Sunday, December 30, 2012


THE DRAMA IN EVERYDAY LIFE: (To play, click not on the play button on the center of the screen, but at the bicycle pedals.) Above, a funny little video making the rounds online (yes, it turns out to be an ad). It reminds me that miniature dramas are taking place all the time -- there's a story behind every incident of a stranger asking directions, every bicycle accident, every exchange of glances. Just that it's a matter of fine-tuning our attention to perceive those dramas. 

CREATING SUSPENSE ON "HOMELAND": Alex Gansa, showrunner and executive producer of the hit Showtime series "Homeland," had this to say in a New York Times Q&A about how the show builds suspense. "Our motto is, give up the secret before the audience expects it. Because you guys know it’s coming. The only way we can surprise you is to deliver it ahead of schedule. And sometimes letting a secret die with a character is the better twist." 

PROJECTING STORIES IN PUBLIC: An arresting piece of public art appeared in New York City's Union Square recently. Krzysztof Wodiczko's "Abraham Lincoln: War Veterans Projection" projected video interviews with Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam war veterans onto a statue of the late president.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012


FOLLOW THE EYE: The Poynter Institute, a Florida school for media and journalism, last month released the results of a study about tablet users' engagement with media. Using eye-tracking technology to study how people read stories on a iPad or other similar device, the research showed that "the way readers select a story influences the likelihood that they will read to completion," and emphasized "the importance of storytelling forms that keep the finger—and the brain—satisfied." Some of the more general research findings are intuitive, while others pointed to specific ways to keep readers hooked: "There was an average point at which people were likely to either commit, or to stop reading a story. Calling it the 'bail out point,' (78.3 seconds of reading), researchers suggest this might be a good benchmark for establishing a 'gold coin' to keep people reading—like a link, a question, a simple pullout quote or an informative visual element that keeps the reader engaged about halfway through a long story."  

GOLDEN BAOBOB PRIZE: As a kid, were you ever read -- or did you read yourself -- any children's stories from Africa? If you're like me, you may have read a couple picture books that had African characters in them, but rarely if ever that were fully African stories. The Golden Baobob Prize, which is awarded annually, has as its goal "to inspire the creation of African stories that children and young adults the world over will love." I like the model of a prize; it may or may not induce any talented authors to write a story they otherwise wouldn't, but it raises the profile and public esteem of prize-winning stories and authors, and legitimizes storytelling as a pursuit.  

THE EXISTENTIAL PRESENT (TENSE): A passage I like from a New York Magazine article on Kathryn Bigelow and Marc Boal's new film "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Bin Laden: "Most strikingly, Boal and Bigelow chose to keep Zero Dark Thirty as in-the-moment as possible. Virtually all we know of Maya and Dan is what we see them do onscreen. Their backgrounds, their personal lives, whatever decisions led them to the Islamabad prison where we first encounter them, are left for us to fill in, or—perhaps more to the point—to dismiss as irrelevant. 'Everyone says "backstory" like if you don’t have it, you’re missing a pillar of the house,' says Boal. 'I’m not a huge Freudian. When I meet somebody, I’m not interested in what they were doing when they were 6. I like characters that are defined in the very existential present tense.'"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Ming Cho Lee, from Yale website
Some selected snippets from a 1998 interview I did with Ming Cho Lee, a Tony Award-winning set designer for the theater, opera, and dance, and a longtime faculty member at the Yale School of Drama. 

How do you approach set design for a given play?

There’s no question that the leader of any production is the director. So usually, a designer shouldn’t begin until you have a conversation with the director... [I] read the play. Even if [I] know the play, I always re-read the play, make sure it’s a new experience. When I read the play, I try my best not to read it as a designer. I try to read it as if I’m an audience, seeing it or hearing it the first time, so that I have a very physical, emotional, total reaction rather than an analytic reaction. Often, another thing I do is that, if a place or a landscape is very clear—if the play indicates, say, Louisville, Kentucky, and I have been to Louisville—then I will refresh myself with all the streets and life and buildings in Louisville just to become part of the life of the play. If I have done the play before, then occasionally I prefer that there be some images or something that touches the sub-landscape of the play, rather than just the actuality.

