Story Synthesis

Story Synthesis: Storytelling Methodologies: Postmodern Perspectives and Traditional Roots

A Personal Essay in an Informal Academic Style

Once upon a time in the childhood of the race, people told stories, lived within a rich horizon of myth, punctuated their lives with rites of passage, celebrated the changing seasons with rituals, entertained themselves with tales about the antics of the gods, goddesses, foxes, and crows. But now we have come of age and outgrown such childhood superstitions.

- Sam Keen, Your Mythic Journey, 1973

Have we indeed “come of age and outgrown such childhood superstitions” - or are we reclaiming myth and story?

Why are people creating blogs at a rate of 40,000 a day (Baker & Green, 2005)? Why is organizational storytelling becoming an increasingly important business tool? Why is scrapbooking popular as a hobby? Why do Kelliher, Manalek, and Davenport (2003) write that “today’s digitally networked society provides a fertile environment for the exploration of narrative forms in new and diverse ways”? Why does Jill Walker (2004) observe that “narrative is spun across networks and into our lives”?

We hunger to tell our stories and hear the stories of others.

Why now?

I continue to be fascinated, perhaps morbidly, by the idea of a post-9/11 culture, a notion first suggested to me by an art historian speculating about what would come after postmodernism. Sept. 11, 2001, taught us that each life - each story - is precious.

First came the stories of that horrific day … the story told by Jeff Jarvis, whom I knew for a couple of years as a child … the story told by a former student of mine, who was in one of the Twin Towers for training for his new job. Here’s a small bit of his story:

What you saw on TV does not give you a very good description of what I saw when I looked up. I was so amazed, shocked, and scared, it is hard to describe. As I was walking away with the crowd a girl next to me started to cry uncontrollably, and I looked to my right to see what was wrong. A sight I wish to never see again and that I hope none of you ever have to see was the large pool of deep red blood in the road with ladies’ shoes all over the place.

I truly believe that day triggered a need to tell our stories. To matter. To make a difference. To share the human experience. “Only by preserving the value of our short-term human perspective will we retain the ability to invest our lives with significance,” writes Mark Hansen (2000).

“Like just about everything else,” notes Mallory Jensen (2003) “blogging changed forever on September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon created a huge appetite on the part of the public to be part of The Conversation, to vent and analyze and publicly ponder or mourn. Many, too, were unsatisfied with what they read and saw in the mainstream media.”

The need came before 9/11, I know. The need to tell and hear our stories also has been engendered by the glut of information with which we are surrounded. “The problem with information is that there’s too darn much of it,” David Weinberger (1999) writes.

Stories give us a way to make sense of all the information. “We see narrative everywhere,” Mark Bernstein (2001) writes. “It’s a primitive urge, a way to tie cause to effect, to convert the complexity of our experience to a story that makes sense.” Narrative is even a stress reliever, Bernstein asserts, because it “takes us outside ourselves.”

David Weinberger elaborates on how story helps us understand:

From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savanna, we’ve understood things by telling stories. It’s through stories that we understand how the world works. Stories are a big step sidewise and up from information. Unlike information, they have a start and a finish…. They imply a deep relationship among the events (a relationship characterized overall as “unfolding” as if the end were present in the beginning - as of course it almost always is [and as was foretold, in a fractally recursive sense, by Aristotle at our culture’s beginning])….Stories are about particular humans; no substitutions allowed…. stories are told in a human voice; it matters who’s telling it…. Stories are how we make sense of things.

Sam Keen (1973), who also blames “machines, cities, anonymity, money, mass media, standardization, [and] automation” for the loss of our own stories, writes:

We are the first generation bombarded with so many stories from so many “authorities,” none of which are our own. The parable of the postmodern mind is the person surrounded by a media center: three television screens in front of them giving three sets of stories; fax machines bringing in other stories; newspapers providing still more stories. In a sense, we are saturated with stories; we’re saturated with points of view. But the effect of being bombarded with all of these points of view is that we don’t have a point of view and we don’t have a story. We lose the continuity of our experiences; we become people who are written on from the outside.

In contrast, today’s storytelling media, such as free-style blogs, have placed “authority” and “authorship” back in the hands of the average individual (Keen [1973] notes the common root of “authority” and “authorship,” observing that “whoever authors your story authorizes your actions” [p. xiv]). In fact, in many newer forms of narrative, authorship is “distributed.” As Jill Walker writes “no single author or group of authors has complete control of the narrative” (p. 5). Blogs, according to blog historian Rebecca Blood (2000):

are nothing less than an outbreak of self-expression. Each is evidence of a staggering shift from an age of carefully controlled information provided by sanctioned authorities (and artists), to an unprecedented opportunity for individual expression on a worldwide scale. Each kind of weblog empowers individuals on many levels.

