Friday, September 20, 2013

TIPRR#3 - Media Literacy, Story, and Creation

According to Cmdr. David G. Smith[1], the U.S. military has begun changing gears in training recruits. In accordance with advances in behavioral science, instead of promoting cohesion by dehumanizing individuals, they are teaching recruits about the history of their service. Thus far it is a measurably more effective means of increasing their camaraderie and ability to attach and commit to their unit.[2]
That story would be more powerful than force in creating real, measurable change in the values and commitments of a people should not be surprising.  As Peter Forbes[3] said, “You cannot demand a different world, you have to inspire it.”[4]
Indeed, it is increasingly apparent that what constitutes the culture of any group or civilization is the story that they share and the values inherent therein.  Harold Goddard said, “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.”[5]
Forbes seemed especially concerned about what happens when intentional and value based stories are replaced in our culture by “inauthentic” stories used in advertising.  He relayed a strong argument for valuing story more prominently as a culture, and using it to more virtuous ends.
Forbes quoted Ben Okri as saying, “Stories are the secret reservoir of our values.”  Okri has also said, “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation….Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.”

There needs to be a cultural revolution in recognizing that story is an inextricable part of the human experience. That humans require stories to function is evidenced by the effectiveness of narrative-based advertising.  “You’re not selling product x, you’re selling a story.”  That we keep buying these stories (by buying the products that promise those stories to us), is evidence for the role of story in human development. Unfortunately, as Forbes expressed, the consumption of such stories leads to disconnection, rather than the connection that we need from our stories. In Crow and Weasel, Barry Lopez[6] says, “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. “

Forbes strongly promoted the use of story as an impetus for constructive social change.  He says that stories should be about relationships and communities, not about products or consumerist appetites. Leslie Marmon Silko[7] agrees, stating, “I will tell you something about stories …They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, All we have to fight off illness and death.” Forbes points out that in order to create positive social change, the culture has to be re-storied.  Legislative action is inadequate because “laws codify values – they don’t create them,” and the culture will not maintain a law that is not in-line with the collective story and values of its people.

The Co-Intelligence Institute has said, in The Story Paradigm[8], “Story can help us deal with causation, comparison, function, implications and context, as well. But it goes beyond understanding, description and control into the realm of mutual involvement, a realm where analytical reason becomes reductionist, inadequate to the task. The more nuanced, subjective, interactive and non-measurable a relationship is, the more story surpasses analysis in dealing with it.”  This is congruent with Forbes’ argument that story can be more potent than rhetoric.  “Stories help us imagine the future differently… a new story that helps people find their way out of the old story.”

Forbes indicated that authentic stories will define wealth as being about relationships, and not money.  Story itself is a powerful binder for catalyzing and maintaining healthy relationships.  In a 2013 New York Times article[9], Dr. Marshall Duke said that in studying children after 9/11, “[Those] who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could [better] moderate the effects of stress.”  He indicates that those who have a strong sense of the story of their family and community, beyond their own experience, had a stronger relationship with their families and a better resiliency toward life experience. Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he … call[s] a strong “intergenerational self.” “They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

Stories frame the way we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world we interact with. Robert McKee has said, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”

Stories are valuable both on an individual level and collectively.  The experience of encountering and processing or internalizing a story is definitive.  But so is the experience of crafting a story.  The digitally connected age in which we live has the potential to give voice to many more stories, but it also alters the author/audience paradigm.  If more people view themselves as contributors to an overarching community of story, the authority and exclusivity of authorship may be diminished, but the invested community grows.

In his interview with Henry Jenkins[10], David Gauntlett said that “Through making things, you feel more of a participant in the world, and you feel more a part of it, more embedded because you are contributing, not just consuming, so you’re more actively engaged with the world, and so, more connected.”  He emphasized that the value of creativity is not necessarily the output or product of creation, but the unquantifiable “happiness” associated with the process of creating. 

This certainly applies to authorship and story, as well as to any facet of participating in a creative act. This unquantifiable happiness is described by Deiter F. Uchtdorf[11]: “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.  No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before
The process of participating in creation, even the broadly-defined “everyday creativity” described by Gauntlett, fulfills Joseph Campbell’s[12] experience of being alive: “People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life... I think that what we're really seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we can actually feel the rapture of being alive.” 

By broadening the definition of “creativity” to include anyone joyfully making something they have not made before, Gauntlett creates a paradigm that allows for the voice, experience, and perspective of any willing storyteller to be valuable, when constructed into a narrative creation.  This democratic definition invites the statement by Karen von Blixen-Finecke (pen name Isak Dinesen), “To be a person is to have a story to tell.”

There was concern, however, coming from Amy Ogata’s interview with Jenkins[13] that promoting the creativity of everyone, especially children, has in the past become a commercial construction that aims to “overlook difference while simultaneously selling exclusivity.”  She said it is “hard to escape the rhetoric of creativity used to sell items for kids.”  Indeed, when creativity itself becomes a story used by advertisers to promote consumer culture, then the value of the individual voice becomes a double-edged sword.

It may be helpful to revisit Forbes’ insistence that story, and possibly creativity, should be about relationships and communities, rather than commodities. There is certainly rich potential for enriching use of creative story-building here.  The creation of narrative can serve as an exploration of one’s own experiences and identity.  The process can accomplish finding the meaning and clarity that Robert McKee mentioned.

There has been much made of the psychological and physiological benefits of composing one’s own story, and giving voice to one’s own perspective, even if the result is never shared with a separate audience.  Dr. James Pennebaker[14] has explored this concept extensively and his research shows that the process of organizing one’s thoughts and experiences into a story has manifold benefits for the creator, regardless of whether their creation is ever shared.  Even those who immediately burned their narratives saw benefits.  The creative process of organizing and constructing a story is universally beneficial, as Gauntlett may have suspected.

[14] Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James Pennebaker, PhD

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