What’s an example of dealing with the actuality of the play, and dealing with its sub-landscape, or its deeper thematic elements?

It is different, depending on the play. You’ve got to have a balcony for Romeo and Juliet, and you’ve got to have a bed for Othello. Without the bed, the scene just won’t happen. So there are requirements, but it doesn’t get so detailed that people are making coffee and they’re cooking scrambled eggs. If the play calls for realism, there’s nothing wrong with realism. But let’s say you’re dealing with Ibsen, that requires an extension that goes beyond realism. Nowadays, the more we read Ibsen, the more we feel that it is not just merely realistic; there [are] a lot of images, there’s a lot of subconscious landscape.

When working on a classic that is going to be set in the present day, what does that mean for you as a designer?

[When I do a play like that,] I’m not doing it because I say, “well, a contemporary audience does not have any connection to the Renaissance or Medieval times, and therefore we have to update it.” There’s a misguided arrogance in saying the audience is not as good as we are. On the other hand, it’s very important for me to be connected with the play, that the experience of the play is immediate… Designing a set has less to do with decoration than actually creating a world where human events take place.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


SANDY STORYLINE: A new project called Sandy Storyline has launched in beta, and calls itself a "participatory documentary about Hurricane Sandy and efforts to recover and rebuild our neighborhoods." Anyone in areas affected by Sandy can share their experience by calling the phone line, or uploading photos, audio or text from online or their cell phone. It's a beautifully designed site, which makes sense because the talented folks at Housing is a Human Right are involved (listen to my podcast interview with that group's leaders here), as are the MIT Center for Civic Media, Cowbird,, Occupied Stories, and others. The Sandy Storyline reflects the grassroots nature of the Occupy movement; to my mind, the Storyline is not just about efforts to recover and rebuild, but the project itself constitutes a kind of recovery and rebuilding. 

Central City, from
HEALING HISTORIES: Speaking of storytelling sites about hurricane-hit areas, I recently learned of and checked out Healing Histories, a collection of stories about the Central City district of New Orleans, organized by themes such as "Our History," "Our Homes," and "Our Neighbors." This pie-slice-shaped piece of land, right next to the famed Garden District, is known mostly for its high crime rate, but these professionally produced stories pull different threads out of the neighborhood's history and life, as residents talk about their efforts to build a true community. Compared to the participatory nature of the Sandy Storyline, this site feels a little top-down, but the strong stories and excellent presentation make for an interesting stroll through a neighborhood seen in a new light.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Ralph Appelbaum, image from Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Ralph Appelbaum Associates was founded in 1978, and is now the largest interpretive museum design firm in the world. Among its most famous commissions is the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which marks its 20th anniversary in 2013. Below are selections from a 1998 interview I did with Ralph Appelbaum about the USHMM exhibition design. Throughout the interview, Appelbaum emphasized that the design process was a team effort, citing the work of, among others, the Museum's first director, Jeshajahu "Shaike" Weinberg, documentary filmmaker Martin Smith, scholar and filmmaker Michael Berenbaum, as well as his own firm's staff. (A related post on this blog is my 2009 podcast interview with USHMM curator Steve Luckert.) 

Where did the Holocaust stand in your imagination before you began the design process? 

It clearly stood as a seminal event in my life. I was born in ‘42, and read the books that one reads since the war, and was always engaged in it because I grew up in a Jewish household. My folks had grown up during periods of antisemitism that affected them in their careers. And so, I was aware of it as part of the family story—what my mother went through in America, and father went through in America.  

The Holocaust is one of the most talked-about historical events. How did you think about designing an exhibition that would make a new and powerful statement? 

