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)

Working On Community Storytelling Projects

the beauty of boundaries
The Beauty of Boundaries

I’m happily immersed in my new work helping communities with digital expression, right now through several projects involving storytelling in and by and for small communities, using digital tools and collaborative Web practices. I’m also making good progress (with my fabulous cohorts) on making The Centers for Community Digital Expression a reality–more on that soon!

This afternoon, I return to Middlebury College briefly to teach a three-hour workshop for an Environmental Studies course (running on WPMU blogs!) in capturing the stories of a small county town. I am delighted to be a part of this course as it exemplifies the kind of learning through doing, through participating in local communities, and through a mix of online communication and in-person experience. I look forward to following their work. Here’s the course description from the catalog:

ENVS 0350 Portrait of a Vermont Town (CW) (Fall)
In this course we will record, reflect upon, and present the stories of one Addison County town. Students will talk with a diverse range of local residents about their memories, choices, hopes, and anxieties related to the place in which they live. We will offer an intensive experience of interviewing, writing, and videography, and will also count both as an intermediate-level writing workshop in nonfiction and as a cognate for the Environmental Studies major. This workshop will be enriched by a close affiliation with current programs of the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust that are dedicated to celebrating the stories of community. These two outstanding organizations will work with us in indentifying the town on which to focus, in helping students gain significant access to its residents and institutions, and in planning a final series of public presentations. The exact nature of presentations and publications coming out of the course will be determined in the course of the semester. NOR (J. Elder)

… and below, the outline and some links from the workshop (I WILL BE UPDATING THESE LINKS ON OCCASION)

STORIES FOR A VERMONT TOWN ENVS 350

A Workshop with Barbara Ganley & Joe Antonioli

1. The Power of Blogging Your Learning Experience

—Blogging as Reflection

—Blogging as Creative Cauldron

—Blogging as Connection

See Flickr Slide Set

2. Ways to “Publish” your Stories

Considerations

Do you want these stories to be interactive? How? Why? will you collaborate on the stories with the townspeople? Who is your audience–the class, the town, the world, all of these?

How do we learn to “read” our materials and be willing to change our minds to serve those materials and the stories best? In other words, how much to we control the story, and how much does it control us?

* The Power of the Written Story What kinds of stories seek text alone?

* Digital Stories–the power of the medium, the peril of the medium (Student Examples on DVD–I’ll put links here soon)

* The Power of the Voice (Listen to Logan–on DVD)

* The Power of the Image (Flickr Set Exercise )

—Oral histories (podcasts, etc. Vermont Folklife Center will help with this medium, so I won’t)

—Image Stories (Soundslides and Web 2.0 options, see Alan Levine’s WikiList of Story Tools)

—Audio-Image/ Text-Image Stories (Soundslides and Slideshare, Flickr and Picnik, Flickr Notes) Exercise in pairs: Telling a Story in Five Flickr Images (lessons in searching, in associations, in color, in transitions, in story arc, in what images convey easily and not so easily; Exercise in telling a story dominated by image, punctuated by text using the same five Flickr images as before, this time manipulating the images in picnik and writing on them)

—Multimedia Stories (video editing possibilities, looking at a simple documentary and digital stories)

RESOURCES

THE ROLE OF STORYTELLING

Storytelling and Rural Communities

Scott Russell Sanders “The Most Human Art”

Storytelling and Fund-raising

Bryan Alexander’s Web 2.0 Storytelling

STORYTELLING PROCESS

Ira Glass from This American Life: Tips on Storytelling

Storyboarding for Macs

Storyboarding from Berkeley’s Knight Media Center

Berkeley’s Knight Center for Media Tutorials on Multimedia

The Center for Digital Storytelling’s Cookbook

OurMedia’s Oral History Resources

WQED of San Francisco’s Guide to Digital Storytelling

The University of Minnesota has done excellent work both in digital storytelling and in facilitation

Here’s an example of ways to curate the stories from ACMI Museum in Melbourne, Australia

An example of a way to screen stories that include letters, old pictures, scrapbooks

Storytelling Examples

City of Memory Project in New York City (StoryCorps)

Place Stories in Australia Software and Server hosting stories combined into on

The Elder Storytelling Place (Ronni Bennett is from Portland, Maine)

Rural Voices Radio

Joe Lambert’s DS about Saving the Albany Bulb

M.I.T.’s Landphoto

Listen UP! ” a youth media network that connects young video producers
and their allies to resources, support, and projects in order to develop
the field and achieve an authentic youth voice in the mass media.”

