard, is a rock. My Shit rock. It used to be my mom’s. I believe (but I can’t quite remember whether or not it’s true) that it was on her desk in her studio. When she died, this rock was one of a handful of her objects that I chose to take.

I’m fascinated by this rock. It’s pretty ugly and really ridiculous. But, it makes me curious and it conjures up images/visions/feelings of my mom and who she was how I remember her. Why did my mom have this rock? How did she get it? Did she buy it as a souvenir on one of our rare vacations? Was it a present from a past student? A gag gift? What did she think about when she looked at it? Did she laugh?

My mom was an artist, an identity she didn’t really claim until she went back to school in her mid 50s and earned a BFA in fiber arts. Her studio spaces—she had many different ones because she and my dad moved a lot in the last decade of her life—were always filled with quotes from artists, inspirational words, framed cross-stitchings (like, “of all things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most”), images torn out of magazines and various art supplies. Amidst all of these items was the Shit rock. Was this rock somehow inspiring to my mom? Did it provide her with an outlet for the frustration she experienced as an artist who was constantly doing battle with the Censor, that voice inside her that repeatedly told her she wasn’t good enough? Was it a way for her to represent her feisty and playful spirit? To poke fun at her own penchant for “pretty” knick-knacks?

All of these questions makes me want to craft a digital story about the rock and what it means for me and my memories of/connections to my mom. Much like the digital story that I crafted about my first grade progress report last spring, this story about the rock would enable me to experiment with being curious about an object.

There are all sorts of ways that I could discuss how my mom’s “shit” rock, especially with it’s flowery font, is meaningful to me. And all sorts of images and ideas that it conjures up. Here are two “shit” examples that probably won’t make it into my digital story:

1. RJP’s classic line to me in a public bathroom a few years ago:


2. A few images from a Tumblr focused on “beautiful swearwords”

Fall is here!

Last week, I declared that summer was over. For the past 33 years, since I was 5, the end of summer signaled the beginning of a new school year for me, either as a student or a teacher. But not this year. And I’m relieved.

Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of time prepping syllabi and for class discussions (which was usually enjoyable, but too time-consuming for me), I’m hoping to use this fall to create, experiment, explore practices of feminist pedagogy outside of the academy and reflect on how and why I am currently having a serious crisis of faith in higher/institutionalized education.

I’m also hoping to continue working on a project that involves bringing together various accounts/stories of my experiences making, being in and staying in trouble. Much of these accounts already exist, in various forms, online. Now, I’m trying to figure out the best way to bring them together. Part of this project is the tracing of my intellectual history for the past 16 years (from graduate school and beyond) and how my experiences engaging with feminist and queer theories, inside and outside of academic spaces, has resulted in feeling trouble and troubled in the academy.

One key theme in my intellectual history has been a persistent desire to use the theories and ideas that I was learning to understand, connect, care for/about the world and to heal. This desire was influenced and shaped by my increased exposure in graduate school to feminist thinkers/theorists, like bell hooks, Cynthia Enloe, Dorothy Allison, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldúa, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Judith Butler and Audre Lorde, just to name a few.

But even as I was being exposed to these powerful ideas about using theory to understand/connect/care/heal in graduate school, I was being trained to engage with and express these ideas (and others, especially in philosophy courses) using alienating academic jargon and methods. The “rigor” I was learning made it harder for me to talk to and connect with my family and friends. And, the emphasis placed on being critical (that is, critical as picking apart and always finding fault with ideas and thinkers) made it increasingly difficult to find my own voice and make sense of my own experiences. As I struggled with my university’s emphasis on a narrow sense of rigor and their increasing demands for a particular type of professional development, I looked for ways to engage beside (or outside of/in spite of) my graduate training.

In 2001 I decided to create a video (with a lot of help from STA) about my family’s farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I wanted to document my family’s experiences being (visiting, resting, working) at the farm. And I wanted to use theories on identity, belonging, space, and narrative selfhood that I was wrestling with in my feminist theory classes to make sense of and/or trouble those experiences. I was hoping that my documentary would enable me to share some of what I was doing in my PhD program with my family and would help me to make sense of my own conflicting feelings about belonging, heritage and identity.

I loved creating this documentary. So much so that STA and I created another the following year. These two videos are the most important intellectual projects that came out of my years as a PhD student. While hardly anyone will read my dissertation or remember what it was about—even though I liked writing it, I have trouble remember it’s title, generations of family members will be able to watch the farm films and learn about the farm (sold in 2004) and hear my mom’s stories (died in 2009). The importance of these films, especially the second one which was dedicated to my mom, became even more evident as my mom was dying and after her death. People who hadn’t met her before her illness (like her hospice social worker) could/can watch the video and bear witness to her feisty spirit and passion for storytelling.

