Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The study of literature and creative writing helps doctors and medical students to better understand the perspectives of their patients, and to relate to them in a more supportive and less strictly rational-scientific way. That's according to a new article by Jessica Singer Early, Ph.D., and Meredith DeCosta, M.Ed. in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine. 

The article gives "a historical framework for understanding the inclusion of literature and creative writing courses in medical school around the world," and cites the major figures in the field, such as Rita Charon and Robert Coles. 

The authors cite Elliot G. Mishler's 1985 The Discourse of Medicine: Dialectics of Medical Interviews, summarizing it in this way: "Through an analysis of doctor-patient discourse, Mishler theorizes that doctors and patients operate in separate orbits. He names these orbits, or ways of communicating and thinking, the 'technical rational' and the 'life world.' The technical rational is the voice of medicine and belongs to doctors who are trained to think and act in a highly scientific manner. The life world represents the voice of patients who share their personal lives through emotions and stories. Mishler describes the divergent ways in which doctors and patients communicate and how this difference often leads patients to feel alienated, misinterpreted, or ignored when visiting doctors. If doctors discount the stories and feelings of their patients by relying only on their technical rational training, then they may miss important opportunities to communicate and connect with patients, and, perhaps, to discover information relevant to their patients’ health and willingness to follow medical regimes."

Probably most patients (myself included) have had some experience with doctors who don't listen to them, don't solicit their so-called "illness narratives" -- the story of how they're doing and how they got to feel that way. It is, needless to say, pretty infuriating to be dismissed like this, especially by someone in whose care you find yourself. And likewise, a big relief to be treated by someone who, perhaps through the study of stories, has seen into life worlds of other people.

Sunday, September 27, 2009



On this week's podcast, I talk with historian Steve Luckert, a curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. We spoke about the museum's permanent exhibition, as well as about an exhibit Steve curated called "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda." Click that link for the online component of the exhibit, and for information on buying the companion book. 

I'm fascinated by history museum exhibit design, and a museum about the Holocaust presents special challenges. Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who was instrumental in getting the museum built, has said something to the effect of, 'We can never really tell the story of the Holocaust, but we must always try.' (I'm paraphrasing from a lecture he gave years ago.) It's a theme in his work: the event was so huge and so unimaginable, that ultimately all that survivors and witnesses and the historical record can convey are fragments, or perhaps we can only receive fragments, given our limited time and understanding. But the fact of the stories we tell and hear being mere fragments should not stop us from telling them. How does the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum deal with this and other design challenges? How does it try to tell the many stories of the Holocaust?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Dahlia Lithwick, who normally writes about the law for the online magazine Slate, is in the middle of a month-long effort to write a chick lit (or "mommy lit," to be more specific) novel called "Saving Face." And yes, she plans to finish the entire thing in 30 days of when she started, September 8. She has asked Slate readers to help her with plotting and characters, and has even set up a Facebook page to solicit people's ideas on such questions as "what's the invented song little Sam sings to himself as he folds laundry," and "Marina's talking about taking those two girls home to Seattle with her. Anyone gonna find it impossible to forgive her?" As of today, Lithwick has written 11 chapters, at 2000 words per chapter. It's been fun watching the story develop, and Facebook followers get pretty invested, or at least involved, in the direction of the story. Lithwick gets fast (and reliable) help with factual details she doesn't have knowledge of, not to mention some funny bits to include in the story, and she always credits people where credit is due. Lithwick is the author, but this process only makes plain the way that many writers gather ideas and inspiration from those around them. It's a bit like crowd-sourcing a story. I see an iPhone app in there somewhere. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I'm a big Beatles fan. I was born in 1968, not long before the band broke up. When I was maybe 10 years old, my Uncle Dan, a family friend, gave me my first LP -- the Beatles' "Red Album." Soon after came the "Blue Album," and in time every album by the Beatles as a band and as solo artists. As a teenager, I went to a Beatles fan convention in Boston, and while I fancied myself pretty knowledgeable about the Beatles, there were some serious Beatlemaniacs there. The gal in front of me in the ticket line knew each Beatle's shoe size! At the convention, I bought a huge John and Yoko poster, a 45 record of the Beatles' royal command performance, several books about the band's history and their recording sessions. I also regularly visited a record store in Allston, Massachusetts, the name of which I'm forgetting now, but which was owned by this guy Joe Pope, a local authority on (and, needless to say, a huge fan of) the Beatles. Let's just say I was pretty well steeped in the lore of the Beatles, and relished hearing new (to me) anecdotes about the band. George losing his virginity, to the applause of the other Beatles. Ringo leaving the band briefly, and being welcomed back in with a mound of flowers around his drum set. Their financial troubles towards the end.

