Why do we tell stories?

I just came across this short film on Ken Burns and storytelling (via Brainpickings and originally posted on the Atlantic):

I was struck by a particular comment that Burns makes as he discusses why we tell stories:

We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.

I’m troubled by his claims here. Why? I agree with them to some extent, but I disagree with the overemphasis on the individual and their existential crisis. I don’t think that we tell stories just (or primarily) to continue ourselves and to comfort us in the face of our impending death. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live forever. My (sometimes urgent) need to tell stories comes from a strong sense of responsibility that I feel to pass on the stories that I know/that I’ve heard and to give an account of who I am and what I experience. Of course this need springs partially from a desire to have my own voice heard and to leave a trace after I’ve died, but it also, and more importantly, comes from a recognition that I am a self in community and beside generations of others.

As I write these lines, I’m reminded of the second farm film that I created (along with STA) about the Puotinen women as storytellers. In that video, I used Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Grandma’s Stories,” a chapter from Woman, Native, Other, to frame the various stories. Here’s the passage from Trinh’s essay that I used to introduce me as one of the Puotinen storytellers:

Burns offers a compelling vision of the storyteller, but it is about the Storyteller-as-Self with a capital S who skillfully crafts narratives (that lie and manipulate in hopefully productive, meaningful and complicated ways, says Burns in the video) that convince us that it’s okay to die. I want to imagine the storyteller as a different sort of self who crafts stories that provide comfort and meaning to more themselves, but to and with their communities. And who shares stories that aren’t aimed at dealing with impending death, but with finding ways to help us make sense of and (hopefully) flourish in our lives.

An urgent need to document my process/ing

My goal in writing on this blog or using twitter is not primarily to build up an audience or to share resources (although those goals are cool too); I developed this blog and my twitter account, @undisciplined, in order to create a space where I could make visible my thinking/writing/feeling/engaging process in ways that were (for the most part) easily accessible, archivable and connectable.

I have found that blogs and twitter work really well for me. The format of a blog, with its multiple layers, playful tone, and ability to bring in various types of media and content, and the format of twitter, with its pithy focus and emphasis on documenting small habits of daily life, fit well with my own approach to thinking, engaging and writing. And, I truly enjoy writing and engaging on both of them. A lot. Too much?

But, why do I want to make visible my process? And why do I feel an urgent need to document it? I want to spend some time ruminating on these questions over the next couple of weeks. As many critics of blogs and twitter have suggested, I suppose that there must be some element of narcissism involved. But, I don’t think that really gets at why I write online and in public. Sure I would like people to recognize and value what I do, but I really don’t create it for those reasons; I’m not driven (that much?) by recognition. 

Tentatively, I can think of several compelling reasons why I feel an urgent need to document my process of engaging with the world:

ONE: I want to leave a visible trace of who I am and have been for others and myself.

TWO: I feel compelled to give an account of and tell a story about who I am, what I do and what I believe.

THREE: I find tremendous value in processing ideas, emotions, experiences and believe that a public account requires more care and persistent attention to that process/ing than a private one does (plus, a public account is more accessible and connectable for me and anyone else whose encountering and engaging with my thoughts).

A Trace

My mom’s journals.

Creating a space for making visible my thinking/writing/feeling/engaging process is a way for me to leave a trace of who I am or have been. This need to have/leave a trace has become increasingly important since my mom died in 2009. It’s no accident that I started writing in my own blog just as my mom was in the final stage of dying from pancreatic cancer. Part of this desire to leave my own trace is a response to my own desperate need for more traces of my mom and what she thought and felt about the world as she was dying and after she died. As I hungrily searched for more of her own reflections on life, teaching, and raising a troublemaking kid like me, I thought about how my kids (or their kids) might want some of my reflections after I’ve died.

A Chain? A Root? A Rhizome?

But 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. What is the most compelling theoretical model for understanding this sense of self/selves? A signifying chain? The roots of a tree? A Deleuzean rhizome? Wow….I think I have an idea of a digital story. Better read/review Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus first!

Leaving a trace is not the only reason I feel an urgent need to process ideas and experiences and document that process, however. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I also engage on my blog and twitter account in order to Give an Account and Tell and Share my Stories and because doing so publicly enables me to Take more Care with my Process/ing. Since I know that I have a lot to say about these reasons and since this post is already 1000+ words, I’m not going to discuss these two reasons right now. I do plan (hope) to return to them. Before discussing “giving an account,” I want to review Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself and put it beside some of the readings from an awesome class that I took in grad school with Pam Hall: Narrative and Female Selfhood.

writing day #1: when thinking up writing projects isn’t the problem…

This winter I get to devote a lot of time to writing. So exciting! I should clarify, however. This winter will be dedicated to collecting, shaping, polishing and producing (in a variety of forms and media). I’ve been writing on this trouble blog since May of 2009 and I’ve generated a lot of words, ideas and topics for more in-depth writing. Now I need to do something with those ideas. Okay, I have been doing things with these ideas. I’ve used posts in my teaching, in my few published articles, presentations, and workshops. But I haven’t done enough with shaping them into more coherent, in-depth stories/narratives. And I haven’t engaged with them fully enough to be able to let go of some of them. What does that mean? Maybe I should explore that question in another blog post.

Lately, I’ve been reading Brain Pickings a lot on my Flipboard (I can’t quite articulate why, but something on the site is a little off for me…). A couple of weeks ago, Maria Popova (the creator of Brain Pickings) did an entry on various bits of advice that design graduates gave to current students. The following two seem appropriate for me and my own thinking about how to proceed with my writing projects in 2012:

First: to create ideas is a gift, but to choose wisely is a skill

Second: Finish What you Start. It May Seem Insignificant, But It Is Very Important That You Do It.

Troublemaker that I am, I have some problems with these pieces of advice (what gets left out when I choose? At what/whose expense am I choosing? Can anything ever really be finished?). But, I also see them as important reminders of the unproductive or damaging limits of making too much trouble–opening too many cans of worms–when thinking, writing, acting. This year I feel a strong need (and desire) to wrap up some projects, develop some thoughtful and tentative conclusions, and to create a few tangible products that I can use in other spaces outside of this blog. While I don’t want to stop questioning and being curious, I want to do more things with those questions and curiosity.

Over the next couple of days, I’m planning to spend some time thinking through which ideas to take up. Here’s one idea that I will write on, and not just because I have to–it’s for a possible workshop in June:

title: Shifting from Branding to Caring: Using Blogs in Feminist and Queer Classrooms to Resist the Online Crafting of a Neoliberal Self

abstract: This paper explores how using blogs in queer/feminist classrooms can provide students with spaces/tools for resisting, rejecting and transforming the neoliberal model of consumer-citizen-as-brand that is increasingly promoted as the primary way in which to cultivate the self online. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s notion of the care of the self and various feminist and queer pedagogies, I argue that blogs can be used to encourage students to engage in practices of caring for the self and/with/in the midst of others. These practices include: making visible the process of becoming implicated in knowledge, negotiating (without eliminating) the complexity of multiple subjects and one’s own subject positions, making and staying in a state of trouble, and participating in collaborative knowledge production.

This project builds off a lot of my research and thinking about care and its possible practices online. I still need to think through how much I want to use Foucault here (in fact, as I look through this abstract I wonder if it might not be way too ambitious). Here are a few sources on branding that I’ve started reviewing:
Here’s one more bit of advice (and one of my favorite posters). I wish I would have followed it this morning.