Stories and the trouble with GRAND narratives

I am troubled by GRAND narratives and BIG stories. I’ve written about my trouble with them on my blog in several different posts. Today, having recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s chapter, “Narrative Collapse” in Present Shock, I’m compelled to revisit my arguments and expand on them. It seems like a useful exercise since I’m in the process of trying to articulate my own vision/version of storytelling and my own tentative answers to the questions: Why do I tell stories? and How do I tell them?

Here’s an overview of some of my critiques:

The Existential Crisis

In a brief video interview, Ken Burns offers the following explanation for why we tell stories:

We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.

Sara Puotinen

And here’s my response in my post, Why do we tell stories?:

Burns offers a compelling vision of the storyteller, but it is about the Storyteller-as-Self with a capital S who skillfully crafts narratives (that lie and manipulate in hopefully productive, meaningful and complicated ways, says Burns in the video) that convince us that it’s okay to die. I want to imagine the storyteller as a different sort of self who crafts stories that provide comfort and meaning to more than themselves, but to and with their communities. And who shares stories that aren’t aimed at dealing with impending death, but with finding ways to help us make sense of and (hopefully) flourish in our lives.

Sara Puotinen

In revisiting my statement, I’d like to question my use of the word “comfort.” I like stories that provide meaning and that encourage people to be curious about those ideas and experiences that they take for granted or that they ignore. These types of stories aren’t necessarily comfortable or comforting, but they can be inspiring, thought-provoking and catalyzing.

The need for coherent, unifying narratives

In my post, on stories, sharing, and the trouble with coherent narratives, I discuss Jake Barton’s video on the importance of collaborative storytelling. He argues that collectively constructing a unifying narrative is important for providing us with meaning and binds us together. As an example, he describes the power of the moon landing to bring the world together in a collective celebration of how “we did it.”

I argue that this push for a unifying narrative can actually flatten out differences and erase the social and political contexts in which those differences actually matter:

Such a claim seems to erase all of the politics behind who the “we” was that actually did it (the U.S.) and for what purposes (at least partially, to beat Russia and claim U.S. superiority in space and everything else). I don’t know that much about the space race in the 60s, but I do know that it took place in the context of the Cold War, an extreme fear of Russia and communism and the vigilant practice of an Us versus Them mentality. Even if we accept, in a broader sense, that the fact that someone (anyone) was able to travel to the moon meant something to us-as-humans, what do we make of what happens not too long after Neil Armstrong took his historic step onto the moon, when he and Buzz Aldrin planted a U.S. Flag on the surface? What does the planting of the U.S. flag mean for a common, coherent narrative about Us?

My point in posing these questions is to trouble the idea that sharing and collaborating on stories brings us together by erasing our differences and reminding us that we are, ultimately, all the same. I like hearing stories that resonate with me and that enable me to see how my experiences can be similar to others. And some stories that I hear do prompt me to think, “wow, we aren’t all that different.” But, sharing and collaborating on stories does not require that we erase/ignore/suppress our differences or the political context in which those differences come to matter. The realization that differences matter does not mean that we can’t connect, share, collaborate or get along with others. It means that those connections shouldn’t demand that we create a singular narrative of commonality.

Sara Puotinen

My (leading) questions: Do we need one unifying narrative? Can we find ways to be bound together (or to connect) that involve taking seriously and embracing our different experiences and perspectives and by sharing multiple stories?

In my post, Beware of the Single Story, I bring an editorial in the New York Times by Steve Almond in conversation with Chimamanda Adichie’s video talk, The danger of a single story. First I argue:

I’m troubled by Almond’s refusal (or failure) to discuss the damaging effects that Grand Stories/Unified Narratives by a Narrator have had on all of us and our understandings of other perspectives and experiences. Yes, “narration represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning.” However, this meaning is not singular and should not be revealed or articulated by any single Storyteller.

Sara Puotinen

And then I pose the question: Can we build off of Adichie’s brilliant storytelling about the dangers of a single story to imagine ways of creating meaning that aren’t predicated on just one story or one Narrator?

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