Wednesday, October 21, 2009

COLLECTIVE STORYTELLING -- THE CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ART & COMMUNITY

Who authors a story? The name on a book jacket or in a byline may be the writer, but consider the many people who contributed to that creator's ideas. Many book writers, of course, have extensive acknowledgements that thank the people who supported or inspired them, or more to the point edited or advised them. But what of the many other people who, say, told the writer a joke long ago, it stuck, and you jiggle it a little bit and put it on paper? Or how about an arresting turn of phrase some stranger used in passing, and the author puts it in her book? I suspect that most authors -- including anyone who writes so much as an email -- would, upon reflection, admit that their inspirations are many. This is not to downplay the imagination of any given individual. But my question is just that: who authors a story? And how much does the story a person tells really "belong" to them? 

This is what I was thinking about in reading the "Wild Caught Story," a project of the Center for the Study of Art and Creativity, whose director is Bill Cleveland, a cool guy I met just the other night. He's is the author of several books I'm eager to check out (inlcuding "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines"), and  he has worked at or run various community art programs, including, remarkably, the Arts-In-Corrections Program at the California Department of Corrections, a program which he helped make the largest arts residency program in the country. Yowsa. Anyway, "Wild Caught Story" is a "rotary journal of creative community building," in which six contributors write about "culture, community and current affairs." As explained on the site, "Each discussion cycle will begin with a question posed by one of the six, then, each week, one after another, the other members will write in response to both the current question and whatever has emerged in the ongoing discussion. After six weeks, we will start again with a new question." Now, granted, this is a discussion that's happening in rotation, rather than a story. But the principle is the same: each person riffs off of or is inspired by the others' writings, truly responds to them. I can easily imagine how this method could be used to produce a collectively written story.  

"Wild Caught Story" has yielded some great results. Just one of the things I enjoyed was Puanani Burgess's process of facilitating story circles -- she'll ask people to tell the story of their names, their community, and their gifts. I can only guess that people learn from the others about how to tell their stories, perhaps adjust the length or emphasize certain themes. 

So, these in-person and virtual story circles are a way of people telling their own individual stories, but also are a way of explicitly generating collective stories. Represented graphically, this process might look like, well, a circle! Last month I wrote about Dahlia Lithwick's experiment on Slate.com, in which she gave herself a month to write a "mommy-lit" novel, posting a new chapter about every day. All along the way, she had readers contribute plot points, characters' names, technical information to make the story more realistic, and other items via Slate.com and a Facebook page, and then she'd incorporate those contributions to the book, and annotate the book to attribute those contributions. That process of "crowd-sourcing" a story, as I put it, might look -- in a graphic representation -- more like a a bicycle wheel, with contributors being the spokes that move towards the center. Except there's no real rim of the wheel, just the spokes and the hub or axis -- so, okay, the metaphor only goes so far, but you get the idea. In these examples, the contributions of other people are just made more explicit. And the author, clearly, "contains multitudes."     

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