Sunday, 28 February 2016

What goes where? – structure, content and medium

Please pick three…

Back in December, I realised that for the structure of the HayleyWorld app to work as I envisaged, I needed to rethink the number of topics for readers to select. Asking readers to select three topics of "conversation" with William Hayley at a time has always felt – and still feels – appropriate: picking one or two at at time would mean too many interruptions, while selecting more than three felt like asking for too much. 

Not a scientific approach, it's true, but sometimes it's worth listening to a gut reaction in the first instance… and then pivoting if, in user testing, you discover you've got it wrong.

Which, realistically, meant a choice between nine or twelve subjects/chapters.

Then my development partner Michael Kowalski mentioned that reaching the end of each topic and going straight on to the next one felt disorientating. He suggested contextual essays at the end of each topic.

I'd always planned to write a contextual essay on each major topic, but… not until much later in the process. Realising that I'd need at least two or three of these in time for user testing rather focused my mind. And changed it.

Recreate George Romney's Four Friends pic with Vangoyourself

Essays or documentaries?

Short, video documentaries, I realised, would probably be more appropriate. They
  • would better exploit the capabilities of digital tech
  • could ensure that a reader's "relationship" with me-as-biographer would be different in kind and quality than their relationship with Hayley (I want that to feel closer, more direct), and could act to deepen the latter
  • can contextualise more effectively, by taking readers to where stories actually happened
  • provide the opportunity for me to include a variety of voices and perspectives
  • (this was a major factor), because I edit video professionally, it feels like they'd be quicker and easier to construct than a well-written essay would be. I could be wrong there, though.
So - decision made. Implementation… will take a while longer, but I'm aiming to complete the first one within the next few weeks, with each short video centring on a couple of stories from William Hayley's life…

Pick three, three times

Meanwhile, I also decided to restrict the number of topics/chapters to nine. However, when I sat down* to do it, I couldn't squeeze all the material in. So there'll be twelve, which means readers will choose three topics, three times during the zoeography (with the last, unchosen three either delivered at the end, or not, as readers decide).

Once I'd done this, I needed to trawl through all 440-odd "pages", checking and amending keywords, to ensure that the right material appears in the right chapter(s): some content is relevant to more than one topic, so will appear in the first pertinent one the reader chooses.

Setting the tone

Then I needed to render the topic/chapter titles into authentically Hayleyan language. This demanded more trawling through material to find appropriate wording, and a lot more sitting down thinking*. 

Got there in the end, though, and the topics/chapters will be (in no particular order, for obvious reasons)…

Marriage & love
Parental duties, children & education
Death & dying
Sensibility & instances of friendship
Popular applause & emolument
The theatre
Mental infelicities
Religious & political topics
Literary occupations
The arts of painting and sculpture
Home & retirement

Better get down to storyboarding and arranging locations and interviews… If you'd like to be one of my subject experts - please email me.

* For sat down/sitting down and thinking, please read "lying on my back, eyes half-closed, mouth half-open with a small trail of dribble sparkling across my cheek". Essential part of the creative process, innit…

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

I'm not a story. But what am I?

This week, I'm returning to Galen Strawson's essay "I am not a story" in Zachary Leader's On Life-Writing –  read the essay on Aeon (the comments on the essay make fascinating reading) – about the relationship between story and identity in more depth, because its implications have been preoccupying me.

In the essay, Strawson challenges the veracity of the claim that we are our life stories. He quotes five or six philosophers, psychologists and novelists supporting this idea, including social psychologist Dan P McAdams:
"Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. Personal identity is the internalised and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives… I… do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity."
philosopher Daniel Dennett: "We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography"; and Oliver Sacks "Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”… this narrative is us"*.

His basic thesis is that while some, possibly even most people – "narrativists" – view their lives in story form, others, the non-narrativists – amongst whom he situates himself – don't.

It's partly a question of whether you are a diachronic or synchronic type: do you think/feel/view the world and your experiences chronologically, or more laterally? Do you, like Strawson and John Updike "‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’"? It's also about whether you believe, along with many others "that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life", or whether you have doubts or concerns. One Strawson raises – but dismisses – is the suggestion that if we do story our lives, and do so, as certain writers/thinkers claim, to show ourselves in the best possible light, then we are being inauthentic. He dismisses this because evidence suggests that, in general, we don't.

Grand narrative

Overall, his argument is with the idea of a grand, overarching life-story narrative, as opposed to something less coherent, more fragmentary. As I quoted in last week's post:
"For most of us … I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces".
I wrote then about the relationship of narrative, self-knowledge and wisdom, but have come back to the same subject because it's still nagging at me.

Back in the mid-90s, while working as Serpent's Tail's publicist, I was accompanying the author Pagan Kennedy while she was being interviewed by – if I remember rightly – Tim Adams for The Observer.

The story & the self

It wasn't long after Kennedy had published a graphic 'zine detailing her experiences of ovarian cancer. Adams expressed surprise and even a degree of concern about her willingness to publish such a personal experience (though I imagine he'd be less surprised in 2016). As if she was giving away part of her self.

After the interview, Pagan and I discussed this. From what I remember, neither of us felt that telling even highly personal stories gave away anything of ourselves. The act of revealing personal stories – where it was us doing the revealing, and I'm sure that's crucial – didn't feel exposing. Or like a giving up of the self. Knowing my story (or, rather, stories) doesn't mean someone knows me: self-narrative and the self feel quite different. And telling life stories can be a way of shielding ourselves, a way of keeping others at arms length, of shedding the parts we can do without, like the lizard's tail. A way, in other words, to avoid the dissipation of power.

narrative is power

Perhaps narrative – even more so than knowledge – is power. And the bigger and grander the narrative, the greater the expression of power: at least the power of the narrator over the audience. It's about what's left out, the complex, dissonant stuff. Smaller, more fragmented narratives can accommodate more dissonance.

It's about whether your story looks like this

beautifully explained by Stella Duffy here…

Or like this
Limited edition jigsaw by John Kimpton
… but perhaps with pieces missing.

Overall, the thing about narrative is that it's a function of time. Things happen over time, and that's life – and story. But the grand narrative? I agree with Strawson. That's not life. In fact, it's probably closer to propaganda^…

As for the answer to the question in the title? Nope. Don't have one. And don't necessarily want one. Don't think it matters…

* his examples aren't all male: I've just selected these three for the pithy quotes
^ or Big Fiction. Which I don't have the same objections to, at all…