Sunday, December 18, 2011


LISTENING IN TEXAS: The Texas After Violence Project uses storytelling to increase the peace. With the tagline "Listening for a change," the organization "works to create a foundation for public dialogue on violence in Texas, especially murder and execution. We carefully listen to people affected by violence, including friends and family members of murdered and executed people, as well as police officers, first responders, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison employees, victim and defendant advocates, and others involved in Texas' criminal justice system. TAVP records their statements, archives them, makes them public with the narrators' consent, and promotes conversations about the most effective, compassionate, and just ways to prevent and respond to violence." Read transcripts of some of the moving narratives here.

LISTENING IN AFRICA: In the New York Times last weekend, an op-ed by Hanning Menkell on "The Art of Listening" as practiced in Africa. The author says the best way to explain what he has learned from his 25 years of life in Africa (especially Mozambique) is "through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak." 

Monday, December 12, 2011


STORY-SHARING PLATFORMS: A couple story-sharing platforms I've heard of or been exploring recently, one small and beautiful, another is sprawling and stripped-down. is a new site that describes itself as a "small community of storytellers, interested in telling deeper, longer-lasting, more nourishing stories than you're likely to find anywhere else on the web." The site enables you to "keep a gorgeous diary of your life, incorporating photography, sound, subtitles, maps, timelines, characters, dedications, and more." The site has started with the saga of the Occupy movement, and does indeed feature gorgeous photos and other features. On the other end of the spectrum is the Experience Project, which now hosts a total of over 12 million experience stories on pretty much any topic under the sun, organized in such categories as "Education," "Family and Friends," and "Pets and Animals." Members write their experiences in text, and can create a profile, follow other users, and respond to others' experiences and questions. Theoretically, a single site could join the aesthetics of Cowbird with the flexibility of the Experience Project. However, the investment of time that Cowbird's pictures, audio, and other features require makes it less likely that the site will attract a huge user base; and the rapid exchange of stories on the Experience Project means that users probably won't want to spend lots of time on craft, any more than a Twitter user would.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


TIMESLIPS STORYTELLING: An NBC news story about the TimeSlips storytelling project for seniors with dementia. Check out my summer 2010 podcast interview with project coordinator Anne Basting, who also wrote the book "Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People With Dementia." 

TWEETING WORLD WAR II: A New York Times story about a young Oxford grad named Alwyn Collinson who recently started tweeting the history of World War II, starting with an account of Hitler's invasion of Poland -- about 72 years to the hour after the actual event. The Twitter feed is called RealTimeWWII.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Above, a 4-minute video of Joe Sabia talking about the evolving technology used to tell stories. 

On a related note, take a look at this New Scientist article that lays out some fine examples of e-storytelling; also worth checking out is the more complete electronic literature collection from which it draws.

I'm relieved to report that neither the video presenter nor the article above make any extravagant claims about how new media are revolutionizing storytelling. Certainly, there are exciting new forms taking their place alongside the novel and the film and so on. An online story-game allows you to choose your own path, or an iPad app lets you get the back-story on the characters and places in a novel, or you can post a comment on a video story. To my mind, the impulses behind the supposedly "new" interactive storytelling -- the desire to get lost in or contribute to a story -- have not changed. And there are analogue counterparts to most of these new technologies. They have not -- yet -- fundamentally altered the nature of storytelling, which relies on imagination and conversation just as much as it ever did.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


LISTENING: Above is a TED talk by Julian Treasure, on the topic of listening (sorry for the funky dimensions). It has to do not just with how we listen to other people, but how we take in our whole sonic environment. On the TED website there's an interactive transcript of the talk, and more information about the speaker's work on his blog

GETTING LOST IN STORIES: In a book published earlier this year, Frank Rose explores how we get lost, or immersed, in stories. In that book, "The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories," Rose says that new narrative forms (such as the novel) and technologies (the internet) have allowed us to become ever more immersed -- and involved -- in the stories we hear and tell. Rose argues in favor of the virtues of transmedia storytelling, but admits that not all transmedia stories are equal, or necessarily any good. 

STOPPING VIOLENCE BY SHARING STORIES: The StoryTelling & Organizing Project (STOP) is a collaboration of several anti-violence groups that collects and shares stories about "everyday people taking action to end interpersonal violence." By sharing stories, the project aims to build true community-based solutions to such violence, ones that do not involve the police, child protective services, or other social services, but rather are formulated by the communities most affected. What can we learn from stories? STOP says, "We can learn a lot about what works and what doesn't. We can find out what helped survivors feel supported or what helped people change to stop their violence. We can get good ideas about how family, friends, neighbors, and community members can create safety and accountability among ourselves. We can build healthy, self-determined communities." Listen to some of their recorded stories here.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This weekend, some quotes on storytelling. The first set of quotes are selected from this excellent page of storytelling resources and websites, assembled by Elizabeth Figa, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Sciences. The second set of quotes, starting with the one by Salman Rushdie, was gathered and presented by Patti J. Christensen on this page of 

