Mapping and storytelling

As a child, I drew maps. Maps which had our family house at the centre and a web of suburban streets radiating out from it, to the various destinations my parents would drive me to school, the shops, friends’ houses and so on. I liked plotting the various routes you could take to get to these places. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was constructing a narrative about me and my family in those maps, about the places which were important to us and the people who surrounded us.

I have been reminded of this recently by Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I found it in a bookshop in New York City, 3 blocks west and one block north from the apartment I was staying in. The book itself was lying flat on top of a row of other books in the sociology section. I think none of the staff knew exactly where to put it, so it inhabited no particular place in the bookshop’s own aisles – the streets of a bookshop – labelled by genre or topic. It was misplaced on its own map.

I can understand how. It’s a difficult book to categorise. It’s a series of short essays about the relationships between maps and stories – about how mapmaking is storytelling, and storytelling mapmaking. I want to capture just three of the many ideas it presents about this shared territory, and reflect on what it might mean for recording and seeking meaning from the narratives of individuals.

The map as the message

To view a map is to be invited to read someone’s world view. If you looked at my 5-year-old self’s view of my hometown and attempted to find your way from one end of it to the other, it would have been sadly inadequate. But you would have gained an understanding of how I navigated around it, about was important to 5-year-old me and what activities filled my days.

Sandridge amount mountains at Ulampara
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Sandridge among mountains at Ulampara 1972

Maps are informed by the mapmaker’s ideas, but they also communicate those ideas. The mapmaker gets to select what features are recorded and what is left out. Maps made by the earliest European explorers of Australia, for instance, might show large featureless spaces in the middle of the continent, reinforcing notions of terra nullius. But if we could ask the local Indigenous populations of the time to show us their maps of the same regions, they would no doubt be filled with symbols describing the features of the landscape, navigating paths for the reader through geographic and mythological territory.

Stories, Turchi argues, are like this. Objectivity is impossible and what’s missing is as important as what’s included. Who’s telling the story and their intentions colour the work. The reader stops being a passive taker of direction and has to ask herself what knowledge is being proffered, what the gaps in that knowledge are and what motivations lie behind the selectivity of the mapmaker.

But we can take an extra step here and imagine the part that the mapmaker’s objectivity (or the lack of it) plays in encouraging the reader to enter their ideological world. Because as Turchi says, to actually use a map – to rely on it to get you from one end of town to another – is to subscribe temporarily to the mapmakers’ beliefs. “To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmakers’ culture,” he writes, which might give us pause for thought the next time Google Maps tells us to take a certain toll road or suggests we fill up at a nearby service station.

Or we might find it comforting that with every day we spend navigating around New York or Alice Springs, guided by a benevolent mapmaker’s worldview, the more we move and react like a resident, gradually fitting in, gradually assuming a new identity. Becoming a local.

Stories create maps

“Where’s it set?” is a question we might ask a budding storyteller. It’s our starting point from where we’ll find our way to everything else within a story. If the answer is “Berlin 1938” or “the North Pole” or even “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, we as readers of these texts instantly start to build up our own mental geography. We start to conceive of place and create a context for us to help make sense of the story being told.

tolkien

The storyteller helps fill in these maps with detail. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare helps us picture the tension-filled distance between the houses of the Montagues and the Capulets, and helps us position the Apothecary’s house and the Chapel along the way. Some stories, like those by Tolkien, come illustrated by maps, the better for us to imagine the topographical barriers between Eriador and Mordor.  In stories like Moby Dick, The Iliad ­and Catch-22 we understand the characters by the literal and metaphoric journeys we follow them on, and their distance from home.

 

The map is also a common motif within storytelling. In a WW2 epic, perforated lines will creep across Europe as our heroes fly overhead. In a TV police procedural, mug shots of the suspects will be placed upon a whiteboard, red tape illustrating the linkages between the two. Stories that are successful and “world building” communicate their geographies implicitly. I know through repeated viewings, for instance, that Fawlty Towers’ guest rooms are upstairs and to the right, its dining room is in front of the kitchen and no-one’s ever had to draw me a map. And in games such as Minecraft and Fortnite players create and explore landscapes of their own making, noting landmarks, forging paths.

