Narrative Mechanics

Paul Simon in Conversation

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Paul Simon; photo credit, Myrna Suarez

On a new edition of the All Songs Considered podcast, Paul Simon walks host Bob Boilen through the construction of the opening track on his forthcoming album. It’s a fascinating 40-minute lesson on narrative mechanics, offering a rare and candid glimpse into the process of one of America’s great songwriters.

“What instruments I use and where they sit in the track,” Simon explains, “there must be hundreds of those decisions, or maybe thousands, for all I know, of tiny decisions, about whether there should be some piece of musical information or whether you don’t need it at all.” According to a New York Times preview, four of the album’s first six songs don’t use any guitar.

In so many ways, the conversation is a revelation. Simon discusses line-by-line how the lyrics came together—the song’s first words were changed, for example, because they reminded him too much of “You Can Call Me Al.” (Also on the subject of his back catalog: at 22:20 of the podcast, he calls attention to backing vocals lifted directly “Late in the Evening.”)

The full album, Stranger to Stranger, will be released on June 3rd, with a “first listen” available via NPR beginning on Thursday, May 26th.

Back-Calculate: Jennifer Egan and George Saunders in Conversation

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This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine published a conversation about craft between two fiction writers whose wildly inventive feats with language and structure never feel forced; instead, they pull readers deeper into the story, closer to the characters. Beginning with Egan’s very first question, the exchange reads like a master class in narrative mechanics.

Jennifer Egan: I want to start by talking about how we define writing about the future. Some things that I think of as futuristic, when I’ve looked at them again for this conversation, I’m not sure they really are. So I guess my question would be: What leads you into territory that feels futuristic? How do you end up there? And what makes it the future?

George Saunders: Well, I never really have any desire to be a futurist — to predict, which I think is probably a fool’s errand. Mostly I just want to get into some exciting new language space. I might stumble on an intriguing kind of language and go: Who is talking this way, and why? And then I back-calculate a surrounding world that allows me to keep doing that voice. Sometimes it turns out to be a world that hasn’t existed yet.

For example, in my story “Jon,” I came to that odd diction by way of one of my undergraduate student’s written responses to Kakfa’s “The Metamorphosis,” which began: “Upon perusing this work of literature, I felt myself at a distinct tilt.” And I thought: Jeez, that is great — off, somehow, and yet also oddly communicative of … something. I felt a strong urge to imitate that fragment — to riff on it. I did about five pages of that, and of course it spun off into being something different: a combo of Valley speech and corporatese, in which the speaker (whoever he was) kept lurching into commercial metaphors whenever he had something deep he wanted to express. For example, when he first falls in love, he can only express how intense this is by comparing it to a commercial for Honey Grahams, in which “the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness.” So then I had to ask: What conditions would have to pertain to cause a kid to talk this way — equal parts adman, stoner, New Age guru? What I came up with was that he had a chip in his neck that contained every commercial ever made, and had lived his whole life in some sort of corporate facility. But that process was very mechanical — trying to come up with the simplest answer to the question: “Kid, why are you talking like that?”

from Choose Your Own Adventure: A Conversation With Jennifer Egan and George Saunders; New York Times Magazine, November 15, 2015

Narrative Attack (with Power Sanders)

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I wasn’t familiar with Mark Bradford‘s work before reading about him in last week’s New Yorker. He’s an abstract painter, in case you don’t know. I didn’t.

There’s so much to recommend in the essay. Here’s writer Calvin Tomkins describing Bradford’s process:

He starts with a stretched canvas and builds up its surface with ten or fifteen layers of paper — white paper, colored paper, newsprint, reproductions, photographs, printed text — fixing each layer with a coat of clear shellac. Sometimes he embeds lengths of string or caulking to form linear elements in the palimpsest. When the buildup reaches a certain density, he attacks it with power sanders and other tools, exposing earlier layers, flashes of color, and unexpected juxtapositions. Not until the first sanding does he begin to see where the painting is going. He works like an archeologist, rediscovering the past.