There was a decision when we started the project to try to create a new body of visual and written information. We fielded photo researchers in all twenty countries affected by the Second World War. We also, through the curators, developed a comprehensive timeline of all the events that occurred. With an ultimate goal of expanding the dynamic [of victim and perpetrator], to add a third player, who was the bystander, and to deal with the dynamic of what happened between these three characters. To look at it not so much as an event of what Germans did to Jews, but what human beings can do to each other, given the right set of conditions. And to play it out without utilizing information that we couldn’t corroborate. So you never see the number six million, because we couldn’t actually corroborate the exact number.  

Tell me about the basic structure of the story the Museum tells.  

The story is told as a play in three acts, with the first floor being all the events that led up to the invasion of Poland. The second floor deals with the actual war against the Jews. The third floor deals with the aftermath and resolution of the event. Even knowing those three big building blocks is very powerful for many visitors who don’t know about it at all.  

You’ve talked about creating an experience in time and space for Museum visitors. What does that mean?  

Let me describe an older generation of exhibit-making. The museums were essentially generic in their type. They look like the Met or like the British Museum or like many museums, with the great steps and Ionic columns and a pediment and a central hall with a dome, or not, that led off into a collection of galleries which oftentimes grew opportunistically. One gallery didn’t necessarily relate to the next gallery. If it was a natural history museum, you could have Northwest coast Indians next to New York state farms next to meteorites. Museums grew as knowledge grew, and most of the collections were held behind a window, in a protected showcase. And where the viewer was really an observer. The newer thinking behind museums is to create an environment that uses more of the available tools of environment-making: media, video, performance art, theater and lighting and performance and smells and temperature and an interior architecture that make the story come alive. There are parts of [the Museum] where you’re constricted in your movement, because the story is a story of constriction and isolation and compression.  

How did the question of the Jewish core of the Holocaust play in the exhibition design? Was there a concern that an event with a Jewish core would not be of interest to non-Jews? 

The first question we asked ourselves was, "Why should Americans care about an event that happened in Europe to Jews forty or fifty years ago?" And we realized the answer [was] in the last words of the preamble [to the U.S. Constitution], which was to insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And so the very first image that anyone sees when they enter the Museum is American GIs who are entering Germany and are parking their trucks around a giant funeral pyre of burned bodies, wondering, what is this about? And you can see the trucks belching smoke in the background, and everyone [has] their goggles off and dirt on their faces. It’s an amazing photograph that we printed very large. And the second thing people see are the very first color photographs taken by George Stevens as he entered the camps and entered Europe with the First Army, showing Americans the very first American photography of the event. And the next thing you see is an Army photograph of a lone survivor of a death camp, and then a picture of Eisenhower looking over the camps and a letter from him saying that if anyone wants to know what really happened here, ask [him]—offering to bear witness to what he saw, and ultimately why it’s important for Americans to care.  

The possible use of human hair in the exhibition was hotly debated. The hair itself didn’t end up in the exhibit, but what was the significance of the debate?  

As we were looking for evidence, I found myself in a room almost knee-deep in human hair, and we asked if we could get some, and they said yes. To us it seemed to play out the message of the story. When it was presented, it caused the most dramatic upheaval in survivors, who were pretty tough folks. But they felt this was going a step too far. Women survivors who sat on our board … felt it was just too painful. When they had their heads shaved, it was a symbol of the loss of their personhood. There were other people who felt that maybe it’s their mother’s hair in that pile. And so instead, we sent a photographer to Germany to take a photograph of the room where all the hair was stored, and that’s what appears in the Museum, is a large color photograph of this room of hair. ... When we designed the entrance to the railcar, everyone went through the railcar. And one of the women survivors on the committee said, “Look, I’m not going through that railcar again. There has to be a way for those of us who went on those railcars to not be in them again.” And so we created a special bypass that allows people to avoid that part of the experience, because of her, that one person, really. It seemed to us, as long as one person said it, what could we do? 

Does this mean that you as designers are ultimately responsible to Holocaust survivors? Are they the final arbiters in the design process? 

