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A Richer Harvest: The “I-in-Relation” of Digital Storytelling – by Kayann Short

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

A Richer Harvest: The “I-in-Relation” of Digital Storytelling – by Kayann Short

Ary Smith

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Kayann Short, Ph.D., has used digital storytelling in university service learning projects with community elders, adult literacy students, and student activists. The collaborative digital story created by her women's health practicum, "Note to Self: This is What Beautiful Looks Like," was chosen by the National Organization for Women's Love Your Body Day campaign. Next fall, the Center for Digital Storytelling will offer a Food Preservation Storytelling workshop at Kayann's organic farm in Colorado.

I recently published A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, a memoir of reunion with my family’s farming traditions and a call for local farmland preservation. In the book, I alternate stories about small-scale, organic farming at Stonebridge Farm, our community-supported farm along Colorado’s Front Range, with childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms in North Dakota.

Many of the chapters in the book began as digital stories. For example, “Seeds of Never Seen Dreams” was based on a digital story I wrote about my Great-Grandma Flora, a teacher and farmer on the North Dakota prairie, and the ways I see my own life reflected in hers. The first chapter, “A Trace of Rural Roots,” began as my very first digital story, made in a Denver workshop in 2006. I had never seen a digital story before I took that workshop and had intended to write about something other than the North Dakota farms, but when I looked at childhood photos in preparation for the workshop, my heart was drawn to images of summer vacations there.

In story circles, we often ask, “Where are you in this story?” as we focus on transformational moments that emphasize I-statements: I did this, I felt that. This “I” assumes an individual with an independent identity who is often striving to fulfill an individual accomplishment or overcome a personal struggle. These are powerful stories that compel the viewer to share the storymaker’s desire and cheer for them to attain their goal.

But many digital stories start out with what I call an “I-in-Relation” by portraying a relationship of influence in the storymaker’s life. These stories generally do not feature a dramatic arc or plot but rather weave together unique and mundane facts, details, dialogue, reminiscences, and images to answer the question, “How did I become the person I am?” Both types of stories communicate a personal discovery, but the “I-in-Relation” stories reach and portray that revelation in polyvocal, collaborative, or multilayered ways.

“I-in-Relation” stories generally begin with a statement about a relationship such as, “I grew up listening to my mother sing the blues while watching the dishes,” in Barbara Zang’s story, or, “When I hold the stack of fifty-two postcards that I sent to my daughter the year she lived in Japan, I’m amazed at how light they are,” in Leigh Hinton’s. These stories may even be titled with another person’s name, like “Julia” by Lucy Bailey that begins, “I sometimes feel like I’m betraying her, 150 years after she wrote that first book.” The story “Tanya,” which is often used in workshops, is told to honor a friend but also traces the author’s salvation from loneliness. Although these stories may ostensibly seem to focus on another person’s life, they express the identity, values, or truths of the storymaker’s life as well.

A Bushel’s Worth began as the story of the farm I own with my partner, John Martin, and the community and friendships that have formed at Stonebridge around food production, health, environmental sustainability, and farmland preservation. But as I wrote, the digital stories that I had created about my grandparents and great-grandparents’ farms kept finding their way into the book. I started to think about how much my childhood experiences had drawn me to the land where I live today. As I write in the book, “I might have been a city girl all my life if a farm—and a farmer—hadn’t come along. But if I hadn’t spent my first years and my childhood summers on my grandparents’ farms, would a farmer and a farm have been the choice I made?”

Once I integrated my family farm stories with those of Stonebridge, the book came together in a different way. Book reviewers have commented on how A Bushel’s Worth weaves together many stories into “one beautiful, colorful ball of yarn.” Rather than a straightforward chronology that followed the months and seasons of the year as I’d originally planned, I looked at the stories topically for similarities and connections. The form I created is less a narrative line or arc than a matrix or web of inter-related stories. Often, I pair moments from my childhood with our work at Stonebridge, like “Horse Barn, Milk Barn,” a scene of childhood exploration, and “Red, Red Barn,” about our community barn-painting.

I call my book an “ecobiography,” not only because of topical links regarding nature, farming, and land, but also to place the “I” of my story “in relation” to my family’s past and the agricultural ecosystems that have shaped us. Each digital story became a part of a larger whole, making A Bushel’s Worth both memoir and homage to my grandparents’ rural ways.  In this web of textual and familial relations,the structure of the book itself reflects a kind of discursive ecosystem, one that draws my life closer to those who have gone before and reaps a richer harvest of the stories we share.