Blood (2000) adds that “Weblogs are no panacea for the crippling effects of a media-saturated culture, but I believe they are one antidote.”

There is also the postmodernist realization by some that there is no objective reality. (“Post-modernity is said to have rendered the real obsolete, as distinctions between reality and unreality have blurred to the point where the artificial may seem even ‘realer’ than the real,” writes Andreas Kitzman [2003]). In place of “reality,” there is only what we construct with others through discourse - by telling our stories. Thus, stories become our handle on “reality” and our way of understanding and forming knowledge. As Sam Keen writes in Your Mythic Journey:

I can’t promise that your stories will give you certainty or objective truth any more than the ancient myths have the Hebrews of the Greeks accurate maps of the world. They will, however, fill you with the stuff from which romance, tragedy, and comedy are made, which alone can give you an entertaining and meaningful life. They will hollow you out so you can listen to the stories of others, as common and unique as your own. And that remains the best way we storytelling animals have found to overcome our loneliness, develop compassion, and create community.

The postmodernist view also embraces uncertainty, and as Weinberger notes (1999) stories “do not pretend to offer the certainty that life will continue to work this way.”

The close relationship between discourse and storytelling is key, not only to constructing reality (“You can’t tell who you are unless someone is listening” [Keen & Valley-Fox, 1973]), but to imparting knowledge. “Knowledge is narrative. Stories,” Weinberger writes (1999). In his blog, Portals and KM, Bill Ives (2004) cites a 1998 study by Wensley in which, “a vast majority of employees felt they gained most of their work-related knowledge by chance from informal conversations, mostly stories, and not from procedure manuals or formal training.”

We also are telling our stories in record numbers for the same reason Bill Clinton fooled around with Monica Lewinsky. Because we can. Because technology makes it easy to tell our stories and reach a worldwide audience with them. Not all of today’s storytelling is connected with technology, but most of it is touched by the technosphere on some level. “Technology is now part of material and experiential reality - an equal partner, influencing and being influenced by human agents,” writes Kitzman (2003).

Blood (2000) applies the “because we can” argument to explain the explosion in blogs. It was in 1999, she reports, that the first blogging software application was released, and blogs have increased exponentially since then.

Ulises Mejias (2004) describes how this technology makes discourse and, hence, storytelling possible in unique ways, such as blogging, online discussion boards, and wikis. Hypertextuality and distributed discursivity, Mejias writes, are “unique characteristics of online discourse” (p. 1), and only technologies that offer both these characteristics, he contends, truly support online discourse (p. 2). Additionally, online discourse makes possible “discourse on demand,” Mejias notes. Thus discourse “can be initiated right at the source of content published online.” For example, if you want to interact with a piece of content on a blog or an online discussion board, you can generally do so right where you find that content. Further, Mejias points out, no separation exists between author and respondent roles. Participants are essentially at the same level, with everyone just as privileged as the author who initiated the “speech act,” as Mejias calls it. Taking these concepts a step further, Mejias asserts that “distributed discursivity refers to that unique characteristic of online discourse that allows for social interaction and collaboration across time and space” (p. 9).

In this synthesis of my story explorations, I seek to understand not only why story is so important now, but ways in which the need to tell stories is manifested and how they intersect and interweave. There are myriad ways, but for the purposes of this piece, I will focus on the aspects I set forth for this unit of learning in my PhD program:

  • Traditional roots of storytelling/creative writing

  • Journaling

  • Blogging

  • Writing-to-Learn Theory

  • Storytelling for organizational entry

    Closely related, but not covered in this writing, are forms such as digital storytelling (Paul & Flebich, n.d.) and what Jay Cross describes (citing the Center for Digital Storytelling) as “sharing one’s story through the multiple media of digital imagery, text, voice, sound music, and animation,” as well as what Christy Dena (2005) calls “polymorphic narrative,” which she defines as “narrative in many forms: that is, multiple texts… distributed in some way across more than one channel” and “assembled to some degree,” such as “adaptations: for instance a book, film and comic; all the ‘texts’ within a franchise are also included: film, t-shirts, game; all the forums and discussion groups around works are included.”