"Man [sic] is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story-a story that is basically without meaning or pattern."
 Eric Hoffer, "The Passionate State of Mind" 

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."
Eudora Welty, "One Writer's Beginnings" 

"The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in."  
Harold Goddard, "The Meaning of Shakespeare" 

"There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells."
Flannery O'Connor, "Mystery and Manners" 

"All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by. Religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need."  
Harvey Cox, "The Seduction of the Spirit"

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. 
Salman Rushdie 

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. 
Muriel Rukeyser

To be a person is to have a story to tell. 
Isak Dinesen 

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.
Maya Angelou

A caveat. A funny New York Times op-ed by Brian Morton last summer talked about how some popular quotations attributed to Thoreau, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were all desperately wrong. A new-age-sounding inspirational remark supposedly from Mandela's inaugural address was actually made by self-help guru Marianne Williamson. That's all to say, I have no idea if the above quotations are correct, I haven't gone back to the original sources to verify them. I just offer them here for the ideas, and not so much for the sources. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011


DEPT. OF DEFENSE RESEARCHERS STUDY NARRATIVE: The continuing saga of a project I wrote about early last year. The Pentagon's research arm is studying -- well, to put it plainly, how stories create terrorists. In a project it calls "Narrative Networks," the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is soliciting research proposals "in the areas of (1) quantitative analysis of narratives, (2) understanding the effects narratives have on human psychology and its affiliated neurobiology, and (3) modeling, simulating, and sensing—especially in stand-off modalities—these narrative influences." I love that phrase "stand-off modalities," which I assume would include wars, hostage situations, terrorist attacks, etc.

Though I have my political differences with Pentagon brass, and my doubts about whether narrative can be quantified in the way they're proposing, I'd have to agree with the reasoning behind the project: "Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that because of these influences stories are important in security contexts: for example, they change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements, and likely play a role in clinical conditions important to the military such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, understanding the role stories play in a security context, and the spatial and temporal dimensions of that role is especially important."

NONPROFIT STORYTELLING: Not just the Department of Defense, but also folks in the philanthropic sector want to better understand and tell stories. Fenton Communications strategist Mike Smith offers "Six Common 'Character' Flaws in Nonprofit Storytelling," in two blog posts, part one and part two. Stories have to have characters, and Mike gives these useful tips. "(1) People, not organizations, are characters. (2) Make your protagonist struggle. (3) Let them [your characters] speak. (4) Don't forget the quirky stuff. (5) Create some type of antagonist." (6) Consider privacy issues when telling the stories of real people -- there's more flexibility there than you may think.  The full blog posts flesh out these ideas, and give examples.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


AN INTERACTIVE HALLOWEEN STORY: Here's a fun, interactive Halloween story, or rather an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), called "Home: A Ghost Story." As described in this Wired story where I originally learned about it, it's a "twenty minute supernatural thriller" that "mixes together video, telephone calls, and text messages to cook up a powerful brew." Check it out.

ONE'S NEW GRIOT PROGRAM: ONE, the grassroots organization founded by Bono to fight disease and hunger, is training new storytellers to support the cause. As explained on their blog: "In West Africa, a 'griot' is a storyteller, singer, history keeper and agent of cultural change. Echoing this tradition, ONE is excited to announce the launch the Growing Solutions to End Hunger: Hunger and Agriculture Griots Project, an online course designed to train passionate volunteers into powerful spokespersons in the fight against hunger." A project update this past week explains that the training course is in progress, and includes a diverse group of students from 34 U.S. states and 47 countries. The Griot program puts a smart modern twist on an old tradition; students get a training from a renowned nonprofit "brand" -- ONE is like the Harvard of Africa advocacy organizations! -- and in the process become more invested in fighting hunger.

STORYWORLD CONFERENCE STARTS IN SAN FRANCISCO: The first-ever "StoryWorld" conference takes place in San Francisco this week, October 31 to November 2. Aimed at folks in the entertainment and gaming industries, the conference brings together producers, writers, storytellers, and other experts in "transmedia storytelling" to examine how stories can be used across the web, books, film, TV, and other media to strengthen consumer brands and customer engagement. Not sure what that means? Check the conference website, or better yet, listen to one of my first podcast episodes, an interview with transmedia storytelling guru Jeff Gomez, who happens to be one of the speakers at the conference.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brooke Gladstone
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The media have biases, alright, just not the left-right ones we may think of. So says Brook Gladstone, co-host of NPR's "On the Media," in her smart new-ish book, "The Influencing Machine." Here's a, um, comic book -- illustrations by Josh Neufeld -- that entertainingly and incisively analyzes all things news media. Among the many nuggets in the book are the biases the author thinks we should worry about. 

"Commercial bias," the biggest bias of them all, is simply that the news must be new, which is why "news outlets rarely follow up on stories they've already reported." "Bad news bias" tilts the news -- and news consumers -- towards anything that threatens us. "Status quo bias" is our preference that things remain the same. "Access bias" means that journalists and readers may compromise the transparency of the news in order to get access to powerful people as story sources. "Visual bias" holds that stories with a visual hook are more likely to get noticed. The "fairness bias" has reporters present opposing viewpoints, even when they're not equal or equally valid, such as by presenting a "world is flat" proponent against someone of the view that the "world is round" -- even though one of them is clearly right. 

