Note: This entry is an excerpt from my recent book, Unofficial Student Transcripts. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my passion has shifted from (academic/intellectual) troublemaking to digital/interactive storytelling. I might phase out this blog and start a new one that focuses on my storytelling/account-giving.

In this account, I trace the history of some of my storytelling practices. What I don’t mention is how useful my storytelling skills, especially my ability to connect seemingly unconnected ideas, were in the classroom. I loved taking students’ random comments at the beginning of class and connecting them to what we were reading or discussing that day. I also don’t discuss how my role as storyteller, especially with my digital videos, seems to come into conflict with my role as academic (and serious scholar). Academic methods, especially those that focus on critically dissecting arguments, discourage me from creatively imaging new worlds and ways of being. 

Document: Chapter Two from my dissertation

When I was a kid, I used to tell people that I could make a story out of anything. And I could. In these stories, I didn’t imagine new worlds. Instead, I imagined (or uncovered) hidden connections between ideas, events and experiences. I liked taking seemingly disparate things and finding ways to bring them together to create new meanings. I wasn’t your typical storyteller. Not like my sister, MLP, who crafted brilliant tales about the pen and pencil wars or alien spaceships that looked like flying pizzas (with shooting anchovies!). In fact, I didn’t write many of my stories down. Is that why I don’t remember them? I crafted stories while engaged in intense conversations.

Even though I had proudly declared my ability to tell stories as a kid, I didn’t describe myself as a storyteller. In fact, in my statement of purpose for graduate school applications, I rejected the label. Responding to Martin Marty’s (a religion scholar and my dad’s Ph.D advisor at the University of Chicago) claim in a brief essay (which I’m still trying to locate) that his tombstone would say, “He told stories,” I wrote that mine might say this instead: “She had great conversations.”

I didn’t like the model of storytelling because it felt too much like a monologue, with one person just “reporting” their story to passive, listening others. This rejection of stories, especially “narratives,” continued into my Ph.D program. I recall being very skeptical of narrative theory in one of my favorite classes at Emory, Narrative and Female Selfhoods. Why, I wondered, in light of all the damage that Master Narratives and neat and coherent stories have done by flattening out and simplifying our experiences, would we want to tell stories?

At some point after that class, I think it might have been around the time I read Paul Eakin’s How our Lives Become Stories or maybe Dorothy Alison’s Bastard out of Carolina or Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Grandma’s Stories,” I started to rethink my reservations about storytelling and being a storyteller.

The first time I claimed the identity storyteller was in the second farm film that I created in 2002. Entitled Farm Film, Part 2: The Puotinen Women, this digital video was about the storytelling women in the Puotinen family. In the opening of the video, I said:

Something important that I’ve realized in the last couple of years is the power of the Puotinen women in their storytelling. It’s been something very profound to understand that these stories that mean so much to our family have really been passed on, in a variety of different ways by the women, the Puotinen women, particularly my grandmother Ines and my mother Judy.

At the end of the video, after weaving together important stories from their experiences on our family farm with mine, I drew upon the brilliant words of Trinh T. Minh-ha to claim my role as the next storyteller:

Tell me and let me tell my hearers what I have heard from you who heard it from your mother and your grandmother.

Producing that video was a powerful experience for me. It was so fun to craft new stories (or new takes on old stories) through the editing process. I had visions of completing a third video about the Puotinen men. But, there was no time. My son Fletcher was born, just days after we (my husband Scott and I) finished editing the video and only hours after we first screened it at a conference. And I had a dissertation to write. Later, after our beloved farm was sold and my mom, to whom the second farm film was dedicated, got sick and died, I didn’t want to make another video. I wondered if the subjects of my videos were cursed, doomed to die or be gone forever if I made videos about them.

While I didn’t have time (or a desire) to continue telling stories about the Puotinen family through video, I did continue thinking about the value of storytelling. In the second chapter of my dissertation, I wrote about the storyteller as one of three important role models for feminists:

…the storyteller trickster weaves words together—in oral or written form—to create meaningful narratives outside and beyond the system. Her goal is not only to critically challenge the hegemony, but also to ensure that the stories (the traditions, the histories, the people) of her communities do not get lost, forgotten or destroyed. In creating and sharing her stories, the trickster storyteller serves three important functions. First, she is a truth teller who bears witness to the stories of her people/her allies/her communities/herself and testifies to others about those stories. Second, she is a conjurer who enthralls her audiences with her words, drawing them in so that they feel like they are a part of the story. And third, she is visionary who uses her stories to create new meanings and imagine new possibilities for herself, her communities and her audience.

It’s fascinating (and strange and curious) to revisit these words that I wrote, way back in early 2004 (or late 2003?), and see how important they still are to me and my vision of how-to-be in the world. After writing my dissertation and then getting a teaching job at the University of Minnesota, I sometimes thought about storytelling. And I occasionally taught about it. But, I focused much more of my research and writing energy on another one of the role models that I wrote about in that second chapter of my dissertation: the troublemaker.