As a result, I still remember the history behind many of the songs, or at least can conjure images of where those songs were played in concert, and what was happening with the band when they were recorded. And then of course, just about every Beatles song evokes not just "memories" of the band's history, but particular memories from my own life. My own memories and my "memories" about the band are intertwined. Take the song "Don't Let Me Down," from the "Let it Be" album. I recall hearing this on a radio Beatles-a-thon, while driving with my boyfriend at the time on the highway on our way out of San Francisco -- me exploding with pleasure at this song which I hadn't heard in some time, and him realizing the depth of my Beatles love! And of course I think of the Beatles playing this at their famous 1969 concert on the rooftop of Apple Records in London. Somehow these become fused, so my boyfriend and I are two of the young techies at the concert. I wish.

Well, consider my excitement at the new "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game, which allows you to sing and "play" Beatles songs -- actual recordings of the Beatles which you produce by hitting the right buttons on a toy guitar, bass, and drum set. Thanks to my friend Mike for hosting. I think my imagination suffices to produce the feeling of connection with the Beatles. The imagination must always suffice, really, it's the connective tissue among people. But the game allowed me to connect with the music and excite the imagination in a new way. It's also got this "story" mode, which has players go through the available songs in chronological order, and which plays animated clips of the Beatles with real audio clips from their studio recordings, giving you a history of the band. As one of the game's producers says in an interview (one of many features on the game's website), "So the idea here is that it's not just a list of songs. We want it to be a sort of narrative progression, a journey through the life that these four guys had together over this period of time they were making all of this music." In doing so, I think the producers manage to more intimately entwine the story of the Beatles with the stories of players' and listeners' lives. And of course, sell more games. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about the "story map" project of the Museum of Chinese in America, which has just re-opened in a new location in New York City. I'm big into history museum exhibition design, and one of my very favorite writers on this and other topics is Edward Rothstein of the New York Times. (Q. Does Ed Rothstein have a fantastic surplus of brain cells? And would I like to do a mind-meld with him? A. Yes, and yes.) Click here for a typically incisive piece he wrote today about the museum. 

Rothstein says that the museum, now with greater ambitions than before, is "joining an ever-lengthening roster of American museums of identity." Such museums have similar story arcs, he says: after a period of suffering, the community creates a place for itself in U.S. history, and their identity becomes a source of strength. Rothstein considers the both the architecture (by Maya Lin) and the exhibition galleries, the most fascinating of which he says display "how the image of Chinese-Americans was shaped into stereotypes in early 20th-century culture, ranging from Fu Manchu's villainy to chop suey's homogenized exoticism." Rothstein goes on to say that "despite the museum's considerable achievement it also harbors a tension that reveals some of the problems with the identity archetype." He adds that the 1960s' political movements improved the status of all minorities, and that it was also during that era when "the identity narrative itself was shaped." 

Rothstein's thoughts on an "identity narrative" parallel the arguments about identity politics -- namely that an oppressed group in society must carve out a space for itself, and gains strength from doing so, but then the identity can also be limiting. I think Rothstein is smart to tease out the idea that there is not just an identity, but an "identity narrative" from which a social group derives strength. Identity, after all, cannot be separated from history. As individuals and as social groups, people are who we are partly because of where we come from. Read the whole article for Rothstein's insight into the museum, and the "identity narrative." 