I've saved the best for last: "Narrative bias." Gladstone says, "My favorite bias. Who doesn't love a good story? But stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Some news stories, science stories for instance, never end. They're all middle. It's a narrative nightmare. Try to fix the problem by tacking on a provisional ending, and the reports appear more conclusive than they really are."

Sunday, October 16, 2011


SMALL DEMONS CREATES A "STORYVERSE" AROUND BOOKS: As described in the video above, Small Demons is a new app (request a free invitation to try it in beta) that has links and pop-up features on the people, places, movies, books, songs and other details that appear in a growing library of novels they've indexed (1,000 by mid-November, and aiming for 50,000 by next spring). You select, say, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" -- and the app will call up information on all the movies mentioned therein (including "Terminator 2," or "Akira"), or Google maps of the exact locations where it takes place, or the songs it alludes to. All these details connected to the book are what Small Demons calls the "Storyverse." Such an app makes for more distracted reading; or maybe it's just a more efficient way of pursuing the small byways of books that we get distracted by anyway!

SLATE ON "NARRATIVE OVER NUMBERS": An interesting piece by Robert Shiller on about how the fortunes of the economy are affected by "consumer confidence" (as measured in surveys), which in turn is affected by the stories that circulate in the culture. Worth reading the whole piece, but it concludes: "The timing and substance of these consumer-survey results suggest that our fundamental outlook about the economy, at the level of the average person, is closely bound up with stories of excessive borrowing, loss of governmental and personal responsibility, and a sense that matters are beyond control. That kind of loss of confidence may well last for years. That said, the economic outlook can never be fully analyzed with conventional statistical models, for it may hinge on something that such models do not include: replacing one narrative—currently a tale of out-of-control debt—with a more inspiring story."

NATIONAL STORYTELLING NETWORK'S "TELLABRATION" ON SATURDAY NOVEMBER 19: "Tellabration!" is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Storytelling Network, and includes events in cities and towns worldwide. Click here to see if there are events near you, or here if you want to list an event on the website, or here if you want a Tellabration! manual for event producers.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


TOUGH TIMES FOR THE NATIONAL STORYTELLING FESTIVAL: I wish I had been in Jonesborough, Tennessee this week! That's the location of the 39th Annual National Storytelling Festival, which wrapped up on Friday. Alas, much of the news surrounding this year's event has had more to do with the parent organization's financial troubles than with the storytelling itself. Watch the video above for more about their money woes, or click here for a look at the goings-on. 

I might also point you to a couple storytellers who took to the stage this week, both of them winners of a J.J. Reneaux Grant from the National Storytelling Network. Adam Booth has the distinction of being not only a storyteller but a champion liar. And Kirk Waller works with an organization I admire, called Stagebridge Senior Theatre Company, in Oakland, California.

For anyone who missed the proceedings (or wants to enjoy them again), select storytellers will be broadcast on SiriusXM satellite radio October 21-23.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


It's 1973, and Steve Harmon, the first male phone operator in Portland, Oregon is taking directory assistance calls. His story is told -- with poignant and period details like the blush that steals over his cheeks when he comes out at work, or the "finger-condoms" the operators use -- by Christa Orth in the video above. She's reading from her chapter in the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology "Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City." 

Steve (who also survived being institutionalized as a teenager in the 1960s) is just one of a number of real-life characters in a book of creative nonfiction stories Christa is writing about the everyday work lives of Pacific Northwest queer people. Other characters, diverse in race and gender and class, include a nurse during the AIDS crisis, a labor activist who lived through the Rajneesh movement, a member of the letter carriers union and founder of Portland's first women's music festival, and Christa herself, who explores her own history through that of her queer elders in the present day. 

If the others stories are as quietly absorbing as Steve's, they'll be able to stand on their own; Orth also aims to have the narratives add up to a broader and more revealing picture of queer history after Stonewall.

The stories are based on oral histories Christa conducted, and I'm delighted to see this creative adaptation of the form. Oral history is a craft from start to finish: in the relationship you build with interviewees, your demeanor during an interview, the questions you ask, how you follow up. It is possible to extend the craft beyond the interview itself. If a writer is faithful to the source material (which is to say, the interviewees) in crafting stories, the results may be better -- retaining the colloquial, fluid quality of oral history, while attaining additional structure.  

Christa is well-prepared for this very task, having worked with StoryCorps and the ACT UP Oral History Project. (I hope you'll check out my posts about those two organizations here and here, respectively. And my other blog posts and podcast episodes about oral history are here.)

For updates on Christa's book and other projects, follow her on Twitter!

Sunday, September 25, 2011


But let's be fair. It's not just misery that loves company, it's most other moods and people! 

