Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Of Storytelling and Joan Didion

I have been listening to the CD edition of 'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion. As I listen, I am myself literally on a glorious adventure, driving through some of the areas of the country I know little of. The backdrop of Didion's writing, as read by the incredible Barbara Caruso, is not only an enhancement to my attitude of exploration and diving deep, but provides learning I will apply to the knowledge transfer work I do. I am driving, feeling, learning, and loving this experience.

I find Didion's writing so descriptive and emotive that I lap it up like a thirsty golden retriever at a watering dish. Verbs and nouns and turns of phrase splash out all around me. Didion has a courage in her writing so strong as to inspire courage in the reader as well. And there are moments in this book so real, the reader needs courage to continue to read. Didion ponders the details of each event, each action or thought so vividly that the reader is anchored in that exact time and space.

(And yes, this will come back to knowledge management and storytelling.)

Once anchored in the details, Didion is able to describe with word pictures how she felt at that time and you are with her, you understand her. You can not help but make sense of the emotion she describes as you too have had those emotions, even if not as well articulated.

She unflinchingly compares the experience from the past to how she feels about that same event or moment some two years later, as she is writing the book. In that comparison is a leap in learning and healing, both for Didion and for her reader.

She then uses her gifts to describe what she is doing physically at the time of the emotion, and what people around her are doing, which has an amazing impact of the scene. The way in which her physical actions or those around her is described either underscores the truth in the emotions she has stated, or that her judgment of what she was feeling is off. In other words, if she has stated that she was a calm customer, handled the news of the death of her husband well, she will tell you that her heart is racing, she is forgetting which room or city she is in or she presents another indication that she is truly not the cool customer she considers herself. She allows you to see the truth in a way she could not immediately do herself.

You get, from this, the whole story. And, you understand the event, the background or context, the rationale, the intended outcome, the actual outcome and as much as humanly possible, the truth. Joan Didion is showing us the art of storytelling at it's finest.

Think of those experts who hold many years of deeply held knowledge, aha moments, and lessons learned which you wish to transfer. What a challenge to not only get the full understanding of how the innovation or action came to be, but also what a challenge it is to keep the learner fully and completely engaged. Can we not learn from Didion and use her formula?

Consider this: Have the expert describe the background and context leading up to the innovation or event as completely as possible. Have them think about where they were, what they had just read or spoken of which influenced them, what they were wearing even, to help anchor and jog their reflection. Then, in detail, consider the intended outcome, what truly had they hoped or assumed they might learn or do, what they trying to achieve or change. Next ask for the same deep description of the actual outcome, to understand what really happened, why the gap exists and how it came to be. Now, have them consider what they really learned from that, what they will do with that learning or what others might do with that learning.

Perhaps this all sounds too much for one story. But if you want to understand how the inventor of laser surgery decided to go from lasers for non-human uses to repairing burns in a hospital in Vietnam, or how someone inventing a drug which failed for one disease realized she could now apply it to save lives in another totally different area, you need to uncover and develop a deep understanding of that moment. We need to learn how to learn these things from each other. Not to be mired in the past but to apply the new ideas to the future. And I know of no better teacher than Joan Didion.
Now, I must get back to the drive and the adventure which awaits!

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