In this way, the description of places and the relationships between them is a fundamental storytelling element. And the places created can never be authoritative or 100% factual; even if the storyteller knew the streets and lanes of 1938 Berlin intimately, the version she creates for her story is still her own construct, created for her needs, never exact.

So the navigation between those places forms a kind of contract between storyteller and reader, based on the version the storyteller presents. Thus a shared agreement about the boundaries in which the story takes place is created. “A reader,” Turchi writes, “enters the world of a poem, or a story, realistic or otherwise, willing, at least for a short time, to believe it and accept its terms.” The storyteller becomes our guide, telling us most of the story and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks.

Stories act like maps

What she’s guiding you through is the map of the story. The purpose of a map, after all, is to help you get from point a to point b. Our storyteller is helping us get from the beginning of a story to its end, making sure we visit all the important stops along the way. Characters and incidents are our landmarks. A classic three act structure can be seen as three steppingstones, helping the reader get to the heart of the story, getting closer to the conclusion with every hop.

If wanted to, we could find maps that to help create those stories. We could follow the standard beats of a Hollywood blockbuster, if we wanted, as they have been charted by Robert McKee and others. The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, can guide us through separation, initiation and return. Maybe these are more recipes than maps, but they all say, “start here, go there and end up there.” And they provide a level of comfort for the reader when that familiar path is followed. We feel in safe hands, that our storyteller knows the way.

In this way, through repetition of the well-worn narrative path, we as readers become inculcated in “good” storytelling structure. We like it when the Hero’s Journey plays out the way we expect because who doesn’t like to hear the hits? And if those familiar story beats aren’t hit in the right order, we can feel disconcerted and short changed.

Turchi was talking about a map’s inclusion of well-meaning cultural signifiers when he wrote, “every map intends not simply to serve us, but to influence us” but I think it also applies here. The more we create stories that intrinsically please us because they follow the one true map, the more those structures become entrenched and the more we seek out stories that fit those structures.

What this means for creating life histories

When we ask someone to tell us their story, we are, like the map reader, engaging in a temporary contract. We buy into their world and we ask them to set the boundaries. We ask them to select the important aspects and omit the unimportant ones. We ask them to start and stop the story. We ask them to assume the primary role in the narrative. They must be our Sherpa, guiding us through a world well known to them, but unfamiliar to us.

350px-Mercator_projection_Square

We know that perspective distorts the story, just the most common map of the world (the Mercator Projection) distorts the size and influence of many of its nations. And we assign ourselves the role of the cartographer; the person who’s going to make objective sense of this. Although subconsciously, we’ve filled in a lot of the blanks on our own. We’d decided what Berlin 1938 looked like based that movie we saw once, and we’ve decided who to cast as Hitler. (Cate Blanchett, as it happens). We are not – we cannot be – passive observers. We change the story simply by listening.

As a researcher and a collector of entrepreneurs’ stories, I can, at the least, be aware of these weaknesses of method. Still, I think the metaphor of “story as map” also offers a perspective that can be usefully overlaid on the narratives offered by research participants. In the participant’s description of place, the positioning of themselves within their own narrative and the extent to which their story conforms to an established storytelling structure, we can at least note how far they deviate from the familiar storytelling path and let them choose the destination.

Turchi, Peter.  (2004).  Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer.  San Antonio, Texas, Trinity University Press.

 

Serial and how to tell a long story well.

I am late to this particular party, but have now caught up with the first series of Serial. Because I’m late, you probably know that it’s a podcast from the makers of This American Life which documents the journalistic re-examination a cold case; the murder of a teenager in 1999. The story is narrated by journalist and would be investigator Sarah Koenig.