Sunday, September 20, 2009



On the podcast this week, a conversation with Stefan Kaegi, a member of the Berlin-based theatre group Rimini Protokoll. I encountered them earlier this year when I went to their, um, play? show? performance? theatre thing? Whatever it is, it was called "Call Cutta in a Box," and Rimini Protokoll describes it as an international phone play. It's an unusual brand of theatre, in which an individual "audience" member goes into a sparsely-furnished room (at the Goethe-Institut in New York, when I saw it), and receives a phone call from a call center operator in Calcutta, India. The conversation is the play; and while there is a certain structure that the operator keeps to, it's not a tightly scripted experience.

Between "Call Cutta in a Box" and Rimini Protokoll's other offbeat projects, there seems to be an emphasis on the theatrical aspects of everyday life. Several of the projects Stefan and I talked about do not take place in a theatre at all. Or at least not a theatre with rows of numbered seats and a stage.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Opponents of President Obama's healthcare reform have got the better story, said New York Times columnist Gail Collins last week, in "The End of Civility." (I'm growing more and more fond of her dry humor and ability to poke holes in balloon-headed politicians.) Speaking about Obama's speech to Congress last week, she said, "'Security and stability' is not quite as exciting as stories about old people being executed or registered Republicans being stripped of their Medicare. So, I was hoping that the reform side would ... start floating stories about how universal health care would save the car industry or combat hair loss." I think there are a lot of things going on with the healthcare "debate" (such as it is), including obstructionism and the raw exercise of power, but Collins has identified an important one. This is, I suppose, a question of how the story is framed, but it seems more that: not just the position that one or the other side takes, but the emotions that they stir, and the craving for a good story that they excite. Regardless of the facts. 

This reminds me of a great story from "Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa," by R.A. Scotti. The painting was stolen in 1911 by a Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian worker living in France who had the painting in his possession for over two years. In 1932, about 18 years after the painting had been recovered, a journalist named Karl Decker claimed to uncover the true story of the theft. Decker says he met a someone in Casablanca named Marques Eduardo de Valfierno, who claimed to have masterminded the theft in which Peruggia was only a minor player. Valfierno said that he found six separate buyers who each pledged to buy the Mona Lisa if he could steal it. Not content to get just one payment, Valfierno paid a forger to make six copies of the painting, and then each of the buyers would be told he was getting the real thing. The total haul was equivalent to about $90 million in today's dollars. The idea was to keep the real painting hidden at least long enough to sell the forgeries and get away; Valfierno would get the lion's share of the payments, but Peruggia received a handsome sum. After Peruggia gambled away his earnings from the theft, he supposedly tried to sell the real Mona Lisa to legitimate art dealers. He was arrested, and he told the judge that he had stolen the painting with the intention of repatriating the painting to Leonardo da Vinci's native Italy. He was sentenced to a year in jail. Check out the book for  the full story of this fascinating theft.

Now, that's a pretty fabulous story -- so fabulous that it may even be a fable. Decker was known for fabricating a thing or two in his career, and even if he was told this story, maybe he was being lied to. At this point, it's perhaps impossible (?) to verify, and there's good reason to doubt it. But this account had some traction when it first came out, perhaps in part because it was far more dramatic than the account of a humble custodian who decided, almost casually, to steal the painting. (His patriotic intentions were thrown into question by the fact that he tried to sell the painting several times.) Which story would make the better movie? The true story doesn't always win, it may just be the better story. Or as Pablo Picasso puts in the books' epigraph: "The only thing that's important is the legend created by the picture, and now whether it continues to exist itself."  

