On Nov. 7 and 8, professionals from seemingly unrelated fields—publishing, healthcare, academia, social work, and writing—were brought together for a two-day conference titled “Narrative in the Age of Distraction.” The conference, sponsored by The Connection Institute for Innovative Practice, Wesleyan Writing Programs, the College of Letters, the Science in Society Program, Lisa Weinert Consulting, and Narratively, was divided into two tracks: “Healing Letters,” which addressed the role of narrative in healthcare, and “Narrative in the Age of Twitter,” which focused on how narrative has been influenced by the digital revolution.
Visiting Faculty in the Psychology Department and Visiting Writer in the College of Letters Charles Barber developed the conference after realizing the influence that technology has on students’ abilities to produce cohesive narratives.
“My students here were very smart, very facile, very quick, [and] they probably did better on their SATs than I did, but they struggled with telling a story that unfolded over time,” Barber said. “They really struggled with it. I saw them being immersed in a digital culture that I’ve been immune to. I saw this hyperability to process information and a lack in terms of structuring that information, staying with that information, and turning information into story or plot.”
In addition to teaching at the University and being a published writer, Barber directs The Connection Institute for Innovative Practice, which aims to connect research with practice in the behavioral health and criminal justice fields. Barber noted that the conference brings together these two halves of his life.
“You could say there’s a disconnect, but I don’t think there really is,” he said. “I don’t see the issues as that different.”
The conference’s keynote address, the first Katchen Coley Memorial Lecture, was titled “The Care of the Sick as a Work of Art” and delivered by Professor of Clinical Medicine and Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Rita Charon. Coley, who passed away this August, founded The Connection and was married to Professor of English, Emeritus William Coley.
“This is an opportunity to talk about distraction and its opposites, and also to find the place where narrativity might reside within that,” Charon said. “…Caring for the sick solves the problem of distraction. The work itself, the commitment, being in the office, is so urgent and all encompassing that it rivets one into attention when it’s well done. It’s a means by which we can develop states of attention that replace distraction with this deep focus.”
Charon noted the importance of focused narrative in healthcare as a means of healing, arguing that both the act of telling one’s story and the knowledge that this imparts to the practitioner contribute to the patient’s progress.
“The giving and receiving of accounts of self are the central events in healthcare,” she said. “It’s not just words: it’s gesture and position and silence and mood and expression and outrage. The [practitioner] needs to use all of these avenues, not just knowing how to read an EKG but really absorbing all that another person might emit.”
Elana Rosenthal ’15 found the keynote compelling.
“[Charon] has a very engaging voice,” she said. “I really thought it was beautiful how she developed [the idea of focus] from her relation to a [Mark] Rothko painting and spoke of narrative as essentially a relationship in her clinical interactions as well.”
This first track of the conference also included three breakout sessions, as well as talks by Professor of Justice Studies and Human Development and the Director of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice for Queen’s Law Shadd Maruna, titled “Narrative as ‘Waste Management’ in the Lives of Redeemed Former Prisoners,” and by Professor of Sociology at University of Calgary Arthur Frank, titled “Illness and the Distraction of Narrative—or Vice Versa.”
The second track of the conference consisted of three breakout sessions; a talk by Mary Gaitskill, an author and professor at New York University; and a panel titled “Narrative in the Digital Marketplace.” The panel was moderated by book publicist Lisa Weinert, who attended Wesleyan before graduating from Barnard College in 2002, and Global Digital Director at the Penguin Group Molly Barton ’00. Weinert explained the focus of the panel.
“The part of the conference that I’m really spearheading with Molly is…really looking at the way that the digital revolution has impacted narrative and how long-form narrative in particular has been transformed and thrived,” she said. “[We’ll look at] not exactly what the challenges are, but what’s really awesome about it: what the opportunities are here, what’s exciting here, and how is it really transforming the way that we perceive storytelling.”
The panel featured The American Reader co-founder and editor-in-chief Uzoamaka Maduka; New Yorker fiction coordinator John McElwee; and Narratively Founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief Noah Rosenberg. These panelists discussed how they have seen the publishing industry change through the rise of digital media.
Rosenberg commented that writers sometimes confuse digitalization with license to write what might be unnecessarily lengthy stories.
“A lot of writers flock to Narratively…because they had written these six or seven thousand-word theses and had nowhere else to turn,” Rosenberg said. “…Just because we’re not The New York Times, and we don’t have these print constraints in the physical paper, it doesn’t mean we still don’t have a responsibility to tell the story and sometimes reign the writers and editors in [to make sure that we] tell these stories in the appropriate length.”
Maduka countered the perception that digital pieces are somehow inferior to those that might appear in the print version of a publication.
“The way [people] always [understand] it was that the print is the formal dinner party and the digital is after the plates are taken away,” Maduka said. “I think one of the things people have really misunderstood about this emergent generation and the relation of these different technologies is that it really is about being ambidextrous. It’s not about forcing a choice in either realm.”
In McElwee’s opinion, the digital revolution has allowed for some forms of writing to flourish.
“I think the long-form essay has really taken off and benefited from places like Narratively, Longreads, [and] The Rumpus,” McElwee said. “…I really think you can trace a lot of what’s going on in narrative nonfiction to these digital platforms.”
The panel also touched on how face-to-face editorial interaction has changed in the digital era, how branding has taken on more importance, and how to distinguish talent in a seemingly infinite pool of writing.
Daniel Pope ’16 noted that he wished the panel had focused more on how literature itself has changed with the digital revolution.
“[I]t’s scary when these people in the publishing industry just talk about Consumers and Content,” Pope wrote in an email to The Argus. “[L]iterature shouldn’t be a product—obviously it is, and that’s the reality of our world—but you shouldn’t go into literature to sell a product. What kinds of books sell these days? Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, and various other regurgitations. That’s what sells, so that’s what the publishing industry prefers to market. So what will happen to real literature?”
According to Weinert, this is the reality of the situation and the reason that marketing is now vital in the publishing world.
“[N]ever has it been better or worse to be a writer,” she said. “Never before have you been able to publish anything you want, simultaneously, [on] multiple platforms, globally, and then—who cares? Nobody cares! More than anything, the biggest change is the role of messaging, branding, PR, and marketing, and figuring out how to find your audience. That’s become way more important.”