December Arrives: A (Quasi) Hypertext Musing on Storytelling and Stories

the end of november

I’m ready for December. November unsettles me with its wild swings set beneath a heavy-lidded sky, even during years without presidential elections and collapsing dogs and intensifying troubles around the world. I spend the first half of autumn missing summer and the second half seeking winter. Fall and spring swell with their neighbors, never completely themselves, in palpable transition, leaving me fidgety, restive–so much to do on the land and on the computer. I waste a lot of time in November.

But December, now there’s a month, the seed of great poems about winter coming on, ends of things, light returning. Winter solstice and our yearly bonfire. Snow.

December opens to stillness. The gardens quiet (the birds have stripped what’s edible); outside chores have stilled for the moment. We turn inwards; even when we venture out to ski across the land, to skate on the pond, to walk with Finn through the cold wet season, we think about getting home. We read the papers more carefully, finish magazine articles, delve into novels, poetry. We talk and talk. Swap stories.

November Interior

I work and live in story–here in my reflective/connective practice, in my creative work and in the work I do with communities, and so every month is about stories and storytelling, then. But it is this month that especially embodies storytelling for me, for the stories come home as I slow down and focus, as I think about the long take, about technique versus craft. As I try to grow as a thinker, as a writer, as a storyteller, as a catcher of stories.

Today, listening to the recording I made on Friday, during the National Day of Listening of my family spinning childhood memories, I notice how the stories themselves, as told, are not especially memorable, nothing anyone outside the family would find interesting. If I decided to blog them, for instance, I would have to cut, add, tinker a bit. But I also notice how we soon forgot the recorder and in the pulling out of those old stories, we recaptured the past for a moment through someone else’s words and found one another around the table, listeners and co-tellers. It was about the telling, not the stories. No, that’s not it exactly–it was about the sharing, not the art or the thing being shared.

We go on and on about the power of storytelling, its role in human culture, but how are we using the telling, the sharing and the art itself within classrooms and communities? As a classroom teacher and now in my work in rural communities, only rarely do I see sustained, connected use of both stories and storytelling to build healthy bonds and bridges, to synthesize thought and experience, or to imagine a better future. Certainly not in higher ed. Not in community work either. At least not enough. I encounter stories and storytelling to promote a brand or to perpetuate a particular point of view (see Miller again–indeed, if you have not read Writing at the End of the World, you really should).

Which brings me to December as end-of-term season. Over Thanksgiving break, I watched my younger daughter wade into the four term papers she has to write, the three presentations to prepare and several final examinations to study for. And she attends a college that on paper, at least, understands the foolishness of grades and short-term-memory learning and the disconnect that comes from single-discipline-based majors. I also see on Twitter that people across the world are grading papers and preparing exams. Every course in every institution seems to follow the same pattern, the same kinds of assignments over and over and over. Where is the creativity? The larger view? Do we think students are that dull that they need to repeat the same exercise scores of times?

radio

What about communal, connected storytelling in person, orally, and through ongoing blogs and wikis and creative projects dreamed up by the group that grow, build, adjust, evolve, reach out, connect, revise and give life to the stories by making them about something beyond the classroom? Making the stories transparent and enduring? For years many of us have talked about this kind of learning narrative. Some embrace narrative portfolios–but those mostly seem to trace a single perspective through learning. What about exploring multivocality, which George Landow ascribes to hypertext and thus to the ways in which we read and write now everywhere but in the university? Perhaps UMW’s grand experiment in blogging across the institution comes close to multivocality. I’m eager to watch how much movement grows associatively, across course/subject/discipline through the blogs. Do professors assign one another’s courseblogs? Do students from one course interact with students in another? Are course lines blurring? Course participants? How much storytelling goes on there in the face-to-face meeting spaces as a result of the blogging? Are students finding their voices while exploring what has come before them? How about the community outside the university? How much informal, ongoing storysharing; practiced storytelling, and storycatching goes on in and between schools and towns?

I am invariably struck by how unusual it is to tell stories outside our closest circles of family and friends beyond the anecdote sort, the you-gotta-hear-what-I-saw variety. When I open a workshop or a course with a simple storytelling exercise–the participants telling stories about themselves and their link to the work at hand, be it Irish literature or land-use planning, people find themselves simultaneously uneasy in the moment of “telling a story”–“I’m no good with words” many protest–and amazed by the impact of listening intently and sharing with a group. Participants feel closer to one another, trust builds, and differences are honored. People laugh. But it is a tender, fragile trust, one that can easily fade out once the “workshop” or the course ends.