Like many others, I was hooked and have listened intently to all 10 episodes and 3 updates. My interest though is divided between the story it’s telling and how it’s being told. Because what this series does expertly is tell a long story, in a detailed but also compelling way.

In some ways this is counter intuitive; it shouldn’t work. Are we not conditioned to the short story? To want to get to the point, omit the unnecessary detail and demand the edited highlights? But on the other hand, the saga is still with us, in new media – devouring full seasons on TV drama on streaming services, for instance, remains popular. It seems audiences still want to follow one story over multiple installments. Even the name Serial recalls the serialised stories told through periodical magazines at the turn of the last century.

Serial’s story is intricate, complicated and spans many years. It involves dozens of people and a dizzying array of data: dates, names, titles, legal jargon and procedural ephemera. How does Serial construct a narrative out of this birds’ nest of input, let alone one which has kept listeners engaged, episode after episode?

Part of the answer is structure. Telling a long and complicated story involves a set of decisions about what to tell first, next and last. In Serial’s long and winding case, the choice of what topics to cover in each episode is crucial. Early episodes concentrate on introducing the people involved and telling their stories, setting up the case’s unanswered questions. The middle episodes follow the narrator’s attempts at investigating the story, in a roughly chronological fashion. The final episodes provide us with expert opinions and nuances on information previously offered, leading us to a conclusion. The structure is not hidden from the listener. Instead it’s regularly referred to, most memorably at the start of the final episode when the man convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, tells Koenig, “I’m worried you don’t have an ending.”

Some of the reasoning for these structural choices is self-evident. You wouldn’t lead with an episode focusing on the deficiencies in the defence lawyer’s performance at trial; the audience needs to be both well grounded in the case and invested in Syed’s fate before diving both hands into that legal cat’s cradle. Other narrative strategies are subtler but also more oratorical. Koenig will often give the listener navigational pointers throughout her narration – I’ll tell you this bit later, I’ll cover that in another episode, go back and listen to this part again, here’s an interesting side issues, you’ll remember this incident from last episode. She’s part re-teller, part story satnav.

Koenig is a gifted narrator. She speaks in a precise yet conversational style, somehow simultaneously relaxed and authoritative. Her accessibility is crucial to telling the long story, as is her fascination with the case, apparent even when debating mobile phone tower call logs or calculating driving times between local landmarks. Because she cares about the case, we care about it. We want her to get to the bottom of it. Like Syed, we want her to find an ending. So a kind of empathy for the story teller becomes important. Part of the reason we stick with the story is to see if she succeeds in her quest for the truth.

Her relationship with Syed, told through a series of recorded phone calls, peppers the series, and fragments of those conversations become touchstones in each episode. We return to them regularly, to help us make sense of each new piece of information we’ve heard. They are narrative downtime, or perhaps processing time, for the listener. Syed is a measured, charismatic figure, but worryingly ambiguous for Koenig and therefore for the audience. Her concern, voiced many times throughout the series, is that although she can find fault after fault with the prosecution’s case against Syed, she may ultimately be being duped into believing in a guilty man’s innocence.

If this was a movie, we’d call Koenig’s and Syed’s relationship the sub plot. It provides another strand of the story to follow alongside the murder mystery and helps highlights the narrator’s confusion and frustration, as the case gets more and more complex, but answers prove elusive. In dramatic terms, Koenig’s dilemma gives the story’s it’s momentum. It’s the “what’s at stake” you search for in any drama. And what’s at stake is worth caring about. Koenig’s investigation could result in an innocent man being awarded long denied justice, or a guilty man using her as an escape plan.

(I should also note the criticism of Serial for using a family’s very real pain as vicarious entertainment for the masses. Who owns these stories and is permitted to tell them is important. For now, I hope that analysing the way in which Serial works doesn’t perpetuate that approach and continue what others may see as the trivialisiation of that case.)

