From Medicine to the Digital Marketplace: Narrating “Narrative in the Age of Distraction”

In a world of pithy tweets and ephemeral snapchats, where six-second attention spans face a proliferation of media so vast it seems only to stimulate their hunger for information rather than satisfy it, what real chance does a story have at being heard? Last Thursday and Friday, a motley assortment of professors, health practitioners, and industry professionals descended upon the CFA for a conference entitled “Narrative in the Age of Distraction” to examine the value of narrative and explore its technologically imposed limits. Their input, by turns reassuring and unsettling, rearticulated that all-too-frustratingly-apparent paradox of our time: the story is dead, long live the story.

The conference, co-sponsored by The Connection Institute for Innovative Practice and Wesleyan’s College of Letters, Writing Programs, and Science in Society Program, was divided into two “tracks,” each focusing on the role of narrative in a different field. The first, “Healing Letters,” addressed the uses of narrative in medicine, followed by “Narrative in the Age of Twitter,” a series of discussions about the future of long-form storytelling in the cyber-free-for-all it must both complement and transcend. The premise of the conference was that narrative, whether functioning as art or healing, is a crucial determinant of how we perceive the world, and yet it is threatened by the very media that support it.

“I invite you to turn off your cell phones, physically and metaphorically, and listen to and talk with the extraordinary lineup of speakers that we have assembled who will endeavor to tell us why stories matter,” wrote conference organizer Charles Barber in a letter to participants. Ironically enough, audience members at a given talk could be seen fiddling away on iPhones, surreptitious eyes glued to tiny screens.

Professor Shadd Maruna of Queens University Belfast kicked off the proceedings with “Narrative as ‘Waste Management’ in the Lives of Redeemed Former Prisoners,” a lecture detailing the starkly divergent “scripts” through which ex-convicts narrated their lives. After interviewing active offenders and desisting ex-offenders in Liverpool pubs, Maruna’s team observed two kinds of self-narratives, which they dubbed the “condemnation script” and the “redemption script,” respectively.

In both cases, former prisoners suffered from the stigmatization of credentialism—courtroom ceremonies that transform a human into an “offender” just as another might be labeled a doctor or spouse. People internalize the subject positions ascribed to them with such pomp and circumstance, convicted individuals identifying with narratives we as a society write.

“Societies that don’t believe prisoners can change get ex-prisoners who don’t believe they can change,” Maruna explained. “You start to believe the hype about yourself.”

If we write and rewrite ourselves according to the narratives available to us, what kind of people will this “age of distraction” narrate into existence? Has self-actualization been limited to 140 characters?

Other “Healing Letters” included a lecture by Professor Arthur Frank about “Illness and the Distraction of Narrative,” breakout sessions discussing the function of narrative in physical and mental health, and a keynote address delivered by Dr. Rita Charon, who asked patients to write their own medical histories as a way to give them a sense of agency.

The second half of the conference began with a panel of New York-based literati discussing “Narrative in the Digital Marketplace” and their commitment to long-form writing in an environment that doesn’t always accommodate it. Each panelist’s Twitter handle was displayed alongside professional bios on a screen behind them, a stamp as integral to their public identities as their names.

“How has the digital revolution impacted, changed, transformed what it means to tell a story, write a story, publish a story?” asked literary publicist and panel moderator Lisa Weinert.

The panelists responded enthusiastically, discussing the Internet content outpour, the micro-publishing behemoth that is Twitter, and the place of an editor in an industry where quantity and SEO optimization often take priority.

“Nowadays, we’re all publishers in some sense of the word,” said Noah Rosenberg, founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Narrative.ly, a platform championing the cause of the long-form human interest story. With outlets like Twitter available to every Joe with something to say, the issue of quality is critical in advocating for the relevance of traditional journalism. John McElwee, fiction coordinator at the New Yorker, suggested a harmonious middle ground between the democratization of publishing and the value of content curation.

“You can crowdsource taste and opinion,” said McElwee. Perhaps social media is ultimately more useful as a mass-editor than as a mass-publisher.

“If people never talked about their writing on Twitter again, I would be okay with that,” McElwee added.

But with so much access to free content, quality isn’t the only thing at risk. Journalists and artists of all kinds are struggling to find an audience willing to pay for anything when a free version, equivalent, or replacement is undoubtedly floating around the Internet somewhere. And thus the question of funding rears its ethically fraught head.

“There’s never been a better time or a worse time to be a writer,” said Weinert. The panelists mentioned ad-supported models and ProPublica’s non-profit approach as possibilities to be explored in the quest to pay for good writing.

“But who’s pulling the strings?” asked Rosenberg. Narrative.ly recently developed a “content agency” of writers and producers whom the company refers to outside clients, giving contributors a venue for their work while generating higher pay.

The demands of a digital marketplace affect not only the writers trying to meet them but also the companies trying to keep up with them. Panel moderator and Penguin Random House Global Digital Director Molly Barton ’00 mentioned a trend in book publishing of more conservative attitudes toward acquisitions as a result of access to knowledge about competitors’ successes.

In addition to awareness of fellow suppliers, increased understanding of market demand affects publishers’ business models and editorial strategies. With algorithms revealing exactly what readers respond to by showing which stories, pages, and links get the most clicks or views, publications can tailor their content to fit the desires of the Internet reader. In this case, does marketability compromise integrity? Where do editors draw the line?

“It’s kind of eerie how aggressive you can be in terms of monitoring your traffic,” admitted Rosenberg.

Of course, a digital community of insatiable readers can’t be all bad. Narrative.ly, at present a web-based publication, may soon appear in print. But this seemingly counterintuitive move isn’t a step backwards. Uzoamaka Maduka, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The American Reader, described the ways in which a digital vertical can enhance the overall experience of a print publication (and visa versa).

“In the digital space you can actually bring someone into the lived life of your magazine,” said Maduka. “Print was like the formal dinner party and digital was more like after the plates were taken away.”

“When I finished the fifth Game of Thrones book I totally went online and read about it,” McElwee agreed.

In a breakout session following the panel, journalist Jennifer Gonnerman expounded on the importance of listening to one another in an age when we can make assumptions about someone’s character from the contents of a Facebook timeline.

“I’m all for a well-told narrative, but the creativity has a limit, and the limit is the truth,” said Gonnerman.

How do we undertake to observe this limit—by editorializing content or democratizing it? Is free or funded writing the pathway to truth? What exactly happens after the plates are taken away?

Fittingly, the conference began and ended with narrative. After two days of thinking about what a story means, participants gathered to hear Mary Gaitskill tell one, audience members sinking into the fullness of a single story as the award-winning author read a piece titled “The Mare.” One coherent fictional world, no distractions. Gaitskill concluded the experience with a dose of humbling wisdom regarding the importance of writing:

“The most powerful things in life are not words.”

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