A New York Times story from last February explores how "When Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve." The article opens with the case of a man awaiting a liver transplant. He exercised to make sure he could withstand the operation itself. But he was still afraid that he wouldn't be strong enough physically or mentally to survive afterwards. So what did he do? He talked with other patients. He told his doctor, who wrote the article, "You doctors have answered all of my questions, but what I really needed was to hear the stories about transplants from people like me." It was those stories, he says, that "made me believe I'd be O.K."

The positive impact of story-sharing has been understood anecdotally for quite some time. But now the release of a research study -- the occasion for the article in the Times -- lends additional scientific rigor to the field of "narrative medicine." (You can listen to my podcast interview with Rita Charon, director of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia med school, here.) Some of the nearly 300 high-blood-pressure patients in the study responded well to hearing the videotaped stories of others with the same malady -- so long as they were culturally-appropriate, i.e. that they were from someone of the same culture. 

It is on the same logic that other health story sites operate. Patient Stories (logo at top), for example, features text stories on various conditions, and invites users to submit their own stories to be written up. They have published a book of some of those stories. Health Talk Online hosts over 2,000 video and text stories of people with diverse health problems, organized by type of problem, gender, age, and so on; a twin site, Youth Health Talk, is geared towards the young'uns. The former site headlines a quote from Philip Pullman: "True stories are ... nutritious and sustaining. They feed the mind with information and the heart with hope and strength."

An open question I have is why we like hearing stories from "people like me," or -- if this is the same thing -- "culturally appropriate" stories. Intuitively it makes sense; If I had cancer or hypertension of another serious condition, I think I'd be more likely to given "hope and strength" by the stories of people who share my age or race or gender or class or language. Or maybe even my height! I could more readily identify with them, just as I more readily identify with characters in movies who are more rather than less similar to me. But why shouldn't I be able to draw strength and hope from people who are different than me culturally? A failure of the imagination? I don't know.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


First things first: Thanks a million to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) for their help with this episode.

This is the last of three podcast episodes of stories from Eddie Dowling, a theater titan who produced, directed, and starred in the original 1945 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' play "The Glass Menagerie." These stories come from a set of oral history interviews with Dowling conducted in 1963. The original interview tapes no longer exist, just the transcript, so you'll be hearing me, Paul VanDeCarr, reading from the transcripts. You can listen to this episode on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast for free in iTunes.

In the first two episodes, Eddie Dowling talked about falling in love with "The Glass Menagerie," assembling a cast, as well as the run of the play in Broadway and its big (if terrifying) Broadway premiere. 

In this final episode of the mini-series, you'll hear about the acclaimed but rocky 18-month run of the show, and the fate of leading lady Laurette Taylor.

Many thanks to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) for permission to use these stories in the podcast. You're welcome to share this podcast, but if you want to cite or use this interview in a project of your own or in some other context, you'll have to ask CCOH for permission. The contents of the Eddie Dowling interview are protected by copyright, and may not be cited, reproduced, or otherwise used without express written permission from the Columbia Center for Oral History, at Columbia University in the City of New York. 

CCOH has a world-class collection of thousands of interviews (in text, audio, and video formats) with people in the arts, government, business, philanthropy, social movements, and more. Check out their website, or drop them a line to learn more! They're very friendly, and the Center is open to the public.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


For starters, let me say thanks to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) for their help with this episode.

This is the second of three podcast episodes of stories from Eddie Dowling, a theater giant who produced, directed, and starred in the original 1945 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' play "The Glass Menagerie." These stories come from a set of oral history interviews with Dowling conducted in 1963. The original interview tapes no longer exist, just the transcript, so you'll be hearing me, Paul VanDeCarr, reading from the transcripts with whatever meager thespian talents I've gained from watching theater and film over the years! You can listen to this episode on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast for free in iTunes.

In the first episode, Eddie Dowling talked about meeting Tennessee Williams, falling hard for "The Glass Menagerie," and assembling a cast. 

In this second episode, Dowling tells the story of theater critic George Nathan's role in shaping the play, or at least sending Tennessee Williams into despair, and of the Chicago run and the nerve-wracking Broadway premiere.

Eddie Dowling and wife Ray Dooley, from this Camden history website.
In the third and final episode of this mini-series, which I'll release next week, you'll hear about the acclaimed but rocky 18-month run of the show, and the fate of leading lady Laurette Taylor.

Big thanks to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) for permission to use these stories in the podcast. You're welcome to share this podcast, but if you want to cite or use this interview in a project of your own or in some other context, you'll have to ask CCOH for permission. The contents of the Eddie Dowling interview are protected by copyright, and may not be cited, reproduced, or otherwise used without express written permission from the Columbia Center for Oral History, at Columbia University in the City of New York. 

CCOH has a world-class collection of thousands of interviews (in text, audio, and video formats) with people in the arts, government, business, philanthropy, social movements, and more. Check out their website, or drop them a line to learn more! They're very friendly, and the Center is open to the public.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


First off, thanks to the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH) for their help with this episode. More on them in a minute.