No, but how could one not? It’s rare that one can tell a historical story while the participants are still alive. It’s still journalism then, in a way. I think it is appropriate to have sensitivities to the living. That doesn’t mean that one day, years from now, some of these items wouldn’t come back on display. But no, I wouldn’t say that it was for them. We understood them as critically important parts of the story, but not the only part of the story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Literary translator Gregory Rabassa, photo from SUNY/Albany
Many years ago, I studied Russian, Spanish, and some American Sign Language. I idolized translators and interpreters, and one of my biggest heroes was Gregory Rabassa, most famous for his translation of Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." (His 2005 memoir is also a real treat, "If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents.") Here was a guy whose translation of one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature was reportedly praised by García Márquez himself as being better than the Spanish original. I got a chance to speak with Rabassa back in 1998. We met at a coffee shop near his apartment in New York City, and I was pleased to find that this titanic figure was thoroughly friendly. Here is a little snippet from our interview. 
Assuming that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, what is the next best thing?

That depends on the definition of translation. The fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation is part of the definition of translation. We think too much in terms of the ideal, that translation is possible in that sense. I don’t think it is. Translation is an approximation.

Is it possible to translate culture?

That’s the problem. Words are culture. When you translate something—back to the idea of perfect translation—you really aim to translate the spirit of the word rather than the word. Too much emphasis is given on the translating the word.

Does the translator ever play the role of editor?

No, I think the translator should leave that to the editor. That goes to the parable of the editor, the writer and the agent who are on safari. They got lost from their group, and suddenly found themselves in the middle of the desert, no palm trees or anything, and they get to the end of their rope. Finally, they see palm trees in the distance, and they hope it’s not a mirage. They get there, and it’s an oasis. In the middle of the oasis is a nice little pool of water. So the agent and the writer plunge into the water, they’re drinking it, and they look up and see the editor pissing into it. They ask, “What in the world are you doing?” The editor says, “I’m making it better.” Which is what editors always say they’re doing. Translators shouldn’t edit, except with the assent of the author. Translators do edit somewhat, but it’s minor. You don’t really improve; you drop prepositions, you change the syntax a little bit, verb forms.

Can different translations of a book change the entire meaning of a book? Can they be that radically different?

It has to do with time, I think. The originals last, but translations get dated so easily. In Russian, Constance Garnett did a wonderful job of introducing the stuff, but the translations are no good for us anymore, because we’re in the 20th century and they sound very Victorian. I knew something was wrong when I first read Russian novels. I could see that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were two completely different people, and yet they sounded alike [in Garnett’s translations]. I thought, this couldn’t be. What it was was that Constance Garnett was making them both sound like her.

Technical translators have to have expertise in engineering or whatever other field they're working in. Do literary translators have to be experts in literature?

No, I don’t think so. The only expertise would be, I think you would have to have read, a lot of reading, so that expressions can come back out of you. The experience would just be building up your literary sense. You’re not analyzing, unless you’re asked to write a preface.

Have you ever considered re-translating books you’ve already translated?

They’ll all be translated again. Translations just don’t seem to last. I don’t like to re-read a translation of mine ten years later, because I start getting second thoughts.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


This time on the podcast, a story about the recent Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," which featured black and Latino actors in the lead roles. The show has closed on Broadway, but is heading soon to London's West End. The story includes commentary by the show's director Emily Mann, philosopher Cornel West, and others. As always, listen to the podcast on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

This segment was originally produced for WNYC Radio's arts show, "Studio 360." Big thanks to that show's Senior Editor David Krasnow.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


The latest episode of the podcast is a conversation with Jonathan Mitchell, the producer "The Truth," an excellent new podcast of short-form audio drama, which its tagline pithily describes as "movies for your ears." Listen to the conversation on the audio player above, or subscribe to Inside Stories on iTunes. Jonathan talks about where the show's title comes from, what fiction does that other forms can't, and how he works with improvisational actors; you'll also hear clips from previous episodes of "The Truth." Then go check out "The Truth" for yourself. You'll be glad you did -- it rules.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