Tomkins has composed a fascinating character study from similarly unexpected juxtapositions: art, Home Depot, race, hair salons, international travel, family, social justice, Los Angeles, antiquarian books, standup comedy… Read the essay while it’s still available at

Mark Bradford photographed by Catherine Opie for the New Yorker
Mark Bradford photographed by Catherine Opie for the New Yorker

Narrative Mechanics Workshop: “How to Design and Deploy Strategy for Arts Marketing Success”

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Team Sheepscot has serious roots in the Portland arts community: Dave spent years as the director of marketing at Powell’s, and I covered arts and culture as a writer and editor for nearly a decade. So naturally, when the Regional Arts and Culture Council invited us to host an arts marketing workshop for artists and organizations, we jumped at the chance.

On Saturday, April 4, Sheepscot will present “Narrative Mechanics: How to Design and Deploy Strategy for Arts Marketing Success“:

“YOU HAVE A GREAT STORY TO TELL, but where do you begin? What’s the best way to frame your narrative to ensure that you’re making an impact with the right audiences? From public events and print materials to social media platforms, how should you allocate resources to best achieve your goals?

Learn to construct a story that will resonate with your audience, inspire actions that benefit your bottom line, and evolve over time as your relationship to fans and consumers changes.”

Narrative Mechanics:
How to Design and Deploy Strategy for Arts Marketing Success
Saturday April 4th, 2015; 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Location: Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), 511 NW Broadway, Portland, OR 97209
Cost: $30

Update: RACC has invited Sheepscot back for a repeat engagement of this Narrative Mechanics workshop on February 13, 2016. Full details here.

Joshua Ferris | All literary art is basically the art of perspective

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We invited author Joshua Ferris to a party at my house, to talk about his novels and share ideas about how stories get made.

Each party guest brought a unique perspective on narrative mechanics. Among us: an illustrator, a publisher, a biographer, a teacher, a playwright, a recording engineer, a creative director, a magazine editor, an actor, and a consumer experience designer.

We put a wireless mic on Josh as soon as he arrived.

People mostly hung out in the kitchen, as people at parties will. Lisa and Michael roamed inside and out, shooting on Canon DSLRs.

My friend since middle school tended bar. (Thanks, Vitz.)

We drank and mingled. For a while, everybody gathered in the living room to talk as a group. And then before that could get old, we disassembled to drink and mingle some more.

Josh’s most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The paperback edition hits stores on March 10.

Clever Little Bag

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Every audience touchpoint is a chance to develop your narrative.

Puma’s Clever Little Bag, designed by Yves Behar, takes advantage of familiar materials, and a potent moment, that shoemakers ordinarily waste.

The bag reads:

Well, it’s smarter than an old fashioned shoebox because it uses 65% less paper. Even better, it means you don’t need an extra carrier bag and you can use it over and over again. Clever, huh? Follow the Puma Eco-Table. Reuse this bag.

The Eco-Table calls out sustainable practices throughout Puma’s operations.

I’ve been wearing Puma sneakers since a high school job in one of the company’s warehouses, but I knew nothing about its sustainable practices until this package showed up at my door.

The brilliance isn’t in the message–everybody wants to convince you they’re sustainable. But the delivery system? Ingenius.

Instead of a forgettable block of cardboard that I’d immediately dump in the recycling bin, Puma surprised me with a small, smart gift. Delightful and impossible to ignore. Already they’d raised my spirits, before I’d even seen the shoes.

Since the bag arrived, I’ve told dozens of people about it. With every conversation, Puma’s narrative spreads.

QUESTION: What opportunities to build your own narrative are you missing?

Behind the Photos with Holly Andres

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Dave interviewed Holly Andres for an hour and a half at his kitchen table in Portland, Oregon. She lives about ten blocks away.

We didn’t want to publish their conversation as a traditional text Q&A because without Holly’s photographs alongside how could anyone fully appreciate what she was saying? The planning and serendipity, both, that turn her visions into portraits and ultimately into stories. Some kind of slideshow was in order.

An installation that Holly created last year at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, The Trail of Sparrow Lane, gave us inspiration.

Kaia designed visuals for the gallery and tour in Prezi, free presentation software that Leah had suggested. We captured the presentation as a video in Quicktime, and then imported the file into Final Cut.

