The Problematic Narrative of Narrative

Ever since Laurene asked me last week to give a short presentation on narrative, I have been trying to come up with an adequate way to summarize in twenty minutes a topic that has consumed and conflicted my mind, heart and soul for as long as I can remember (and no, I’m not exaggerating). In order to give a successful presentation on narrative, it seems like one ought to have a story to tell about narrative – a meta-narrative, if you will. The problem is that I have several stories that I would like to share with you about narrative, and all seem equally important. I could, if I wanted to, focus my entire presentation on any of the following:

– the definition of narrative and its development over history
– a comparison of different narrative structures’ strengths and shortcomings
– narrative as a form of information organization and argumentation
– narrative’s place in art, design, business, the hard sciences, and other fields
– my personal experiences with narrative in the fields above
– the role of narrative in my current thesis project in patient-driven healthcare

Then, throw in the topic of this studio course: gun control & children, and one instantly receives a few more issues to address, and soapboxes upon which to stand:

– ways designers can effectively use narrative to articulate future (and present) scenarios about gun violence
– the responsibility of the artist to tackle difficult topics in fiction
– the irresponsibility of modern media when tackling those same topics
– symbolism, metaphor, and the representation of violence
– political narratives, legislature and censorship

I have limited the list to the above, primarily for the sake of my own sanity. Just pick one and talk about it, you say. Sure, perhaps I could. But I have a deep rooted fear—a fear that has been instilled within me by the complexity and sheer vastness of the modern world—that any one of the topics above lose their meaning without the influence of the others. What good is my blathering about personal experience without a concrete foundation on narrative theory? What good is the theory without some emotional human anecdote to bring it to life? Why would I discuss narrative as a neutral tool—one for art, or design, or science, treading quietly and politely, when all stories are political? But what purpose would I serve to illustrate the politics of plot without reminding you that all stories—all good stories—reach beyond ideological machinations and touch upon something deeper; a primal instinct that none of us can readily articulate?

This, I think, is the primary source of angst for modern society. For every topic these days, narrative included, there are a million and one perspectives, an onion’s worth of layers, a thousand contexts, and several dozen university departments’ expertise to consider. As Steve Almond wrote recently in a New York Times article about narrative: “The underlying and […] ominous question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with.”

The ironic thing about all this confusion and complexity is that it screams for a better narrator. If a person – be it a writer, a designer, an engineer, or a businessman – can grapple with the sheer quantity of perspectives available on a topic, select a suitably pressing one, and successfully tell a story with enough depth to establish expertise and enough breadth to securely situate an audience, it’s not an understatement to say that person is a strong contender for ‘master of the universe.’ After all, what I’ve described above could be described as narration, but could just as easily be described as building a world.

I try to be a good narrator – at very least I hope I’ve been passable in this blog post – but the truth is that I’m still wandering around the space of trying to figure out the most ‘suitably pressing’ story to tell. As a twenty-something with the heart of a novelist, the college degree of an engineer, and the skill set of a designer, I find that the ‘suitably pressing’ story shifts as I put on different hats. And at times, I’d rather take off all the hats and stop trying to make a point. But I press on in spite of myself, because every so often (and maybe somewhere in this post) I know I’m touching upon some fragment of enlightenment that I can pass on to other people: one brick in one building of that universe we need to construct.

One way to look at narrative in the setting of the modern world of wicked problems and global interconnectivity is exactly that: a conglomeration of small bricks of enlightenment. Maybe, as Almond suggested, the world is in fact too large for one narrator to tell the story we need to be telling ourselves. Maybe moving forward, we should learn to view narrative as a kind of crowd-sourcing of the ‘suitably pressing’. The internet and social media networks would already suggest this is the case. However, if all we ever manage to bring to the world-building exercise is a single brick, it would do us all a bit of good to step back, hone the story we’re telling, and make that one brick a damn good brick.

Tomorrow, I’ll try to talk a little bit about how one might go about honing a story. I’ll just pick a topic and talk about it—namely, the work I’m doing with narrative in the space of patient-centered healthcare. But hopefully this post will help to situatuate that one fragment of narrative in its own larger story.