Why tell stories?

People craft, collect and share stories for all sorts of reasons. To create reflections of themselves that haven’t previously existed. To imagine worlds where anything is possible. My grandmother Ines told funny stories about working on a farm and living in Amasa to experience and share joy with others.  My mother Judy told stories about the farm to establish herself as a Puotinen and to honor the family that had nurtured and supported her. I tell stories to stay connected, to not forget the spaces and people who have helped shape me and to engage in the difficult work of figuring out the best ways to contribute to the legacy of past generations.

I also tell stories because I am compelled to do so. I use the process of collecting and crafting stories, and the deep engagement that that requires, to make sense of who I have been/am becoming and of my relationship to others and the larger world. And I use that process to pay attention to and take seriously the lives of the people in my stories.


A brief digression: When I was in college, I had a professor who was a stickler for grammar. He was particularly intolerant, as I recall, of incorrect uses of it’s or its and of references, either in verbal or written form, to the words that one cites from authors as quotes. The correct word for these cited words, he would patiently explain, was quotations not quotes. Even after 20 years (wow!), I still think about his grammar admonishments when I carefully type quotations instead of quotes. Admittedly, I sometimes just write quotes. After stopping to do a bit of research on the topic, I discovered that “quote” is  acceptable, just less formal. 

This digression makes me curious about the benefits and drawbacks of formal language, especially in the context of higher education. Should teachers continue to emphasize formal language, like quotations instead of quotes, over informal language? What, in terms of serious engagement with ideas/concepts, gets lost or gained when we don’t enforce certain grammar rules? My inclination is to support more expansive ways (formal and informal) of expressing ideas. But, are there certain rules that should continue to be maintained? If so, what are those rules? When do those rules become alienating and elitist, limiting access for certain groups of people?

In some ways, this digression seems out of place on a blog about the process of creating an interactive documentary about my family’s farm. But, at the heart of this project, is my desire to take ideas that I encountered as a graduate student and professor about storytelling and narrative selfhood and make them accessible to a wider range of audiences. So, reflections on access are connected to my reflections on the process of creating this site.

Of course, this digression was not the intended topic of this post. I’m interested in discussing my current experiments with how to tell stories about the farm using quotations in combination with video footage, photographs or other archival material. I’m just starting to work through how these quotations might work in terms of design (how will they look? font size? placement on page? how to make them work responsively?) and in terms of content (which passages should I pick? how many should I have?)

I like the idea of using quotations because I have a lot of interview footage with my dad in which the sound quality is really bad. I’m sure someone could use fancy and expensive software to enhance his voice, but I don’t have the time or money for that. Plus, I think it’s important, especially with an interactive documentary, to play around with the format; I want more than just a series of videos. I want to use words and images in other ways too.

I like how the interactive doc Hollow uses quotations via parallax scrolling. Pretty cool. Here are some screen shots (for the full effect, you need to visit the site and scroll through):

Screen Shot from Hollow

Screen Shot 2 Hollow

As you scroll to these quotations, music is playing in the background. I like the effect and the feeling it gives you of being immersed in the story. But, this particular interactive doc is not responsive; you can’t even access it on a mobile device. And, you must scroll all the way through the chapter to get to the quotations. I’d like to find a way to use quotations on a responsive site. I’d also like the quotations to be accessible in many different ways (nav bar, on different pages).

As I work through various options for using quotations, I’ll be posting various passages with images + videos on a new page I’m creating: Fragments.

On Remembering

I just finished reading (mostly skimming) Geoffrey Batchen’s Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance. Pretty cool. Here’s a passage at the end that got me thinking:

the act of remembering someone is surely also about the positioning of oneself, about the affirmation of one’s own place in time and space, about establishing oneself within a social and historical network of relationships (97).


I am certainly motivated by a desire to make sense of my own relationships with generations of Puotinens as I work on this project. How do I fit in? What qualities of character do I share with other Puotinen family members? I’m also interested in rooting myself in a history. Most of the time I feel deeply disconnected from my past selves and past connections. I imagine this project as a way to connect with others and with the chain of selves that I have once been.

For further reading: Forget Me Not: An Interview with Geoffrey Batchen

Background Video

I’ve been thinking it would be cool to have video footage running in the background on my site. I’m looking for ways to make the user experience feel more involved so you’re not just viewing a video or reading text, you’re immersed in the landscape and the moods that are evoked by the buildings and people. Is background footage the best way to do that? Maybe. Maybe not.

I’ve found many different WordPress themes that allow for background video. Perhaps my favorite is Invictus, it’s responsive and looks pretty slick. But it is $45. I don’t mind spending the money, but I’m worried that I’d realize at some point during the project that I didn’t ultimately like it.  King Size looks nice too, provided you can (and I’m fairly confident that you can) remove the horse logo on the menu. But King Size is even more expensive at $50.

After some more research, I also found this cool (but expensive, at $75) theme: Full Frame.

Another approach to take is to find a free plugin. I found one on WordPress, mb.YTPlayer, but it requires YouTube videos and I’m on Vimeo. This morning, STA tweeted me a link to a site that was using background video effectively. After some quick investigating (I looked at the Page Source), I discovered that the site was using BigVideo JS. Pretty cool. It’s a free! JQuery plugin. I might have to try this one…even though it isn’t readily responsive.

On the BigVideo JS tutorial, which I haven’t read through yet, they discuss reasons for using or not using background video in a project:

Before we get started, give some thought as to whether using this technique at all is appropriate for your project. Background video is bandwidth heavy and can be a big drag on the user’s browser performance. If your site is already video-heavy or incorporating big video is essential to the design and purpose of your site, then using this technique may be a great choice. However, if you can accomplish the same goal with using cinemagraphs for example, maybe that is a better choice.

Cinemagraphs?! They are slightly animated images, that look like video, but aren’t. Cool. This might work too, especially if they use less band-width. I found a few resources for figuring how to make these, like this one, which shows you how to create one using Final Cut Pro X (which I got earlier this year).