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


There's a huge catalogue of material from public radio's mega-popular "This American Life" that we will never hear, or that may no longer exist. At a panel discussion tonight that took audience members behind the scenes of the program, the show's host and executive producer Ira Glass said, 'We kill a lot of material. We kill a half to a third of everything we try.' (That's Ira in the photo.)

The panel featured most of the show's production staff, and took place at the 92nd Street Y, the stellar New York City venue for concerts, lectures, etc. I was taking notes by hand, so these quotes are not exact, and I'd ask you to please not take them as gospel. 

As it happens, the 'kill ratio' is part of what allows the show to rule the airwaves! Producer Nancy Updike said that the radio program is far less expensive to produce than the Emmy-winning Showtime series of the same name. 'You start spending money as soon as you think about something [for television]. Part of what makes radio work is the kill ratio. We can try things [on radio that are too expensive to experiment with on television].'

That's to say the television show doesn't work. I think the TV show rules, and may I say that a personal favorite mind-blowing episode was "John Smith," which tells the stories of a handful of people named John Smith, each at a different stage of life -- infant, young adult, adult, old man, near death. It sparked in me one of those "oh my god, I'm going to die" sorts of moments, only in a most excellent and poignant way. That and other episodes can be downloaded on iTunes, or viewed on the website. 

Ira says that radio stories have to have a plot, have to be surprising, and so on. Television requires that, too, he said, plus 'you have to have something to look at... Most journalism, as it happens, is about stuff that has already happened in the past.' (Big laugh from audience here. This was all rather funny as he said it.) But with television, he said, you have to film things as they happen. You have to go somewhere and set up a camera and hope that you get something with resonance and emotion. 

Ira played a clip of a "This American Life" segment in which the reporter, I didn't catch who it was, expressed shock at seeing coffins along the side of the road in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina.  He said (approximate quote), 'The reason I think most broadcast reporting is so boring is that they're not expressing feelings about what they're seeing. But those [expressions of our own experience] are available to us. [Our reporters] are the surrogate for the audience.'   

The audience at the panel discussion was kind of enraptured. It seemed that, just about anytime someone on stage mentioned a particular segment or episode, someone in my immediate vicinity would say, "Oh, I remember that episode," or "I loved that story." 

Sunday, September 13, 2009



This week's podcast is a chat with Maya Lilly (link to her website), who wrote and performs the one-woman show "Mixed," about people of mixed race, or multiracial people. Be sure to check out the show if Maya is performing near you! Maya wasn't hearing or seeing the stories of multiracial people, so she decided to tell some herself. She conducted hundreds of interviews with people of mixed race, which she then used as the basis for the composite characters in "Mixed," which she performs at theatres, college campuses, community centers and other places nationwide. One of her ambitions is to perform the show at the White House, for a certain occupant who has a black father and a white mother. I think that's totally rad, and I hope she gets to do it. I'd also like to thank Mahayana Landowne, the show's director, who I also talked with but didn't get a chance to include in this podcast episode. 

A theme that emerged in talking with Maya was that of "character." How did she develop the composite characters for the show? What "roles" are multiracial people expected to play in everyday life? And how does any of us of whatever racial background come to think of our own or others' characters? Thanks for listening!

Friday, September 11, 2009


The National September 11 Memorial and Museum has launched a project called "Make History," which it describes as a "collective telling of the events of 9/11 through the eyes of those who experienced it, both at the attack sites and around the world." People can contribute photos and stories about their experience of 9/11, and visitors to the website and museum can search by topic or location. It's beautifully done. Though I didn't see it myself today, I understand the museum has a "We Remember" audio booth where folks can record their memories and reflections for the museum's archives.  (The museum is under construction, but the former WTC site was open to the families of 9/11 victims today.) I wasn't in New York on 9/11/01, and didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but of course can understand the impulse to testify. Certainly people who lost family and friends want to remember them, speak their names, perhaps join their personal stories to the greater story of 9/11, which has national significance.