WORTH logo
In this Mother's Day episode of the podcast, we visit the Monday night writing group of WORTH -- short for Women On the Rise Telling HerStory -- a New York City-based advocacy and leadership organization for women prisoners past and present. At this session of the group, participants write about mothers and motherhood. How can writing about your mom increase your leadership abilities? And what are the conditions of many women who give birth in prison? This and more in this episode! I hope you'll visit the website of WORTH, to learn more about the organization, make a donation, or get involved in their "Birthing Behind Bars" campaign on pregnancy and other reproductive justice issues in prison.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


The latest podcast episode is a conversation with Will Cantler, a casting director with Telsey + Company, and an artistic director at MCC Theater, both in New York City. I was interested to hear how a casting director helps put flesh on the bones of a story for the theater, film, or television. Will and I talked about that and his 26-year labor of love, the MCC Theater, which produces excellent new plays, has a playwright development workshop, and a super education and outreach program. You can listen to this episode on the player above, or subscribe to the podcast for free on iTunes. (Photo of Will Cantler from

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Another in a series of posts of "Stories about stories" -- segments from "This American Life" and other sources that are about storytelling itself.

"RETRACTION": The entire last episode of This American Life is a discussion of why the show had to retract an earlier episode, which was of theater artist Mike Daisy's "reporting" on Apple Computer's manufacturing practices in China. Turns out that Mike Daisy made up a bunch of the material to make it more dramatic. He half defends himself by saying this was a theater piece, not journalism, but admits that he should never have passed it off to This American Life as fact. And in an exchange between Daisy and TAL host Ira Glass, there are some of the most uncomfortable moments -- and longest silences -- I've heard on radio! It's not only compelling listening, but further demonstration of This American Life's integrity. A great story about storytelling, fact vs. fiction, journalistic responsibility, and the like.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


STORYTELLING IN JAPANESE ART: The Metropolitan Museum has up an impressive show on the topic through May 6. And, handily, they have some great images and explanatory text on their website, so click the link above. The stories are as varied as the format -- myths, war stories, tales of adventure and romance, told through text and illustrations on playing cards, folding panels, and, most interestingly, long scrolls. The scrolls are especially evocative of time; sure, there's the sense of time passing in a bound book as you turn the pages, but as you read the scrolls from one end to the next there's a sense of the flow of time, of events literally rolling out before you. These are, of course, metaphors for how real-life events happen -- they unfold or roll out, or you turn the page. Perhaps as our reading formats change yet again, we'll soon be saying "swipe the screen" to connote the same thing. But I digress, check out the Met's page on the show!

GROUNDSWELL: ORAL HISTORY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE: A network billing itself as "Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change" has launched its website. Groundswell includes "oral historians, activists, cultural workers, community organizers, and documentary artists," and they "use oral history and narrative in creative, effective and ethical ways to support movement building and transformative social change." They have a thoughtful report on their inaugural 2011 gathering, and are set to offer a "Practitioner Support Network," future gatherings, and other resources. 

NARRATIVE THEOLOGY AT MARS HILL BIBLE CHURCH: Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and founded by (now) best-selling author Rob Bell has what it calls a "narrative theology." All faiths and denominations and houses of worship tell stories, and "narrative theology" has been around for decades (e.g. Hans Frei). Still, I haven't seen a church that so clearly states that storytelling is its very mode of theology: "The word theology comes from two Greek words: 'theos', meaning 'God', and 'logos', meaning 'word'. So theology is words about God. When we put to words what we believe about God, we discover that God has been writing a story of hope and redemption for all the world. This story is a movement from creation to new creation, and God has given us a role to play in that story, in the restoration of our relationships with God, each other, ourselves, and creation. Since story is central to our belief about God, our words about God—our theology—exists in the form of a narrative." The church's website also has a space for members' personal stories of faith, and stories of good works they want to highlight. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Another installment in a series of "Stories About Stories," in which I post segments from This American Life and other sources, about storytelling itself. 