    It’s amusing to realize that I initially thought of this synthesis (and the blog in which it resides) as the culmination of a piece of learning. I now realize that it’s only the beginning. This blog is a living, growing thing (a component in what has been called the “living Web, the part of the Web that is always changing” that “unfolds in time, and as we see each daily revelation we experience its growth as story” [Bernstein, 2002] - and I have barely scratched the surface of the intersections I want to explore and the many, many forms and uses of story. I have learned so much, but there is so much more to learn. It has become more clear to me that this blog encompasses the dramatic arc (Bernstein, 2002) of this portion of my PhD program - the story of my exploration of story.

    Traditional roots of storytelling/creative writing

    The focus of my study of traditional roots of storytelling and creative writing was the Union-sponsored “Telling Stories” seminar I attended in June 2005, which I’ve covered in greater detail in another part of this site.

    I was eager to tell my story at the seminar and hungry to hear everyone else’s story. In a small way, we each became part of each others’ narrative, an example being the poem that one of the learners in attendance wrote encompassing the names of all participants.

    Journaling

    I do not journal in the way that journaling is generally known. But for the last 11 years, I have journaled through an e-mail discourse with my first cousin, who has been my best friend since roughly age 3. On average, we journal to each other daily. We exchange our stories. Frequently, we have numerous “threads” of discourse going at the same time. Often our stories are the most trivial and mundane minutiae that would be of interest to no one else on earth. Our correspondence can be characterized as what Jill Walker (2004) calls “an e-mail narrative … distributed in time” (p. 9).

    Journaling has been a part of my PhD program inasmuch as I researched journaling and used it as a pedagogical method for a class I taught. In the resulting paper I wrote (presented at the annual conference of the Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning in March 2005), I discussed journaling for memory, retention of learning, and knowing; for personal transformation; to encourage higher-order thinking; as a way to give students a voice and the ability to express themselves without inhibition; and as a way to derive meaning and make connections among divergent types of knowledge. I am teaching the same class in an upcoming semester, and instead of applying journaling, I will apply storytelling in the hope that I will attain similar - if not even better - results.

    If we can draw a parallel between journals and blogs, my goal would likely be supported by Nichani and Rajamanickam (2001) who note that blogs are “pithy stories” imbued with what they call “tacit knowledge,” but what I would probably call “intuitive knowledge.” Through blogging, the authors write, “there is a marked transformation in the bloggers themselves. He/she gets to satisfy the need to self-actualize.”

    Blogging

    Blogging, short for Weblogging, is, of course, closely related to journaling and has been called “short-form” journaling (Blood, 2000).

    Like journaling, blogging can foster reflective thinking and learning, as in this passage by Rebecca Blood (2000) describing a typical blogger:

    As he enunciates his opinions daily, this new awareness of his inner life may develop into a trust in his own perspective. His own reactions - to a poem, to other people, and, yes, to the media - will carry more weight with him. Accustomed to expressing his thoughts on his website, he will be able to more fully articulate his opinions to himself and others. He will become impatient with waiting to see what others think before he decides, and will begin to act in accordance with his inner voice instead. Ideally, he will become less reflexive and more reflective, and find his own opinions and ideas worthy of serious consideration.

    Though he views much of what is on the Web as narratively “impoverished,” Bernstein (2001) still finds narrative all over the Web, particularly in blogs. “The world abounds in stories,” he writes. “You don’t need to invent: the story is already there.”

    Predicting what could be the next wave in knowledge management, Nichani and Rajamanickam (2001) refer to “storytelling as the killer strategy, and ‘blogs’ as the killer technology.” In their article, the authors offer an excellent chart comparing stories to blogs (most of the links within the chart are dead, however, illustrating the transitory nature of blogs).

    Heraghty and Adams (2003), who believe that “blogs feel more human than non-narrative sites,” go further, contending that if no story moves through the blog, it is not a blog. Further:

    The blog is a narrative form optimized for the web. All weblogs draw from a set of visible features and functions, and underlying motivations, that make them ongoing “conversations” among bloggers and readers - stories with pasts, presents and futures. Unlike portal sites, blogs are not juxtapositions of datum flotsams… The weblog combines interactive narrative with notions of identity, authenticity and community, in a manner suggestive of pre-literate, oral/tribal communications networks….The blog is not just a narrative form; it is a disruptive narrative form.

