Reinvention, the Big Bang and Empty Mind…

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling and reinvention lately….

As a documentary filmmaker and editor, the last three decades has been all about crafting good stories. More recently I’ve been exploring the use of story to engage community through OPEN CINEMA‘s programming and publicity. And now that social media and transmedia are reinventing our media ecosystem, it’s forced me to grapple with my own personal and professional reinvention as a transmedia producer, story architect and social media marketing strategist. Mostly, it’s been exciting and rewarding, but it’s also edgy and challenging.

Over the last few weeks, I’m grateful to have found myself amongst a like-minded  tribe of storytellers, brought together around an innovative virtual campfire. “The Reinvention Summit” is a model for the remarkable use of online networking and social media tools to engage people around the future of storytelling.  It was an honour to be a Summit Producer, a speaker in one of the 32 presentations, as well as one of over 500 virtual delegates from across the planet. The ideas, connections, conversations and twitterstream (#story10) that flowed from this gathering have been nothing short of inspirational, with revolutionary undertones. I particularly appreciated the sessions offered by Lance Weiler, Gunther Sonnenfeld, Nancy Duarte and Jim Gaines.  Big ups to Michael Margolis and the design team at GetStoried for having the chutzpah to pull off such a grand experiment  — and succeed!

The Big Bang

Now that the Summit is over, I’m left with an elemental complex of ideas and flash points.  I know they will eventually find their true orbital patterns within my narrative solar system, but for now, we’re still at the Big Bang stage. Thankfully my understanding of story allows me to trust the transformative relationship between chaos and order. The post-Big Bang universe must have been pretty messed up before it all settled into something relatively predictable.  Likewise, I’m in the eye of this hurricane of change and for the moment, it’s hard to know where and how it will all land.

A Quantum Guttenberg Moment

My professional reinvention lies at the confluence of a number of factors: the economic downturn has punched large holes in the broadcast media funding model, which has been the mainstay of the Canadian documentary industry, so documentary commissions and contracts are few and far between. Meanwhile, cheap digital filmmaking equipment, Web 2.0 and mobile technology is offering easy access to media tools, turning everyone into a documentarian of sorts. Consider the effect that the invention of the Guttenberg press had on writers and readers, then quantiply it: the social media revolution effectively puts a printing press and broadcast network into everyone’s pocket. The good news: it’s reinventing the way we create, share, experience and watch content and stories. But the bad news is that it’s challenging the way traditional professional media creators like myself make a living.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been diversifying, retooling and exploring this new terrain with plenty of excitement and a modicum of success. I’ve been offering media education in both traditional film and social media, while exploring transmedia,  interactive storytelling and marketing. But we’re still standing on the threshold between the old and the new, a foot in both camps, so to speak. It can be dizzying, disorienting and, at times, overwhelming.

Reinvention is messy

The Reinvention Summit was like a therapeutic irritant, creating a space to really dive into this liminal stage of transformation and collectively explore its boundaries. Along with my new narrative cohorts, we discussed everything from brand strategy, hip-hop, Maori myths, education, civic engagement, transmedia and much much more.  It was fascinating, and a lot to take in.  But reinvention isn’t a simple one-step process; it takes time, it’s messy and deceptive.  So now I’m grappling with how to make sense of it all: thinking, writing, soul searching, talking and reading a lot. But I’m itching to break out of the mold; I feel the butterfly’s hunger to shed the cocoon,  an urgency to spread my damp new wings out into the world,  to catch a glimpse of the bright, bold, unfolding story.  It’s taking shape nicely, but it’s not quite cooked yet.

Empty Mind

Then today, I stumbled upon this little story that offered fresh insight, and stopped me in my tracks.

“There was an American professor who had made a lifetime’s study of the Japanese tea ceremony. He was the western expert. He heard there was an old man living in Japan who was a master of the tea ceremony. So he made a special trip to Japan to see him. He found the master living in a small house on the outskirts of Tokyo and they sat down to have tea together. The professor immediately started talking about the tea ceremony, his study, all he knew about it and how he was looking forward to sharing his learning with the old man. The old man said nothing, but started to pour tea into the professor’s cup. While the professor talked, the old man continued to pour the tea, the cup filled and the old man kept pouring. The tea split down the sides of the cup in a stream onto the floor, yet the old man did not stop. “Stop!” said the professor. “You are crazy. You can’t fit any more tea in that cup. It’s full.” “I was just practicing,” replied the old man, “for the task of attempting to pass learning to a mind that is already full.” (Source

That’s when I decided to take a break from trying to figure it all out. Stay tuned for more on this process as it unfolds; but for now, there’s nothing like a long walk on the beach to empty the mind…..