"MARRIAGE AS RERUN: Many couples eventually encounter this problem: One person in the couple trots out the same story over and over, and the other person has to just listen. But what do the stories we tell in front of our significant others mean, and what do the significant others really think of them? Ira talks to three couples about the stories they've each told and heard countless times, and why. One couple is John Hodgman and his wife Catherine Hodgman. Another couple is RadioLab co-host Robert Krulwich and his wife Tamar Krulwich. Robert and Tamar's story, which involves Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was also illustrated by Chris Ware and animated by John Kuramoto in an episode of our television show. (16 minutes)" 

"INSIDE THE ROMANCE INDUSTRY: Robin Epstein visits people who define this thing called love—for a living. She attends the annual convention of the Romance Writers of America. (17 minutes)"

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The third installment in a series of "Stories About Stories," in which I post segments from This American Life (and occasionally other sources) about storytelling itself.

"THE FAMILY THAT READS TOGETHER: The story of a book that changed a family's life, but only temporarily and not for the better. David Sedaris describes what happens when he finds a dirty book in the woods and shares it with his sisters. This story is published in Sedaris' book Naked. (9 minutes)"

"NOTE TWO: FEAR: Sure, kids today are sophisticated. But get them living in the woods for a few days, and they revert to some of the most stupidly primitive forms of entertainment known since the dawn of civilization. Specifically: they love scary stories. Every camp has a camp ghost story. We hear one. And we go with the Sioux cabin of ten year olds as they try an experiment in fear, in the dark, in front of a mirror in their cabin. (7 minutes)."

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Here's the second installment in a series of "Stories About Stories," in which I post stories from "This American Life" and other sources that are about storytelling itself. In preparation for Valentine's Day, these two stories deal at least loosely with romantic love. The first, of course, is about the mother of all "stories about stories," namely "The Arabian Nights." The second is a hilarious take on how reality TV might just have to coax drama into being -- fictional, but somehow I imagine it mimics pretty closely what goes on behind the scenes of reality TV. 

"WHO DESERVES WHAT: The story of The Arabian Nights is actually 350 or 400 stories, depending on how you count them. Many of the stories are stories of impossible love, including the very last story in the whole epic tale—the story of Jasmine and Almond. Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago director who adapted The Arabian Nights for stage, explains the story and reads from it. (5 minutes)"

"GOSSIP: ACT TWO: Chicago writer Rebecca Makkai bring us the story of a reality television producer attempting to gossip love into existence—and just how complicated that gets. This fiction story originally appeared in the journal Crazyhorse. Rebecca is the author of the novel The Borrower, and 'The November Story' is part of her collection-in-progress Music for Wartime. (18 minutes)"

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Here's the first post in a new series, which I will descriptively call "Stories About Stories." The WBEZ radio program This American Life is known, of course, for its excellent stories -- mostly factual, with the very occasional fiction tossed in. In each installment of this series of blog posts, I'll link to one or more This American Life stories that are about stories or storytelling itself. (I may also sneak in the occasional story about stories from other sources.) Meta enough for you? 

"SUPER DUPER: Josh Bearman's favorite story was told to him by his super. It involved these elements: A gas station, a beautiful woman, an orchid, a snowman, Indonesia, and a check for $30,000. But when Josh decided to try and publish the story in a magazine, it changed everything. (13 minutes)"

Sunday, January 29, 2012


PRESIDENT LINCOLN, STORYTELLER: A post by historian Louis P. Masur on the New York Times "Disunion" blog, about President Lincoln's renown as a storyteller. (Image above is from that NYT blog post.) Masur writes: "Lincoln loved to tell stories. Anyone who met with him commented on his endless supply of anecdotes and jokes. Count Adam Gurowski, a Polish exile who worked in the State Department, observed, 'In the midst of the most stirring and exciting -- nay, death-giving -- news, Mr. Lincoln has always a story to tell.' Ralph Waldo Emerson found it delightful: 'When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with great satisfaction, & Shows all his white teeth, & laughs.' Walt Whitman saw something else in Lincoln's storytelling; he thought it was a 'weapon which he employ'd with great skill.' " An interesting post, well worth a read.  

