Thursday, August 12, 2010

telling stories

The next annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) is scheduled for next March in Spokane, Washington. The announced conference theme is "narrative and identity."

How ironic, then, to note that Spokane native and former SNL cast member Julia Sweeney, one of the world's great storytellers (God Said Ha!, Letting Go of God), has declared her intention to begin a new chapter in her own personal narrative. Her blog announcement, posted this past March:
I plan to stop being a public, personal, storyteller.
Her new story begins with an old one, the one she'd recently told at a TED conference involving her 10-year old daughter Mulan's introduction to the sex lives of frogs. 
It got big laughs and even a partial standing ovation at the end.  People really loved it and I was so high and happy afterwards. 
I'm proud that I have the skill to tell a good story and make people laugh. I have a million happy memories of being onstage and making people laugh.  

But, she went home and thought about the embarrassment potential, of that and other of her stories-- their potential to embarrass the people she loves, mostly, but also their subversion of her own privacy and dignity. She was 
mortified and could not believe that I hadn’t considered this before.  Mulan looks good in the story – a curious, smart nine year old.  But the whole topic is embarrassing to a girl her age. 
As for herself, 
I no longer wish to be so naked and bare.  I am surprised I ever did want to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did.  I am proud that I learned to craft my experiences into a story and I am proud that I learned the craft of being on-stage.  But now, I need to stop doing it.  I am happily married, for one thing, and it’s boring and inappropriate to talk about.  My daughter is ten and she reads my blog, (OMG!) she goes to my shows.   In fact we have spoken at length about the stories I tell about her.   Not that, at ten, she is really capable of understanding the ramifications.  Still, she says it’s okay to tell the Mulan-frog story.  But ugh.   I don’t think she really understands.  I feel the need to protect her from myself!
The posted reactions of Julia's fans have ranged from supportive and  sad to hurt and angry. I consider myself a fan, and my own reaction is a combination of understanding and discomfort.  I blog, I have kids, and while I tend not to tell personal stories I consider overly revealing or invasive of their or my privacy, I still have to wonder if I am contributing (along with millions of others) to a phenomenon of public disclosure and transparency whose implications are not entirely sunny. 

Julia Sweeney is-- was?-- a professional "public, personal storyteller." Countless more of us are amateurs. What do we stand to gain and lose, specifically in terms of our personal and collective "identity," through the incessant spinning of all these public "narratives"?

Nick Carr, Clay Shirky, Jaron Lanier and others have begun to address these issues. What should a public philosopher steeped in the spirit of James and Dewey say about them?

Don't know yet. I'll ask around. 

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