I was in New Orleans a few weeks after Katrina. I heard a lot of stories -- people talked because they were proud of riding out the storm, or because it was a consolation in the wake of their loss, or because they wanted others to know about the injustice and the neglect that New Orleans had suffered, or just because they liked to talk, or for any number of other reasons. There was something so tender and generous in people shortly after the storm, which they expressed partly in talking, and in listening to each other. New Yorkers tell me there was a similar spirit in the city after 9/11. 

More recently, I was at the centennial commemoration of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. Estimates of the death toll from that disaster vary, but it was certainly in the thousands. The spirit of that commemoration is at this point more festive than solemn. The few remaining survivors were infants when the quake and fire ravaged huge portions of the city, and so that event has less personal and more historic, almost mythic resonance. The disaster and the relatively fast rebuilding (the city hosted a major international exposition only 9 years later) has come to signify San Francisco's resilience and spirit. When, in 2006, people gathered early that morning of April 18 to hear survivors' recollections, to sing the city's unofficial anthem, or to help re-paint a famous Mission District fire hydrant (it stopped the fire from spreading further west), it felt a bit like historic reenactment -- we were placing ourselves in history, and in the supposed character of the city. 1906 is long past, and unlike 2001 and 2005 it is historical rather than personal memory; and each of these events has a different significance. And yet I can't help but think that there's something similar in the rituals that we use to mark them, and the reasons we take part in those rituals: to remember, to connect, to heal, and to say, "that's my story, too."

Thursday, September 10, 2009


StoryCorps, the Shoah Foundation, or the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers' Project -- just a few examples of massive efforts to collect the stories of many of people around a given theme. The result is a collective story, or a mosaic. 

Add to the list a new effort by the recently-relocated Museum of Chinese in America, which has launched a "Story Map," which they say is "mapping the Chinese American experience -- one story at a time." Visitors to the website can upload photographs and tell a brief story about their own experience as Chinese Americans, then "tag" or categorize the story, mark themselves on a Google map, and become part of this ongoing online exhibit. The website poses some questions to get people going -- "Where is home?" "What images, objects and/or stories have been passed down over the years to become symbolic of your family's journey to America?" "I brought... I left behind..."  and so on. Other visitors may then read these stories.

As of today, there are just about 15 stories up, mostly from New York City. The Museum is celebrating its grand re-opening in its new space (designed by Maya Lin, most famous for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall) this September 22, and is sure to attract more participants to the online exhibit. I think it's a smart way to allow people to contribute their own stories, organize them graphically, and serve as a public and ever-changing display of Chinese Americans' lives. 

Have you ever told a personal story for a museum, talk show, performance, or oral history project? Why, and what was your experience? 

Sunday, September 6, 2009



This week's podcast episode is a conversation with Jeff Gomez, the president and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, and an all-around cool guy. His company produces "transmedia franchises." What's that, you ask? In a nutshell, a transmedia story is one that crosses various media platforms -- comic books that are transformed into video games that allow players to become the story's characters, movies that invite viewers to go deeper through online portals. In the podcast, Jeff talks about work he's done with Coca-Cola, the "Halo" video game, a documentary film on nuclear proliferation, and about the upcoming television series "Flash Forward" as examples of how stories can be told across different media, and how they can involve viewers/readers in new ways. Jeff talks about this much better than I do, so take a listen!

I can't help but wonder how transmedia storytelling might be applied to other, existing stories as well. Since I just blogged about "Hamlet," let's take that as an example. What if different parts of "Hamlet" were presented in vastly different media, at different times and places? Forget the practicalities for a moment, and imagine the "to be or not to be" speech coming over a PA system on a busy street corner, as if the voice of God. The graveyard scene might be an actor digging an actual grave in a park. The bedroom scene could be related as a scandalous article in a fake tabloid newspaper. The play-within-a-play could take place in an actual theater. Hamlet's love of Ophelia might be conveyed in a sheaf of love letters (containing Shakespeare's original language, of course) that people can sort through at the local library. A theater company that put on such a production would let audiences know how and where to access the different parts of the play. There would be plenty of logistical challenges with such a production, but you see the point -- you can only get the whole story through various media. And that's part of what I think is exciting about transmedia storytelling -- people can receive or even participate in the story in uncommon ways. (I still think a book or a play can be just as engrossing as a transmedia story, but it does present some intriguing possibilities!)