In Memoriam: Mike Littrell, Cultural Mythologist (1948-2010)

A few weeks ago my friend and mentor Mike Littrell closed the book on this earthly story. True to his passion for narrative and mythology, this intriguing, brilliant man left more questions than answers and he left us wanting more.

Mike Littrell

Mike Littrell (Photo: Gene Miller)

Mike had many friends who each experienced a different facet of this handsome diamond-in-the-rough. But I’m pretty sure everyone would agree that he was a Master Storyteller. He drew on a profound knowledge of ancient mythology, deep history and popular culture, which gave him an insightful perspective of our collective narrative history. I  learned more about storytelling and mythology during the brief 18 months that I knew him than I had in the previous 30 years that I have been working as a documentary filmmaker, editor and narrative consultant.

Tell Me a Story and Make It About Me

The beautiful eulogy delivered by Mike’s sister Barb Morgan bore the poignant title “Tell me a story and make it about me!” and it spoke volumes about the man and his work.  “Don’t tell your story, ” he often advised. “Tell the audience’s story. The key is getting them to think, Oh yeah, me too!”

I first met Mike at an inspiring un-conference I regularly attend on Cortes Island.  “Media that Matters” annually brings together media professionals dedicated to positive social change.  We brainstorm, network and chill out on the beautiful beachfront property at Hollyhock. Mike’s brilliance shone a light into our May 2009 gathering. We were enthralled by his quiet charismatic presence.

Sutton’s Law

I’ll never forget the first story I heard Mike tell about Willie Sutton, the notorious 19th century bank robber. Sutton spent over half his life in prison and when asked by a reporter why he had robbed so many banks, he replied: That’s where the money is. “Don’t ignore the bleeding obvious,” cautioned Mike with a twinkle in his eye. “The simplest answer is usually the right one.” Sutton’s Law is widely used in medical training.

During the summer of 2009, Mike and I met regularly at his ‘office': the outdoor patio at the Day’s Inn on Belleville Street. I was developing a documentary project and he was generously offering his insight. Accompanied by coffee and sunshine, two of Mike’s favourite things,  we talked about Homer, Parcival, Abelard, Dionysius and the proverbial Dragon we must all face in our lives. “Who’s dragon is it?” he would ask, making a distinction between the pragmatic slaying of someone else’s dragon and the transcendent quality of devouring or assimilating our own epic life struggle. “Make sure you don’t kill your own dragon!”

When Mike was holding court, the rich layered meaning behind his words was too dense to absorb in one sitting. His bright blue eyes danced as he spoke, making it almost impossible to do anything but listen with rapt attention. But I always had a notebook open, pen poised to jot down key words as he spoke, in the hope of mining the narrative gold at a later time. I’m so grateful I did that: I’ve been pouring over these cryptic scribbles in the last few weeks, amazed at their poignant relevance, treasuring every reminder of his sparkling intellect. I can still hear the plaintive sound of the Coho passenger ferry sounding its horn in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It invariably offered timely punctuation to our timeless conversations, ringing down the ages.

A Bird’s Eye View

An American living in Canada since the late 60’s, Mike’s own story was both universal and unique. His lifelong dream of being a pilot was never realized due to less than perfect eyesight, but clearly he could ‘see’ in other more profound ways. He arrived at his deep understanding of narrative through studying physics and chaos theory, offering him a quantum view of the world. In the 1970’s he the international director of Earth Day International and later he worked as an adviser to the Obama campaign during the Iowa caucus. During recent years, he developed a practical theory of narrative alignment (MPA-N theory) that we will likely be hearing more about in the months and years to come.

While Mike had a deep intuitive understanding of the emergent story being ushered in by the internet and social media, he himself was not a digital native. I’m still amazed that until his death, googling him drew a virtual blank. You can read more heartfelt memories of Mike here and here.

Mike’s favourite quote was from Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and after, some are stronger in the broken places.” Although he is no longer with us, his ideas and inspiration are more relevant than ever. Mike posed a riddle that I will enjoy puzzling over for a very long time to come.

You are deeply missed, Mike but far, far from forgotten.