Meanwhile, Dave was turning the original interview transcript into an 8-minute monologue for Holly.

When he was done, Holly came back to the kitchen and recorded her monologue as voice-over.

We found background music at

The rest was editing.

Advice on Digital Communications from the 2013 Oregon Arts Summit

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At Monday’s Oregon Arts Summit, I participated in a panel called “Media, Community, and Conversation,” which focused on “reliable, flexible tools for creating meaningful engagement, expanding dialogue, and generating enthusiasm for arts programming.” Here’s the original script of my presentation. (Special thanks to Portland Emerging Arts Leaders for the invitation.)

Today I want to talk about how your digital strategy should emerge naturally from organization’s objectives.

I’ll start by giving a simple example from our recent work.

In designing a new website for the Oregon Arts Commission, as we discussed their goals and reviewed content on the site we’d be replacing, we discovered that a simple, evocative description of their work and impact remained conspicuously absent. A typical user is unlikely to download a PDF and dig through your strategic plan; nor should they need to. And yet it’s vitally important that people know why you exist and what difference you make in the community.

We wanted to make this information as easy as possible to digest, so our team created a very short (48-seconds), animated infographic to do the job.

That’s really all I want to say about our work with the Arts Commission for now. Just that example.

Start with your objectives. Ask, How can digital tools serve them? Not, How can we have a Facebook presence? Don’t just decide, We should really be on Twitter. The question is: What new opportunities do these tools present that could help us achieve our mission?

“Digital” is your website. It’s your newsletter and blog. It’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram. It’sFoursquare and it’s Yelp. It’s iTunes, Kindle, Google and Bing. It’s every app you haven’t yet heard of because you only have so much time in the day, right? Vivino—do you know Vivino yet? It’s like Shazaam for wine: You snap a picture of the label on a bottle, Vivino recognizes what wine you’re drinking. You get ratings and prices and comments from other users; if you choose, you can contribute to those comment threads, or you can simply save your ratings and your tasting notes privately so that next time you’re dumbfounded in the wine aisle of Fred Meyer in an instant you can retrieve the name of that Montepulciano you loved but can’t remember.

“Digital” is also the platforms and more broadly the technologies that no one’s thought of yet. Maybe some kid who’s learning about creativity at one of your workshops or in one of your audiences will imagine one into reality someday; there are boys and girls out there today who twenty years from now are going to be on the cover of Wired, for who knows what inconceivable expansion of what we now know to be possible, some technology that soon enough we’ll take for granted, such as, for example, carrying a phone, a camera, a notebook, a calculator, an atlas, a jukebox, a set of encyclopedias, a newsstand, a movie theater, and, yes, a wine steward in your purse or the pocket of your jeans.

The point being: More and more, like it or not, “digital” describes a state in which your audiences and funders spend much of their lives. Think, yourself, of the hours in your typical day, from when you wake up until you go bed. How many of your hours pass without either sharing or consuming some form of digital communication? Think about it. You checked your email or the weather or last night’s scores; you texted your spouse or your son; you snuck in a few minutes of Words with Friends. Now think about your organization and your goals for building not just audiences but communities. Pretty much every hour of the day, potentially, you have access to them. The New York Times this morning referred to contemporary American culture as “an always-on society.”

There’s tremendous competition for your audiences’ time, that’s true.

To be successful, you will have to make yourselves vulnerable. And you will have take risks. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the secrets to healthy digital relationships are not altogether different from the secrets to healthy face-to-face relationships: Have empathy. Give of yourself. Don’t make it all about you. Dare I say, love freely.

So, back to the beginning: What are your objectives?

Now, consider: What resources do you have? Potential funding or partnerships…staff members with a jones for this stuff. It’s possible—I would argue it’s even likely—that one or two impassioned staff members who thrive on digital communication will achieve more in a fraction of the time of a full-time hire who doesn’t naturally inhabit digital worlds.

Give them structure. Set purposeful, measurable goals. Empower them. Encourage the occasional failure. And then harness the creativity and dedication in your organization to apply these tools and technologies toward your success.