Documenting the farm has been on my mind a lot lately. This past month, I created a series of digital stories about my dad’s experiences living and working on the farm. And this fall, I’m hoping to create another series of stories in which I reflect on my disconnection with the farm (since it was sold) and my family (since my mom died).

As I experiment with how to document (on this blog and in digital story form) my relationship to the Puotinen family farm and it’s relevance to my intellectual history, I thought I’d try to post a few related documents from my past. The following two documents speak to my efforts to take the highly personal work of my film projects and make it “appropriate” for academic audiences by grounding it in academic ideas, theories and methods.

Shortly (as in just days) before my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my sister and I did a presentation at the Feminism (s) and Rhetoric (s) Conference in Houghton, Michigan on the importance of space and place. Since Houghton was where I was born and was only 70 miles north of our family farm, it seemed like a great opportunity to screen parts of my film and reflect on them with my sister. Here’s an excerpt from the call for papers for that conference:

And here’s a draft of my abstract (I haven’t been able to find my outline for the actual conference yet):

TITLE: Losing the Farm. Two Sisters Reflect on the Value of Space

Drawing upon a wide range of theorists, including bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cathy Caruth, two sisters reflect on the value of physical space and the impact of its loss on representations, constructions and understandings of identity. This session will be divided into two sections. In the first section, Sara L. Puotinen will show extended clips from her two documentaries on the Puotinen family farmstead located on eighty acres of land in Amasa in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. These two documentaries represent the filmmaker’s attempt to explore the stories of the farmstead—its land, buildings and past and present inhabitants—and how those stories have shaped her understandings of self, family and heritage.

In the second section, the filmmaker’s sister, Anne Puotinen, will briefly respond to the films. In addition to critically reflecting on how these films communicate the importance of the farm for the Puotinen family and its individual members, she will discuss how the recent loss of the farm—it was sold in November 2004—affects understandings of physical space in relation to memory and belonging.

In addition to serving as an example of how I tried to connect my own experiences and struggles with identity to my academic theories on self/identity/belonging/space, this document stands as the last project that I completed before my mom was diagnosed. It was also just a few months before I completed my dissertation and earned my PhD. Hmm….I’m thinking a lot about the split between before diagnosis/PhD and after. How big does the split figure into my intellectual history? Is it a split? I want to think about that some more…

summer’s over

Yesteday was the first day of school for FWA (4th) and RJP (1st). Summer’s over. It was a great one. For the past few years, I’ve done the bulk of my blog writing during the summer, when I’m not teaching. This year, I wrote some in the summer, but I spent a lot more time experimenting with TUMBLR, pixelmator and Vimeo. I took a lot of pictures with my iPhone camera and converted them into Problematizers. I created two digital videos documenting the 3 year anniversary of this blog and my 1 year anniversary of running. And, for the past month, I’ve been working on a digital story project in which I’m using footage that STA and I shot over ten years ago at my family’s farm (some of which was used in the 2 farm films we created) and crafting them into stories about and from my dad.

I have really enjoyed working on this farm digital video project. While I have grander plans for the stories and the other footage (a web-based project, perhaps?), for now I’ve been posting them on Vimeo and trying to figure out the best way to gather them together on a Dvd for my dad’s 71st birthday. So far, I’ve noticed that any attempts to create an iDvd project and then burn it on a disc results in a serious degrading of the footage. My conclusion: Streaming video seems like a better option for future versions of this project.

Here’s what I’ve prepared for the liner notes in the Dvd:

During the early 2000s, Scott and I visited the Puotinen family farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and recorded dozens of hours of video. A small portion of this video was used in two 25 minute documentaries about the farm and the Puotinen women. Even as we were editing the footage down, I had plans for a third film, one that would give voice to the stories and experiences of the Puotinen men, most notably my dad, Arthur Puotinen.

Now, over ten years later, and after losing the farm (sold in 2004) and my mom (died from pancreatic cancer in 2009), I have finally been able to return to the footage.

It’s powerful to revisit the footage so many years later. And it’s wonderful to remember the stories that I grew up on but haven’t heard since the farm was sold. I’ve included some (but not all) of my favorites. I’ve also included a few digital moments that document some of my parent’s loving and playful interactions on (and near) the farm.

The process of crafting/documenting some of my Dad’s classic stories has been amazing. After my parents sold the farm and my mom died, I lost (some of) my interest in these stories and the connections to my Puotinen heritage that they helped to reinforce. But revisiting this footage and remembering the farm and its inhabitants (and my mom as healthy and happy…for the longest time I could only remember her as sick) has reminded me that those connections are important, especially the connections that link me to the rich tradition of storytelling that exists within my family.