Sunday, October 30, 2011

WEEKEND ROUND-UP: HALLOWEEN, GRIOTS, AND STORYWORLD


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 INFLUENCING MACHINE: BROOKE GLADSTONE ON THE MEDIA"

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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

WEEKEND ROUND-UP: STORYVERSE, ECONOMICS, AND TELLABRATION EVENTS



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 Slate.com 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

WEEKEND ROUND-UP: THE NATIONAL STORYTELLING FESTIVAL


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

THE CRAFT OF HISTORY: CHRISTA ORTH ON THE WORK LIVES OF PORTLAND QUEER PEOPLE



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!