I'm pleased to present the first of three podcast episodes of stories from Eddie Dowling, a theater giant who produced, directed, and starred in the original 1945 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' play "The Glass Menagerie." These stories come from a set of oral history interviews with Dowling conducted in 1963; the full transcript of the interviews runs to over 800 pages, and covers Dowling's whole life up to that point. This trio of podcast episodes just includes the stories about "The Glass Menagerie." The original interview tapes no longer exist, just the transcript, so what you'll hear is me, Paul VanDeCarr, reading from the transcripts with as much dramatic brio as I can muster! You judge how well I do. You can listen to this episode on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast for free in iTunes.

I was enraptured by these stories when I first read them at the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH), and I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I did. In this first episode, Eddie Dowling talks about meeting Tennessee Williams, falling in love with "The Glass Menagerie," and assembling a cast, which included the talented and notorious Laurette Taylor. 

In the second and third episodes, which I'll release in the coming weeks, you'll hear about the harsh words that renowned theater critic George Nathan had for Tennessee Williams before the play opened, the Chicago premiere, the edge-of-your-seat Broadway opening, the acclaimed but rocky 18-month run of the show, and the fate of Laurette Taylor.

Thanks a million to the Columbia Center for Oral History for permission to use these stories in the podcast. You're welcome to share this podcast, but if you want to cite or use this interview in a project of your own or in some other context, you'll have to ask CCOH for permission. To be clear: The contents of the Eddie Dowling interview are protected by copyright, and may not be cited, reproduced, or otherwise used, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the Columbia Center for Oral History, at Columbia University in the City of New York. CCOH has an unparalleled collection of interviews with all kinds of people dating back decades -- in text, audio, and video format. Check out their website, or drop them a line to learn more! They're very friendly, and the Center is open to the public.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


VIDEO GAME NARRATIVES: On the group blog MMOMFG, reporter Marc Marion writes about "The Story So Far," that is, how narrative is being used in video games. (Image from the site.) In looking over his favorite games in the past five years, Marc notes that all but two have "embraced storytelling" in a way that improves the player's experience. To demonstrate, he compares two games in the same series, those being "Deus Ex," and "Deus Ex: Invisible War." In the first game, the characters you encounter have personal histories, and they go through changes over the course of the game. Newspapers, books, email accounts and other texts reveal more information. And the player's character also transforms as a result of the quandaries you face. Marc writes that the second game resorts to a sort of "choose your own adventure" structure, in which most of the narrative depth is lost. I haven't played these games, but there seems to be a conflict between (1) choice of action and (2) depth of story. In the first game, your choices are limited; you necessarily encounter the same set of characters, and the beginning and end of your "story" is always the same whenever you play. That allows the programmers to go deeper into the story, because they know the basic trajectory. In the second game, you have more options ("choose your own adventure"), but it's harder if not impossible to chart a story out of the many different decisions a player may make, because not all of those decisions actually make narrative sense. That is, you may take a series of actions -- drink the liquid in this goblet, or not; run a sword through that character, or maybe bonk him on the head -- but there's not necessarily an overarching logic or narrative that links them all. To reconcile these two seemingly conflicting principles -- player options, and narrative depth -- might take video games to a new level. 

TELENOVELAS FOR HEALTH: Telenovelas, or the Latin American / Latino soap opera, are of course ridiculously popular forms that have been exported all over the world. (There's also the radio version, radionovelas.) They've also been used to disseminate health messages, as in the case of "Encrucijada: Sin salud no hay nada" ("Crossroads: Without Health There's Nothing"), which originated in Colorado. This 2009 article about the first season says the show helps reach people in the 40% of the state's Latinos who don't have health coverage. The show even has a call-in line for viewers to get information about health care. Then there's this Alabama radionovela "Promesas y Traiciones" ("Promises and Betrayals") about a Mexican immigrant to the U.S., and his sometimes difficult but always interesting life -- it touches on health issues like diabetes, and also has a call-in line. Or how about this Oregon radionovela, "Amor y Salud" ("Love and Health"), about a young Latina named Lourdes, and her fiance Jorge. (The last series was part of the excellent public health initiative for immigrant communities, "New Routes to Community Health," which I also wrote about here.) I've listened to parts of these programs. Pros: High-pitched drama that speaks to Latinos in their own language and culture. Cons: Some of the episodes are heavy-handed, and sound more like a public service announcement than good drama. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011


IRA GLASS ON CREATIVE WORK: Here's a neat little message from Ira Glass about slogging through any sort of creative work, such as the storytelling he does on This American Life. Ira's words are animated in this video by David Shiyang Liu.