It wasn’t until my appointment at the University of Minnesota ended and I stopped teaching (and being an academic) that I returned to storytelling. My first project: a digital story about my first grade report card. Unlike the farm films, where Scott shot most of the footage and did the technical editing, Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account was produced completely by me (well, with the help of some of his music).  Since finishing that first digital story, in March 2012, I’ve created 50 (yes, 50!) more, including a series of stories about my dad’s farm stories. Admittedly, around half of my stories are minute-long fragments, part of two larger projects: Digital Moments and Love in Fragments. 

Even as I’m beginning to take on the role of storyteller, I’m still skeptical, and a little critical, of the identity, Storyteller. My skepticism has much to do with the power of stories to manipulate, distort and flatten out or erase the complexities of our lives. On my blog, I’ve recently been writing about the dangers of the single story and the trouble with coherent, unified narratives.

In my hesitation to claim the role of storyteller, I’ve tentatively decided to call my various descriptions of my intellectual life accounts, not stories. Will I ever fully embrace the role of the Storyteller? Probably not. As with most identities that I uneasily inhabit, I’ll enjoy remaining just on the edge, telling stories that attempt to trouble and unsettle our inclination for easy, romanticized tales. Like this one:

I want to craft and share stories that reflect a more troubling understanding of our trips to the UP, that convey the joy and difficulties, our fulfillment and exhaustion.

I like messy stories; stories that don’t always erase our conflicts, that allow us to put our sometimes contradictory experiences beside each other.

Transmedia, New Media or What?

Lately, I’ve been doing some thinking and researching about the next step for my Unofficial Student Transcripts project. While phase one was an iBook, I’m imagining phase two as something more creative and accessible and that draws upon my increased interest in online/interactive media.

I want to create a new media project that allows me to engage in my storytelling/account-giving across media: video footage, digital stories, written text (prose + poetry/ blog posts + journal entries/ new + archival material), interactive online games (for wordpress and/or iPad?), sound clips, images + text (problematizers) and more.

So far, the following sources are informing my project:

ADVICE 5 Tips for Transmedia Storytelling
THEORY Transmedia 202: Further Reflections
EXAMPLES The Waiting Room, Pine Point, Flawed, (Re)Framing Mexico

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?

Beware of the Single Story

A few days ago, I read Steve Almond’s essay for The New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time.’ In this essay, he laments the demise of the Narrator and their telling of a unifying story that enables us to make sense of our world and provides us with greater meaning. He argues that these storytellers, men (uh um) like Mark Twain and Zola and Dickens and Tolstoy, told stories that didn’t “just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge[d] our moral imagination. They offer[ed] a sweeping depiction of the world that help[ed] us clarify our role in it.”

While I agree with many of Almond’s claims in this essay about the demise of the narrator, I’m troubled by his refusal (or failure) to discuss the damaging effects that Grand Stories/Unified Narratives by a Narrator have had on all of us and our understandings of other perspectives and experiences. Yes, “narration represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning.” However, this meaning is not singular and should not be revealed or articulated by any single Storyteller.

I’m reminded of a recent TED talk I watched by the amazing storyteller, Chimananda Adichie: The Danger of the Single Story.

In this talk, she discusses the dangers of hearing (or telling) only one story about a community or a nation, describing how it flattens out and stereotypes the experiences of that community or nation, ignoring or suppressing meanings that don’t fit with the dominant narrative. In our quest for a unified, singular story that brings us together (Almond mentions Obama’s failure as a narrator to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”), what stories, meanings, and experiences are we leaving out?

By linking the bad storytelling skills of his creative writing students with a larger problem of a loss of meaning and a lack of a narrator, Almond presents us with an either/or choice. Either we have a Narrator that tells a story that provides us with meaning and that invites us to collaborate on making that story real. Or we have too many unreliable narrators that only tell superficial, profit-driven stories that encourage passive consumption over active creation and collaboration. Is the choice that simple? Or that reductive? Can we build off of Adichie’s brilliant storytelling about the dangers of a single story to imagine ways of creating meaning that aren’t predicated on just one story or one Narrator?

I don’t have time to write much more about this article. However, I must briefly mention his harsh condemnation of the internet as contributing to the loss of the narrator and the death of the novel. He writes:

Our latest innovation, the Internet, was hailed as an information highway that would help us manage the world’s complexity. In theory, it grants all of us tremendous narrative power, by providing instant access to our assembled archive of human knowledge and endeavor.

In practice, the Internet functions more frequently as a hive of distraction, a simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole. The pleasures of surfing the Web — a retreat from sustained attention and self-reflection — are the opposite of those offered by a novel.

I don’t entirely disagree with what he says, but it’s only one story (and not THE story) about the internet and how people are using it to engage or dis-engage with the world outside of (or beside/s) themselves. What stories about critical, creative and meaningful uses of and engagements online are ignored when we rely on Almond’s story to provide us with meaning about the internet? Does he, as he suggests the Storyteller used to do, invite us to collaborate and make the world he imagines real? Or, does his story only center on lamenting what has been lost?

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.