STORIES AND COMMUNITY PLANNING: CommunityMatters is a commons for people and organizations to build "strong, vibrant communities from the ground up." Here's the podcast of an hour-long conference call they sponsored last week on "Storytelling for Community Planning," featuring facilitator Barbara Ganley, Betsy Rosenbluth of the Orton Family Foundation, and participants from around the country. They discuss how stories can be used to identify values, strengthen relationships, and guide the community planning process. Also available on the site are notes from the call.

MIDDLE AGE AS A "STORY WE TELL ABOUT OURSELVES": A Slate podcast interview with New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, whose new book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, traces the social history of the idea of middle age -- which was not always seen as a discrete phase of life. At one point in the podcast, Cohen says that middle age is perhaps best defined as "a story that we tell about ourselves. We all try and make sense of our lives in some way. We construct a narrative. It can be a narrative of redemption, of triumph, of loss, of grief. And we put these into a kind of narrative as we go along. At one point the story of middle age was a story of power and influence, and over time it changed to become a story of decline, and now I think it's in flux again."

Sunday, January 22, 2012


2 6 PRINCIPLES from Narativ Circle on Vimeo.

NARATIV E-COURSE: Narativ is an organization that trains corporations, nonprofits, and individuals on how to listen to and tell stories. In exchange for your name and email address, you get access to the workbook and six short videos they have in their free e-course. In the first video in the series, above, the organization's co-founder Murray Nossel states the organization's six storytelling principles, starting with the notion that "Our brains are hard-wired for story." (I also wrote briefly about Narativ here. Also read this article in Forbes Magazine about Murray and the Narativ method. 

OBAMA MINES DATA FROM AMERICANS' STORIES: Here's a fascinating Slate article by Sasha Issenberg about President Obama's "Dreamcatcher" project. That project uses scientific methods to analyze data from the stories that constituents submit online, so that the Administration can better understand -- and respond to -- the hopes and fears of the electorate. This effort calls to mind three other projects I've written about, namely a GlobalGiving project to assess a community's needs and interests by analyzing its "micro-narratives"; the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency's study of "Narrative Networks," to understand propaganda and prevent terrorism; and an MIT professor's attempts to teach a computer to understand stories. Together, these projects indicate a scientific approach to stories, their content, meaning, and appeal.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Here's the beginning of a post I wrote for the Orton Family Foundation's blog, "Cornerstones." Click here to visit their blog and read the whole post, which is about the stories that social movements tell to and about themselves.

Like other gay bars of the 1950s and 1960s, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was subject to regular police raids. Mostly, patrons were so afraid of being exposed and losing their jobs, livelihoods, families and reputations that they suffered silently through the raids. But that would only go so far.

Denizens of the Stonewall included lesbians, gay men and transgendered people, some of whom had little to lose, and for whatever reason they had reached a breaking point. When the police raided the bar on June 28, 1969, patrons fought back. The riots that took place marked a confrontational new tack in the fight for LGBT rights. And in the years since, annual marches—now known as Pride Parades—have taken place the last weekend of June in cities around the world.
That, in a nutshell, is the origin story of the modern LGBT rights movement. Told, retold, contested and continually adapted, it is just one of the stories about where the movement comes from and what it stands for.... Continue reading here.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


SMART PROGRAMS READ SHAKESPEARE: Happy new year! In recognition of the approaching robot war -- didn't the Mayans predict this for 2012, or am I mistaken? -- a "Studio 360" radio segment called "Smart Computers Read Shakespeare." MIT computer scientist Patrick Winston (pictured) says that, in order for computer intelligence to become creative, we have to teach it to understand stories. This segment is part of an interesting episode called "Are Computers Creative?" Also pertinent to narrative is the segment on 420-character stories

LITERATURE ON TWITTER: More on the topic of ultra-short literature. An RW Deutsch Foundation blog post from this past summer on "Serious Twitterature: The Online Future of the Novel." The post explores how a novel, albeit a relatively short one, can be written or released over the course of time in 140-character tweets. The author writes, "As a forum for new types of literary work, Twitter's greatest asset is its ability to capture a story in real-time" -- but that's also weakness, because works produced on Twitter are particular to their time.