STORYTREE: Storytree ("Remember the time") is a new website that enables users to upload and share family stories on video, in response to such questions as "How did you meet mom?" or "What was it like when you had your first grandchild?" I love the concept -- it's a family tree where the leaves are more than just names and dates, but stories. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Beneficiaries of the Trans-Nzoia Youth Sports Association in Kenya evaluate the organization through stories. (Photo by John Hecklinger. From an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)
GATHERING STORIES FOR COMMUNITY EVALUATION: A story from the summer 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) talks about how GlobalGiving gathers stories from local communities to assess and craft the programs that will support them. Interestingly, cognitive scientist David Snowden talks about analyzing what he calls "micro-narratives" -- snippets of conversation that can be gathered and used to analyze what a community or a society is thinking. For example, the article claims: "Listening to soldiers’ stories can improve troop safety in combat zones. Sales representatives’ stories can yield important insights for marketing. Until the GlobalGiving project came along, however, this approach had never been applied to development work." Snowden's company, Cognitive Edge, has developed proprietary software called "SenseMaker" that can analyze and reveal patterns in large numbers of micro-narratives.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S FAILURES IN STORYTELLING: President Obama has proven himself a master storyteller -- in his book "Dreams From My Father," and in many of his speeches during the 2008 campaign. However, in an op-ed in today's New York Times, Drew Westen writes that Obama has since failed to craft a narrative about the country that would rally support for his policies. This failure started with the inauguration speech, which Obama could have but did not use to offer "a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it. But there was no story — and there has been none since." What's more, writes Westen, Obama's stories as president "virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem." Whether this is due to Obama's conciliatory temperament, or his triangulations in an effort to get reelected is unclear. But the result is that he fails to achieve victories against moneyed interests, and on behalf of the mass of American people.

FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS, "IT HELPS TO MAKE A BAD STORY WORSE": An article by Suketa Mehta in the 8/1/11 edition of the New Yorker discusses how people seeking asylum might sometimes embellish their stories to the courts so as to improve their chances. He focuses on a person he calls Caroline, who was beaten in her home country, and legitimately feared persecution were she to return there -- after all, her parents were part of the opposition. However, in talking with her social workers and appealing to an immigration judge, she fabricated a story of rape as well. The author says in a podcast that this story should not be taken as demonstration that all asylum-seekers' stories are lies, but rather that the asylum system puts people in a position where they have to "augment" their claims -- which may be based on perfectly legitimate fears of reprisal in their home countries. Mehta started as a novelist, and says that he is "fascinated by the ways in which we shape our own identities" -- all of us, not just refugees. Caroline's story is "indicative of the human condition in general, and certainly in a schizophrenic city like New York, which demands an origin myth of all of us."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Awesome new site called "historypin" allows users of all sorts -- libraries, archives, individuals, etc. -- to upload photos and pin them to a Google map, and then enter metadata like keywords, location, year taken, and the stories associated with that photo. Then anybody can search for photos, and compare them to how the location looks today in Google street view. You can also post video and even audio, which is pretty cool. Some major archival photo collections are already on board, like the New York Public Library. Check out some historypin's best content here. Also, it bears mentioning that the audio version of this is (currently in beta), where I have some audio content under the username InsideStoriesOnline.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Hot off the proverbial presses, the latest Inside Stories podcast. Listen on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast series here. This episode is a radio segment I produced for the arts and culture program Studio 360, about the recent Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's 1985 play "The Normal Heart." 

I happened to see the revival on opening night, which was a treat. In attendance was the biggest concentration of stars I'd ever encountered in person: Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Rose Perez, Gabriel Byrne, and film director Alejandro González Iñárritu. I also managed to crash the opening night party, with a ticket generously supplied to me by the show's star, Joe Mantello. Just goes to show, it doesn't hurt to ask. Well, if he were a less gracious person, maybe he'd have punched me in the nose, and it would have hurted to ask. But as it happened, he was very friendly. Thanks, Joe!

Anyway. The play takes place in the early 1980s, as activists organize against the burgeoning epidemic. The play is often polemical, but wow are the polemics excellent! I left the theater enraged all over again at how AIDS was ignored then (President Reagan famously did not even publicly utter the word "AIDS" until years into his tenure), and, to a lesser extent, how the battle against it is underfunded now. I got to wondering how this play was being received by young audiences today (especially those born after the original 1985 production), as compared to its reception in 1985, when it was first produced. So that's what the segment is about.

Studio 360 is a co-production of Public Radio International and WNYC Radio. Thanks to the show for permission to re-use the segment as a podcast episode, and for everything else. Thanks in particular to staffers David Krasnow and Josh Rogosin, and host Kurt Andersen.


Artist Jonathan Harris says he "makes projects that reimagine how humans relate to technology and to each other" -- and storytelling is a big part of that endeavor. (The above video, by Scott Thrift, is about a photo project the artist started upon turning 30.) 

In one of a couple TED talks he gave, Jonathan explains that he builds online tools to help large numbers of people tell their stories. One project, for example, pulls from millions of blogs to capture sentences that contain the words "I feel" or "I am feeling." Each sentence is then represented as a dot in a kind of ever-changing digital starfield; a dot's color indicates its emotional valence (the brighter the color, the happier the feeling) and its size reflects the length of the sentence. Users can click on any of the dots to call up the sentence and sometimes a related photo, and play with the source material in other ways, too.