When this storytelling extends, however, through sustained practice, and stories are caught here, commented on, revised, and extended on blogs, on wikis, on sites such as Orton Family Foundation’s newly unveiled Community Almanac, where they become threads woven together of a complex story, the moment of person-to-person connection has the potential to deepen, to open up through contact with other stories, and to move others–if the story is told well. Hence the need for practice, for developing a practice where storytelling is used.

inthefalls

I see evidence of this kind of practice in blogs that have made their way to me recently as a result of the NYT article: Beth Kephart’s Blog, a deft, melodious threading together of image and word; and the remarkable work of Jeff Gates (how did I not know of him?) whose In Our Path project epitomizes the kind of storytelling that can happen, first as a single voice whose idea triggers responses from others, institutions even, to share and extend the story, in his case about the Los Angeles Freeway Corridor. It is incredible. And then there’s his own blog, Life Outtacontext, and Eye Level, the blog he started for the Smithsonian where he now works as a new media specialist. These are three very different examples of what blogs can do and be, and how they wrap the tendrils of story around whomever happens upon them and takes the time to read.

And so this month, this December, I will immerse myself in stories, storysharing, storytelling and storycatching, hoping to help those I work with understand how “Storytelling is central to the well-being, the confidence and sustainability of communities. It allows communities to generate and sustain a sense of belonging and cohesion and purpose even through periods of tumultuous change–especially through periods of tumultuous change. It allows them to constantly define who they are and who they want to be.” (K. Longley, 2002, Stories for Sustainability, Sustainability Forum, Perth)

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10 Responses

  1. I was reading this and a peace descended. I was acknowledging my shared response to November, and thinking of today—so quiet here, so still; I was hearing my own heartbeat while I read Brideshead Revisited; I was watching the skies go dark. I was reading your blog and then suddenly found my name within your blog, and I stopped, and I re-read, and I squinted and re-read.

    And now I thank you. For the words, the images, the connection.

    Here’s to story sharing.

  2. a note of thanks to you today on my blog…..

  3. Thank you, Beth, for the feedback and for the nod on your blog. I’m all for story sharing!

    I am enjoying following your stories, too.

  4. Thank you for the reminder to slow down and spiel. Now to find time for that…

    Sweet post, Barbara.

  5. I was planning a lesson for a small group of high schoolers that I lead and this blog post came to mind.
    Me and the other leaders have been trying to figure out how to build community within our group, so this morning I had them all share stories about a broad topic related to what we have been talking about. I could feel the group dynamics shifting as we talked about sharing and understanding we are not alone in a lot of the struggles we face.
    Lots of ideas stirring in my brain because of this post, thanks for that.

  6. Thanks, Bryan. Of course after I wrote this post, I saw all that I had not said, all that I had missed in my flurry to capture the shift to December, and the dismay I feel over educators and community activists missing the power of storytelllng and sharing as part of what they do, intentionally. One huge omission was the article you and Alan wrote for Educause about Web 2.0 storytelling. Doh. My next blog post!

    Shannon, Yay! Yay yay YAY.. I hope you will blog about your experience, help get the word out about how such a seemingly simple act–telling stories around a common theme–can do much to set the learning in play while gathering the group together in a space of mutual interest and trust. Yay!

  7. A lovely post. I feel ashamed to admit this but your slow blogging was totally and completely shattered by my frenetic daily set of interruptions so now, finally, I have returned to it and reread it back to the point where I was last interrupted and finished to the end.

    As an advocate of narrative writing, I look forward to your winter stories and will, perhaps, put the gentle nudge on the kids to follow some of your links and practice it themselves. I am finding that December in my neck of the woods, as it were, is fraught with teen angst ….

    Hope all is well with you and the loved ones, as they say, and Finn.

    gg

  8. Geoff,

    You are a champion of stories, I know, and an advocate for teen writers getting a chance to share their storytelling with one another and the world. Amazing stuff. I’d love to see any hypertext work your writers do–having them connect directly to one another and to what they read outside the Young Writers Project as well as to their own earlier posts might well have a powerful impact on their writing, on their ability to synthesize and weave a complex text.

    ~bg

  9. Hello! I am very, very happy that I found out about your blog. I loved the story. You have a true writing talent. The description of December does make me as peaceful as you write about it. I might even get to like the month 🙂
    Anyway, I am a true novice in blogging community and i have plenty to learn. That’s why I am so happy to have discovered your blog. I will be coming back often for there is much I can learn from you.
    Thank you.

  10. […] written here before about struggling for balance between tangible creative output in the form of art: short stories and now photos and multimedia […]

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