As we reach the later episodes, real life events start to influence the narrative. People start to write in with new information. Others who had previously declined interviews with Koenig now contribute. Prior speculation is clarified, facts put into context. Even the podcast’s ads start to get slicker. People are engaging with the series, and showing that legitimises our interest in it. See – it was worth sticking with. People are noticing. This thing is important.

So structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters. Plus, although I haven’t mentioned it above, knowing what to leave out. This is how Serial kept us all listening.

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PS While embedded in Serial, I started reading another long story: a PhD dissertation on a topic similar to mine (will be), by a researcher I know through my work. I’ve descended upon it, hungrily. I wanted to see how the author put her ideas together, linked one concept to the next, kept me wanting to read the next page, in much the same way as Serial encouraged me to click through to the next episode. Both are long, complex stories demanding to be told in a compelling way. Although one is journalistic and one is academic, I think the tactics for telling a long story well – structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters – are applicable to both.

Chicago Public Media (2014). Serial. [podcast] Serial. Available at: https://serialpodcast.org
Savage, S (2017). An investigation into local government’s ideal role in enhancing community liveability via the creative industries, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Management, Operations and Marketing, University of Wollongong. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/38/

 

 

 

The polished image and the messy reality

In a lifestyle magazine, casually discarded about our house, I came across an article about a person who runs a company. It’s an a-day-in-the-life piece. It starts with breakfast with the kids. Then a meeting with the sales manager. Then a review of a product in the workshop. Then exercise and walking the dog before dinner and bedtime and catching up on admin on the iPad and so it goes. Calm, elegant, controlled. Idyllic.

I’m in a privileged position, getting to see inside businesses. I’ve seen inside that one and met that person. The difference between the article (the polished prose, the conversational tone, the carefully styled photos)… and the tense, uncertain, fraught, it’s-my-house-that’s-on-the-line reality is what sticks in my mind.

A business person, an entrepreneur, is a prized label. Like sports stars or rock stars, a handful of them with profiles and media exposure become household names. To be a business leader is in some senses to be a pin-up. It has its own celebrity.

This dichotomy between the truth about being a leader and the narrative told about leaders, is what this journal article is about. It’s a critique of ‘authentic leadership’, a management theory which suggests that there is an individual’s adherence to closely held values and beliefs is the basis for good leadership. I won’t pretend to have gotten to the essence of the article, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

One is that to have an authentic self suggests the existence of an inauthentic self. So the supremacy of one necessarily means the other has to be supressed. Which calls into question the authenticity of those qualities which make up the authentic self.

Then there’s the idea that this tension between the two requires the invention of a narrative about the authentic self. That in fact for leaders to behave in an authentic way, there has to be a story for them to project onto themselves about being a leader. As it says:

The telling of life stories is concerned with the management of the reproduction of meaning. To project oneself outwards as a leader, to position oneself within a narrative as a recognizable leader in a recognizable leader ship narrative, one must construct oneself within existing frameworks of characterizations and narratives of leader ship.

We could easy replace ‘leader’ with ‘entrepreneur’ in that quote. And that article, showing the idealised, Real Living version of the messy, stressful, high stakes game of running a small creative business, is surely one of those ‘existing frameworks of characterizations’ within which ‘one must construct oneself.’

 

A work already in progress

Here’s an interesting find. Kim Goodwin, a PhD candidate at UTS, is looking at “the concepts of leadership, development and identity within Australian creative industries”.

A key part of the methodology employed is a narrative analysis of the interviews of creative leaders, and how the subjects “impose order and construct their meaning of leadership”.

This is clearly a work in progress, and one which is changing as it goes along. This observation caught my attention:

The complex relationship subjects have to leadership prompted the inclusion of identity within this study. Of the three emerging leaders interviewed to date, two rejected the title of leader.

It will be interesting to read if any conclusions are drawn about why these interviewees didn’t self-identify as leaders. This paper also notes that leadership training and self-confidence are emerging as key themes, suggesting that the final piece of work is going to have a focus on personal or professional development ‘gaps’ amongst the interview cohort.

Watching this space.