Given how many people tell their stories online now, it's cool to see how Jonathan has represented some of them in the aggregate. I can't help but think about a possible next step in this kind of artwork. Jonathan has created visual representations of large numbers of stories. But would there be a way to actually create a story of large numbers of stories? I'm not so much thinking about an individual author who would craft a novel, say, from plot points that are contributed via a crowd-sourcing platform. Rather, an algorithm or some other automated system that spins one story out of many available online? Granted, the human hand would still be at work, as someone would have to create the algorithm; and granted, the resulting story might not make sense or work dramatically; but what are some ways we might create collective stories online?

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

The smart folks at assembled a few designers to consider "The Future of the Book." As they say in the written intro to the video, "The team looked at how digital and analog books currently are being read, shared and collected, as well as at trends, business models and consumer behavior within related fields. We identified three distinct opportunities—new narratives, social reading with richer context, and providing tools for critical thinking—and developed a design concept around each one." They're not discounting the satisfactions to be had from a regular old paper book, just imagining a few directions that the medium might take. 

I'm most intrigued by the concept they call "Coupland," which would allow users to easily share information about and discuss books in their social networks. The "Nelson" concept of providing references, fact-checking, and other "layers" of information could be useful for, say, the Bible, Shakespeare, or various nonfiction texts. I most bristled at the concept of "Alice," which would seem to turn literature into a choose-your-own-adventure story by making the experience more "participatory" and "non-linear." I suspect that such a platform could be used independently to tell fantastic game-like stories, but somehow I imagine it would distract from the experience of reading a book, rather than enhance it. Maybe I'm old-school, but I think the primary form of engagement in reading has less to do with gadgetry and more to do with the imagination.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


CREATIVE RE-WORKING OF OBAMA'S AUDIO-BOOK: Austin-based artist Dan Warren has taken the audio from President Obama's audio-book of "Dreams from My Father," and re-fashioned it into a 32-minute origin story called "Son of Strelka, Son of God," incorporating sound effects and electronic music. The whole audio-file can be downloaded for free from Warren's website, where he describes the story as telling "the story of an ugly dog-faced demigod who recreates the world after it is destroyed." So far, a couple of the chapters have been animated (by others, I believe) and put on YouTube. Chapter 1 is above. 

ALTERNATE REALITY GAMES FOR TV PROMOTION: Producers of Showtime's hit series "Dexter" have created an alternate reality game that put players into the shows of the show's murderous lead character -- they hope it'll drive up viewership. Read the story from SXSW, which also links to the audio of a full panel discussion on the game. 

TELLING STORIES UNDER INTERROGATION: Here's an interesting little quote from criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, perhaps most famous for his work for O.J. Simpson. "Anyone experienced in interrogation learns to recognize the difference between a man speaking from life and a man telling a story that he either has made up or has gotten from another person." That's from page 151 of his 1971 book, "The Defense Never Rests" (link to 1972 edition on Amazon). I've heard that people telling the truth about an event in their lives (e.g. under interrogation) can tell the story backwards with relatively little effort; but people who make up an alibi usually cannot tell the story backwards, unless they've really prepared. 

Monday, June 20, 2011


(Photo: Jim Hubbard, behind camera, at ACT UP Oral History Project interview.)

Here's an event I'm organizing for my work at the Columbia Center for Oral History. To mark the 30th anniversary of the first documented case of HIV/AIDS, two oral historians play interview clips and talk about their interviews with AIDS doctors and activists. An open dialogue with the audience will follow their presentations.

WHEN: Tuesday, June 28, 2011, from 6:30pm-8:00pm.

WHERE: NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library, 455 Fifth Ave. (at 40th Street). Sixth Floor. Map.

WHO: Speakers include
SPONSORS: This event is co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH), the HIV Story Project, and the Mid-Manhattan Library.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Here's a project I'm working on in my capacity as director of outreach and education at the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH), in collaboration with the San Francisco-based The HIV Story Project.

2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the first documented case of what we now know as HIV/AIDS, which was reported in the June 5, 1981 issue of the CDC's "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report." To mark the occasion, CCOH and The HIV Story Project have teamed up on a project called "Re-Visiting 'AIDS Doctors: Voices from the Epidemic.'" We're posting edited audio of four interviews conducted with leading AIDS doctors in 1995, and then doing live webcast interviews with those same four doctors Mondays in June.

The original 1995 interviews were just a few of over 75 conducted by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health professors Gerald Oppenheimer and Ron Bayer. These interviews were made into a book called "AIDS Doctors: Voices From the Epidemic." In the interviews, HIV/AIDS doctors spoke of the early years of the epidemic, the fear they had, how best to care for patients, and so on. In the follow-up interviews, we'll look at how their practices, and the field of HIV/AIDS medicine globally, has changed in the interceding years. The follow-up interviews are Mondays in June, 7:00pm ET / 4:00pm PT. You can call in to ask questions.  

For complete information, go to the project page here, or to listen to the show online and/or to get the call-in number for your questions, go straight to our Blog Talk Radio page here. Thanks for listening!

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, most famous for his 1970 song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," died yesterday at the age of 62. Here is an obit from the New York Times, an In Memoriam from The Root, and the first segment of an hour-long documentary about him.