Alright, let's make this a transmedia event right now. You've read the blog post, now go listen to the podcast already! Again, I hope you'll get subscribe to the podcast for free on iTunes by clicking here. Or post a comment about your experiences with stories told in different media. 

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Just a quick quote from Jude Law, who's set to play Hamlet in a Broadway run starting this month. (From a New York Times story by Sarah Lyall, available here.) 

“When you’re faced with ‘To be or not to be,’ in the first rehearsal, there’s a sense of ‘Oh, God, I’m stepping into the world’s greatest cliché.’ But without sounding like a naff old actor, I’m Hamlet, and what a great way to question life and death... The reason they’re so famous is because they’re beautifully written and incredibly powerful pieces of dialogue. Never underestimate the power of these lines. Our language is littered with words and phrases from this play, and we use them because we have not, in 400 years, found a better way of putting things.”

One of the themes I'll be pursuing in "Inside Stories" is how we can bring language alive -- and not just in Broadway productions of one of the world's great plays, but in our everyday lives. Jude Law will be speaking words that have been studied and repeated endlessly for centuries. How does he speak it in such a way that it's not rote, or cliché? Do we have anything to learn from the actors who inhabit this or other famous characters, about how to awaken our own language? Any actors care to comment?

Thursday, September 3, 2009


"Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words," says writer and teacher Verlyn Klinkenborg (love that name), in a New York Times article this past May 16 entitled "Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud."

"To read with your lungs and your diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone," he continues. "The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading." 

In the days of those reading salons, there was of course no radio or TV, books were more expensive, and I suspect literacy rates were lower -- so reading aloud was a way of sharing stories. But to read aloud is also a way of reading more deeply into the language and feeling of stories. Klinkenborg concludes by suggesting that "our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud." 

Re-reading is another way of savoring books and language. Klinkenborg writes in another article later in the month, "Some Thoughts on the Pleasure of Being a Re-Reader," that "part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens," but instead can pay closer attention to the language. He adds that, while the books may stay the same, the reader is always changing, seeing the characters and plots and themes anew each time.

How about you, readers? What stories or books do you read aloud, or re-read, and what has it done for you?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Andrew Morris in Pete Nicks' in-progress documentary THE WAITING ROOM.

Stories are everywhere, really, but some places are especially crowded with 'em. Police stations, delivery rooms, graduation parties, cemeteries (see Heddy Honigmann's gorgeous 2006 documentary "Forever"), and so on. Anywhere that people confront beginnings, endings, or unusually potent emotions. 

Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks has hit upon a rich nexus -- the hospital waiting room. Nicks is collecting stories of people in Oakland's Highland Hospital for a feature-length documentary called "The Waiting Room," as well as for dissemination online. In addition to filming of a few select people himself, Nicks also plans to set up "storytelling booths" at the Highland and other hospital waiting rooms, so people can film their own stories. The idea is not just to present a documentary film to passive viewers, but to enliven and enrich the conversation about health care. The topic is timely and important, of course, but part of what intrigues me is what a perfect spot the hospital waiting room is for gathering stories. People have stories about why they're there, and the time to tell those stories while they wait! 

Visit, where new stories are posted daily (including one I like, embedded above) Also, a terrific article on the project by San Francisco film writer Michael Fox is here. This process of collecting healthcare stories, interestingly, is echoed by the White House, whose "reality check" website on healthcare reform invites visitors to post videos about their own experience with healthcare. However moving any one person's experience may be, it's the accumulation of their stories into a larger narrative that I suspect will lend both endeavors whatever power they may have.