It always helps to have a good question.
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” is a pretty good question. It opens up not only his dilemma but ours too, as to the fundamental why of our existence. The Special Prosecutor’s ” How much did he know and when did he know it?” was the question that helped unlock Watergate and implicate President Nixon. And “Truth? What is Truth? is the one Jesus gets asked, and one we still struggle to answer.
A good question is a wonderful tool in focusing our attention, as much as it is a means to get a right answer. It tells us to pay attention here, notice that, or it warns us where not to get sidetracked or hoodwinked. Stay with the question, we tell ourselves, even when the answer we get is a total disconnect.
When it comes to narrative analysis, the incisive question that opens it all up is not the obvious”What is the story?” but “What is the story of the story?” It is a question that gives us narrative room to step back from the immediacy of the story experience and to declare some space, invite some light. It declares a moratorium in the in-between of what was offered for consumption and how it was cooked. Or to shift metaphors, it makes us get curious as to where and how this story has moved to get from where it was first witnessed or assembled or imagined, to where we are hearing or reading it. What is the story of that in-between? Or Who moved my story-not my cheese?
We normally think of a story as a noun, as a thing, a piece of content, but when we think of it as a dynamic system of meaning-making, we open up a richer description of the process. It turns “story” into a verb. How are they storying this? Not ‘What is the story of Obama’s UN visit?’ but ‘Why are they storying the visit this way?’ Not “What is the story of Obama and race?” but ‘How does race get storied into these issues? ‘ What is the story of the story? Once story becomes a verb, it becomes a much more powerful tool for analysis.
What are we on about here? Another great question. In other words, what is the story of our story? (Get used to asking that question.)
We want to create a way by which we as citizens can more consciously give consent to the stories we allow to shape our public conversations and seep into our private lives. And we seek to empower citizens to more consciously refuse to give some BIG stories any power if they feel they are distorting our sense of what is important .
The stories in the public forum set an agenda of issues that we are supposed to care about, and sometimes too easily drown out the personal and local stories which are just as important to us. With the demise of the local radio and the local newspaper, media empires now dominate the local scene, and they manufacture and distribute their stories like General Motors sells cars. We as a nation are in danger of being homogenized and pasteurized into talking always about the same thing, only taking our cues from this story industrial complex (SIC) that is selling their story, rather than telling ours. They can all appear in their ads to reassure us,”We are on your side,” but we know that’s hokum. Our purpose is to wise up, to wake up, and for us all to become storywise.
The anti-war movement used to have a great saying-What if the government declared war but no one came. Well, what if the media or the government told us their BIG huge story-about Afghanistan or about Terrorism, or about Health Reform, or about financial regulation, and we didn’t listen, because that wasn’t our story at all. When you are out of work, or when your kids are struggling at school, or when your mother is ill, these are your stories because this is your life. Another surge in Afghanistan? That can wait.
And if we did get a chance to tell our story, our story might remind people that Hamlet’s question sometimes jumps out of the scene in a play and into our lives in a way that the media or our politicians never seem to grasp.