Intimacy, Digital Storytelling, and the Technologies of Distance

Edge of the Red River Valley

Sitting down tonight for a night of writing that’s a little different. Thinking about narrative. And digital technologies. And my narrative. Or narratives.

Sitting on the couch in my office. Soft light from a japanese lamp on the end table covered with books. And a glass of merlot. A small fan. My 13″ Macbook Pro. And Ommwriter. One of those “zen” word processing programs. Cheesy, chimey music. The house is empty except for me. Roommate gone for a week. Friends busy. Just me. And these words. And this wine.

Spent some time today re-reading a book on digital storytelling by Joe Lambert (of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley). I’m co-teaching a class this summer with Tony O’Keeffe at Bellarmine University. Mostly, it was Tony who proposed the class out of his interests sparked at the Digital Media and Communication Institute at Ohio State.

And I’m thinking about some elements of narrative which are particularly important to me. Point of view. Conflict. Character. Setting. Complexity. Resonance. Image.

[pullshow]And I have the impulse to produce another story. I’ve already produced several. One about ironing and my mother. One about questions, and a father’s love, and my father, and my mother. One about flag football. And others that didn’t get finished because I couldn’t figure out how to fix them.

I want to make another one. I want to make a little movie about why I teach. Why I teach writing. Why I teach it the way I do.

But I want it to be a story. I want to use narrative to convey what fuels this passion for me. And so I think back to the elements of narrative I mention above.

I’ve never really had a problem with point of view. I’ve always understood the best stories to be told from a particular perspective. And that author-perspective sticking to what he can tell a listener, and paring down a story to ONLY what ONLY he can tell about the story. I’m not sure how I might construct a perspective from which to construct a teaching narrative. Do I start from my earliest inklings of teaching? A moment where I knew that I had to be a teacher? Where I first sensed the power of teaching? A recollection of a teacher important to me? Would I write about the sense of irony and reckless fun I admired in Jeb Beck or Steve Ward at North Dakota State U? Or the gigantic talent, intellect, and uncompromising contempt for lazy scholarship that overwhelmed in me in Ed Dorn at the U of Colorado, Boulder? Or the incredible generosity locked away in constant challenge and antagonism from Min-Zhan Lu here at U of L? Not much of a narrative there. Too complex. The story arch just isn’t simple enough.

Maybe I need to get more specific. Why am I interested in teaching digital storytelling? I can explain it in an abstract, academic way. Here: Storytelling is the oldest form of portable epistemological technologies. Inherent in the history of storytelling is the structure of the audience-author relationship. It was intimate. Campfires. Lamplight. Horseback. And then there were books. And then radio. And the intimacy starts to lose center stage in the structure of storytelling. But I think asynchronous digital technologies are changing that. Think YouTube. Not meant (yet) for simultaneous viewing by large, co-located audiences. One author posts whenever. One viewer watches whenever. No sharing of space and time. And that’s a big loss. But there’s something else that we’re getting back. Intimacy. It’s just me watching a video. Not an audience. I like that.

So what, then? How do I make this into a narrative? How do I tell a story about me… and about distance… and a loss/rediscovery of intimacy… and digital technology. And how do I do it in a very short (3-5 minutes) digital video?

Distance; Intimacy. Looking back at my last paragraph, I guess those are the key words, no?

Distance. I think I know something about distance. Maybe this is where it comes back to point of view. I am constantly realizing how much growing up in North Dakota has shaped the adult I’ve become. The Red River Valley is, geographically speaking, one of the flattest places on earth. Which gives it a certain type of magic, I think. I’ve heard stories that the Sioux Indian tribes in the area considered the region to be of great spiritual activity. On warm days, looking out over the horizon, sometimes objects like a tree or animal) might be obscured because it sits below the level of the horizon, but the heat refraction bends the light around that horizon, rendering an image of the object upside down, floating above the edge of the earth, shimmering. Some of Lewis and Clark’s surveyors notices the same phenomenon, and also arrived at spiritual conclusions. …

So I’ve always been interested in space. Everything has always been far away. Fargo, the only place for a long, long way with a shopping mall, was fifty miles away up the Red River. To get to a metropolitan area, we had to drive two hundred miles to Minneapolis, and that maybe once a year. Everything was happening somewhere else. None of it was coming to me. I had to go to it, or I had to send something out.

Digital technologies have changed that for me. Distance is entirely different now. What used to be a major obstacle to establishing or interacting with an audience, or even being part of one, has become an entirely different phenomenon. Now audience isn’t so much about finding one, but shaping one. With so many people with so much access to so many different technologies, abundance has become the obstacle, not distance.

I think abundance is a sort of excess, and that excess can become toxic unless it is pared down. Shaped. At the heart of that process is choice. The ability to recognize the healthy fruit in the tree, the strongest trout in the stream. Choice. We make those choices based on our own beliefs, values, fears, politics, needs. And those choices, in turn, shape us.

So how best to make those choices? How do we want to be shaped? Into what?

[pullthis]For me, it goes back to that preoccupation with distance. An abundance of distance. With what to pare it down? Intimacy. [/pullthis]And I’m not just talking about romance here. I’m talking about sharing space. With another person. Or a small group of people. Personal space. Physical and emotional space. Learning to shape that space. We populate it with objects. And people. We define its edges by where we go. And by where we don’t.

Digital technologies have gone a long way toward destabilizing the idea of where we “go.” Can I “go to” a blog, when I’m still sitting in a coffee shop? And what happens when I “visit” a friend’s twitter stream or Facebook page? And what happens to “distance” when I Skype with an old friend back home?

For me, these questions are as important as knowing when to take someone’s hand. Or ask for an apology.

These are the questions that shape us. That shape our technologies. And this is why I keep asking them.

But, of course, I haven’t yet figured out where the narrative lies in this reflection. Blog post: fail. Personal reflection: Win.

More soon.

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