Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Pause and Effect" and Texas Tech


My doctoral studies at Texas Tech University officially have begun, and that's especially good news for the blog here at brettoppegaard.com. My first class is focused on online publishing, under the direction of Dr. Rich Rice, and one of my regular assignments is to make blog posts. So here they come.
We are reading “Pause and Effect” by Mark Stephen Meadows, and I have to say, once I started this book, I couldn't wait until the next chance I had to read more. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the design is fascinating. If I can use this word in an academic environment, I'd call it breezy. Yet full of interesting and complex ideas. Meadows maintains that in the context of storytelling, perspective is the only thing that exists. Which makes me think back to Tom Wolfe's four classic techniques of narrative writing: 1. Scene by scene construction. 2. Status life (details in the writing that serve as symbols of status) 3. Extended dialogue, and 4. Point of view.

Point of view is particularly difficult to use in nonfiction writing, I think, because of the inability to really get inside someone else's head, making the writer always wonder if truth really is being conveyed. It's also hard to stay focused on that point of view when telling a story, because there are so many other interesting perspectives pulling the writer in different directions as the action unfolds. Yet, I've found that switching point of view, or at least very much, can be extremely disorienting to readers and cause meaning and details to get lost in that haze. So a stable point of view, in my opinion, is important at least as a reference point.
Meadows makes the assertion that the development of the modern story-making technologies -- and the idea that all of us now have stories to tell and can freely tell them, at any moment, to everyone -- gives power to the concept of interactive narrative. And that style of storytelling gives power to the reader as much or more than the author, at least in the best case scenario. Instead of Wolfe's four building blocks, Meadows says the plot of interactive narrative gets constructed on foreground, background, context and decision. The reader decides what to do, and how to do it, in that setting, and the more freedom (combined with some sense of purpose, I would hope) that's left with the reader of an interactive narrative, the more engaged they feel. The more engaged and invested, the more attention will be paid to the narrative. The more attention, the higher the reputation is built. All of this building toward the ultimate satisfaction, whatever that is, in the minds of everyone involved. Whether that means selling more stories, or breaking free from a mundane life, or teaching and learning, the abstractness of this approach is a fabulous goal. But it also seems to me that an interactive narrative must have purpose, not a purpose, but purpose in general, or why bother? We tell stories for a reason. Or, better yet, for reasons. And maybe the reader makes up their own reasons, too, but something has to be gained from the endeavor. Meadows notes that there are no plots to a Microsoft Excel document, and that makes them a very weak form of narrative (company starts, company doesn't make money, company closes), or maybe not even a narrative at all (Wolfe, I suspect, would retch at the thought of such a thing being classified as narrative).
Which brings us back to Meadows contention that all storytelling is perspective. I recall the anecdote of a city editor who once took his cub reporter to a large window in their skyscraper office, which overlooked the cityscape. The editor waved his hand out over the scene and said, “There are a million stories out there ... and most of them are crap. Go out and find the great ones!” Or something like that. Interactive narrative, like any other kind of narrative, has to have something compelling about it to succeed, I believe. It can't be just hoop jumping, of course. But it also can't just be pretty. It can't just be expansive. Even "The Sims" and "EverQuest" have significant storyline moments that exist, and perspectives to follow, without which I doubt either would have been successful. The balance has to come from meshing the aspects of interactive narrative, providing the environment and context but also some story engine inside of it that makes the exploration worthwhile.

Questions this raises: What role, if any, does perspective and storytelling have on portfolio-like home pages or classroom blogs? Can these ideas, which I agree are at the highest level of storytelling techniques, be used in every case? I've had this argument many times about nonfiction journalism, and I think narrative techniques can be used in just about every situation. That makes me think this is the case here, too, but I just haven't been able to get my mind around that yet. Anyone found any examples of a professional home page that reads like a story? That's what I'd like to do.

1 comment:

Carie said...

Hi, Brett. I'm in your TTU class, and I too am a new PhD student. I enjoyed reading your review of our first reading.

I agree that a narrative must be compelling to succeed; unfortunately, many author narratives focus on the author rather than the audience, so the audiences aren't always compelled! I have read so many articles or attended presentations that didn't compel me because the author only cared about speaking and didn't think about my listening! Because I have experienced that, I want to ensure that my audiences don't experience that!

I also agree that nonfiction writing is particularly difficult. I'll use technical communication instead of nonfiction writing, because really, we can say any expression of truth is difficult, particularly when we have no way to know our audience and follow up to ensure that the audience understands the information we present. I like your statement that a "stable point of view...is important...as a reference point" (p3). I'll need to mull over that idea to better define my response, but I relate to your idea.

By the way, I admire your page. I have a lot to learn, and I hope you will share some of your knowledge!

Thanks, Brett. Have a nice (long) weekend. "See" you in class.