As the NYT story puts it, "Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. 'I don't know if I can take the blame for it,' he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm." Nevertheless, many hip-hop artists cited him as an influence. Among them was Public Enemy's Chuck D, who tweeted, "RIP GSH...and we do what we do and how we do because of you." It was Chuck D who also famously called rap "the CNN of the ghetto." It is this political function of rap that leads me to write. 

Below, I've posted selections from a longer article on "Hip-Hop as Oral Tradition," by Weyland Southon, of KPFA's recently-ended "Hard Knock Radio" show, published in a one-off magazine I put out in 1995. 

"HipHop is the fist of urban America and the pulse of its youth. It is the absolute cutting edge of social and political commentary. However, the origins of HipHop are not in the sampled loops of George Clinton, Sly Stone or James Brown. The roots of HipHop are beyond even The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron. Before Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Gwen Brooks or even before the written word, there was the griot, or African storyteller.... 

"Michael Franti, Spearhead frontman and former rapper for Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, comments, 'HipHop and rap itself follows in the roots of the African griots, you know--storytellers who are tellin' what's goin' on in the community and what's happening in their life and tellin' the stories and tales of morality--generally being the watchdog and reporting the news. I consider rap to be folk music. It's a whole new art form that's been developed and a lot of people don't recognize it as that. They won't recognize it 'cause A) it's black, and B) what people are saying through the music is something a lot of people are afraid of....'

"Chris LaMarr of Without Rezervation insists, 'rap music is more than entertainment, it's a movement.... We're doing the same things our ancestors did: they told stories to relay information they wanted the younger people to have. That's how culture is passed. We're using our oratory skills to do the same thing.'" 

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The San Francisco-based organization Voice of Witness describes itself as a "nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them." The series was founded by author Dave Eggers, and physician and human rights scholar Lola Vollen. Books in the series cover such human rights crises in such places as Zimbabwe, the Sudan, the United States, and, most recently, Burma.

In the video above, I talk with the organization's executive director, Mimi Lok, and with Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, the editors of the book "Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives From Survivors of Burma's Military Regime." That book contains not only stories of all-too-common arrests, detentions, beatings and other human rights abuses in Burma, but also -- crucially -- stories of everyday life as well. The protection of human rights means nothing unless you have a sense of the humanity of the people whose rights are being violated. Reading the stories of survivors' daily goings-on, their arrests, their solidarity, their fear, and their courage was troubling, enraging, and finally inspiring.

Sunday, May 15, 2011



Please check out the latest podcast episode, a conversation with Taylor Krauss, the director of Voices of Rwanda, an organization that is "dedicated to recording and preserving testimonies of Rwandans, and to ensuring that their stories inform the world about genocide and inspire a global sense of responsibility to prevent human rights atrocities." In that country in 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were killed by members of the Hutu ethnic majority over the course of just 100 days. Interestingly, interviewees talk not just about the genocide itself, but share their life stories, allowing listeners to get a fuller picture of Rwandan culture -- and to feel more deeply the devastation of the genocide.

Listen to the episode on the audio player above, or you can also download it on iTunes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


APPLIED STORYTELLING: I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it's only recently that I renewed my (long-lapsed) membership in the National Storytelling Network. NSN has an old-fashioned charm. While many of the organizations I write about here traffic in new media, or tell stories about pressing political issues, or take edgy post-modern approaches to narrative, or even use the word "narrative" at all (instead of just "storytelling"), NSN tends to be more traditional. They co-sponsor a big annual festival in Tennessee, organize a bi-annual conference, publish Storytelling Magazine, and host various discussion and special interest groups (such as in higher education, the environment, interfaith dialogue, etc.). There's a "once upon a time" quality to their work. What I like about NSN and member storytellers I've seen is an attention to craft. They're also a practical bunch, and they say, "From classrooms to boardrooms to operating rooms, storytelling is being used as an effective communications tool around the world." To wit, they have assembled a list of over 380 newspaper and magazine articles published since June 2003 that describe some of the many uses of storytelling. Check it out!

COMPASSION FOR THE CRIMINAL: In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes (subscription or purchase required) about how Texas lawyer Danalynn Recer, director of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE), aims to tell the life stories of criminal defendants during the penalty phase of a trial, so as to mitigate their punishment. Even people who have committed terrible crimes, such as rape or particularly gruesome murders, have a back-story: maybe they were abandoned or abused as children, or had injuries that caused brain damage, or suffered some other trauma that does not excuse but at least helps explain their actions. When juries hear those stories, they appear to be less likely to impose a death sentence on the defendant, and more likely to opt for life in prison. As Recer says in the article, "This is not some unknowable thing. This is not curing cancer. We know how to do this. It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone's life." It would seem that her clients' life stories affect not only jurors, but also Recer herself, who is quoted in the article as saying, "I don't apologize for saying I love my clients in all their complexity. We insist on seeing their humanity, despite what they've done. That's what mitigation is all about. I'm not motivated just to make the system fair. I'm motivated to help these broken and despised people. I'm in it to stand up for them."