    Jill Walker (2004) refers to blogs as “serial narrative,” one of the main fascinations with which “is that the narrative moves in the same time-frame as our own lives play out” (p. 8). In turn, Amy Gahran (2004) notes that blogs “have quite effectively re-integrated the element of storytelling with mass communication - not just because bloggers often tell stories, but because their audiences often participate actively in those stories through comments and questions. True storytelling is always a participatory group experience.” Indeed, beyond comments merely at the site of the blog, Walker (2004) notes that a blog’s narratives may be “spun across sites, through comments in other blogs, mentions elsewhere, participation in discussion sites and chats, and sometimes interviews and the like” (p. 15). Taking this concept a step further, Walker observes that “the implicit links of distributed narrative are … invitations that encourage the audience to and and find more. Now. They are promises that there is more to find, or perhaps more that is not being said” (p. 10).

    Truth/reality/self/self-awareness/identity management

    The narrative forms and intersections investigated here raise all sorts of questions about the nature of truth and reality and how we explore, present, and manage ourselves and our identities in story in its many manifestations.

    Rebecca Blood (2000) notes that bloggers and their respondents embark on a “journey of self-discovery and intellectual self-reliance.”

    Journaling, or keeping a diary, is said to represent “the emergence of the ‘modern individual self,’” writes Andreas Kitzman (2003) in an interesting comparison between old-style, pre-digital-age diarists and today’s autobiographical bloggers and journalers - the “experiential nature of self-representation with the material conditions of each specific medium.” Citing Mascuch, Kitzman notes the parallel paths of modernity and “unified, retrospective, first-person prose.”

    A major difference between traditional diaries and online journals and blogs, is of course, the matter of privacy. Kitzman (2003) writes: “It is perhaps more appropriate to see the Web diary not as a private document, but as a potential tool for communication and interaction,” and he goes on to quote an online diarist as feeling powerful in her ability publicize her private life worldwide. Indeed, Kitzman found that some Web diarists need an audience other than themselves, and their audience “influences and structures the very manner in which the writer articulates, composes, and distributes the self-document.”

    “The self is created by its multiple presentations;” write Keen and Valley-Fox (1973), “without an audience there’s no individual” (p. 9). Similarly, Rebecca Blood (2000) supports “the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readers from ‘audience’ to ‘public’ and from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator.’ “

    What about the self we present to the world when we become online beings? How is that self perceived, and what can or should we do to control our digital identities? Those are the questions Danah Boyd explores in her master’s thesis (2000) in which she contends that users should have the ability to control their digital identity. Peoples’ perceptions of identity are different in the digital world, Boyd asserts, than they are in the physical world, and they should be empowered in the digital world with self-awareness and “identity management” (p. 2). On her blog site (2005), Boyd notes that she is “interested in how people negotiate their presentation of self in mediated social contexts to an unknown audience.”

    A good friend of mine spun an entirely fictitious online version of his “self” after a chance encounter with someone who had e-mailed him by accident. This e-mail narrative, distributed in time (about a month), is recounted here.

    Writing-to-learn Theory

    “Stories,” writes Lisa Neal (n.d.), “are important cognitive events of particular pedagogical value because they encapsulate into one rhetorical package four of the crucial elements of human communication: information, knowledge, context, and emotion.”

    If we accept the premise that blogging is primarily storytelling, and if we can learn by writing stories, we can learn by blogging. Ana Ulin, author of the blog at anaulin.org, notes that “the ‘writing to learn’ idea is in tune with some popular ideas about blog writing.” She then cites several blogs that reinforce the writing-to-learn by blogging concept.

    Many instructors use blogging in teaching. To the extent that journaling and blogging are autobiographical, they provide rich learning experiences (Karpiak, 2000).

    Jay Cross (2002) also supports blogging as writing-to-learn. “Essentially,” he writes, “blogs are a personal writing space to organize our own thoughts and share information with others.” Further, Cross notes, “blogs are easily linked and cross-linked to form learning communities.”

    Storytelling for organizational entry

    The literature has little to say about storytelling for organizational entry, especially as it intersects with the other narrative forms discussed here, although there are blogs about job-hunting and blogs by career experts and recruiters http://www.quintcareers.com/career-related_blogs.html. Given the paucity of literature, I will make it an ongoing mission of my own blog to explore the intersections of various story forms with storytelling for organizational entry.

    ~ ~ ~

    When Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox first wrote Your Mythic Journey in 1973, there was no Internet. Yet the rallying cry they wrote for their book is just as applicable to the digital age as it was for its own time: “It is a call to revolution” (p. 4), they wrote. “Seize the authority to create your own story.”

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    A Storied Career explores intersections/synthesis among various forms of
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