The Washington Post’s “On Being” Project

Apalshop

The Moth

Touching Hearts Stories (narrative made up of several individual stories–note the simple use of image, sound and text)

360 Degrees Perspective on the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Background, Timeline, Stories and Discussion

NYT Project: Race in America site

Mediastorm ***Great example

Shifting Ground

Interactivenarratives.org

American Diversity Project

EveryBlock.com

Holding Up the Memories

***Mountain Workshops

Marching Together Soundslides

Saving the Sierra

Meadowlark Project

Capture Wales Digital Stories

National Writing Project

Digital Stories from Canada

Stories for Change Digital Storytelling Portal

Storytelling Project in Oakland, CA

OurMedia How-tos

ArtMobs Tours of MOMA

Murmur Project A Whole New Way to Tell and Hear Stories

Museum of the Person Digital Stories

Maps and Stories

Mapping the stories using Wayfaring

Flickr MemoryMaps

Bay Area Map of Dangerous Intersections

Travels of Marco Polo and Google Maps

Storymapping including this example from Ukiah, California

IMAGES

List of Things You Can Do with Flickr Images

MIT Course in Photography

Flickr note posting example Xrays

Visual Literacy

Pomona’s Visual Literacy Project

Dave Gray on Visual Thinking

Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen

Cornell University’s Introduction to the Elements of Design

DIAGRAMS

Gliffy for Diagrams and Flow Charts

Mind mapping

Flowgram

Video

Videoediting on Jumpcut

Moviestorm Making Animated Movies

TAGGING

Alan Levine’s List of Tagging Resources

SOCIAL MEDIA

PEW Internet and American Life Project

FullCircle Associates Online Facilitation Wiki

Davis, California Wiki

Umberto Eco From Gutenberg to the Internet

Social Media in Plain English

A Primer on Social Media

Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?

Digital Storytelling Early Process: Choices and Gathering Material*


Script

Write a one-hundred to two-hundred word draft of a narrative. (Topics shift course to course.) As eventually you will be reading this narrative aloud in a voiceover, it is important to consider the following questions:

Where is the dramatic moment—the actual moment in time when something momentous occurs?
What does this story reveal about the topic?
Why is it necessary to tell this story in this course?
Do you open by grabbing the reader’s interest in hearing this story?
Do you end in a way that suits your objective?

Write the three-sentence version of narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:

Sentence 2- Middle:

Sentence 3-End:

How do your sentences work individually and with one another to create a flow?
How does meaning build because you are reading it aloud?
How will you use your voice? How do timbre, speed and modulation affect the meaning? Practice different ways of reading your script. Record and listen to yourself.
How might images and soundtrack pull their weight and not act as appendages; in other words, why can’t this story be a radio story?

IMAGES
Consider what kinds of images will help tell the story: literal or metaphorical, concrete or abstract, long-shot and close-up, color or not, and how the images will move from one to the next, considering how an image is “a peculiar and paradoxical creature both concrete and abstract,” (W. J. Thomas Mitchell (2005) What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press p. xvii) and experiencing scholar Craig Stroupe’s “visualizing English.” (“Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web.” College English May 2000. Reprinted in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook . Ed. Carolyn Handa. Boston : Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 13-37.)

Gather 10-30 images you might use, being mindful of copyright restrictions.

Questions to ask:
Why these images?
How do they contribute to meaning rather than look pretty?
How do they work individually and together?
How do they carry the story’s drama?

Write the three-sentence version of the visual narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:
Sentence 2- Middle:
Sentence 3-End:

How are you keeping in mind what Ron Burnett says: “In a general sense, the meaning of a photograph depends on the discursive efforts I put into it and on the tensions between my own interpretation and that of other viewers. This is at least one part of the creativity and tension of viewing, which encourages the development of a variety of different vantage points as well as contestation around the meaning of images.” (Ron Burnett (2005) How Images Think, M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.14)

SOUNDTRACK

Consider the audio elements, how you will use your voice and/or the voices of others, and how non-vocal sounds might interact with voice. Consider whether you want to include a music soundtrack or ambient sound. If so, what kind of music would help tell the story? What role does the music play? Try out several very different kinds of soundtracks that create contrasting moods and tones.

Write the three-sentence version of the sound narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:

Sentence 2- Middle:

Sentence 3-End:

STORYBOARDING
Storyboard the digital story, exploring the repercussions not only of pushing image against image, word against word, and sound against sound, but image against sound against word. Think about the way someone “reads” a digital story: “Because users can click on a video clip, turn it off by closing the window, replay it, or skip forward or backward in the narrative, the use of video becomes a dialogically fraught element: it enhances, disrupts, complexifies the notion of narration itself.” (Helen Burgess, Jeanne Hamming, Robert Markley “The Dialogics of New Media,” in (eds) (2003) Mary E. Hocks, Michelle R. Kendrick Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media MIT Press, Cambridge, MA p. 75.)

* Excerpted from a chapter on digital storytelling I’ve written fro a forthcoming anthology.