Category Archives: journalling

Offsetting the digital sales experience with stories

Oblique narrative pathways seem more than ever necessary to us as we want something more than a hard sell.   Take this Toast podcast which is a special Christmas project of book and podcasts intending, I suppose, to distinguish Toast from other online retailers. We want something which has been touched by human hand, or voice, and these kinds of slightly offbeat digital narrative projects help to put a face, a voice, a personal stitching hand, a sense of richness to the encounter which offsets the inhuman and functional aspects of the experience.

This is part of a bigger story called in a recent magazine article ‘The birth of nu-craft’. Writing about two exhibitions (one just past, called ‘Hot Craft’, and one just started at the V&A called ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’Fleur Britten writes about how craft has moved from being a ‘nesting pastime’ to an expression of creativity. Craft nights are springing up everwhere, including in unlikely places like working men’s clubs (a subject worthy of another blog sometime). The boundaries between craft, art and design are being blurred. We want the trace of the potters hand on the pot, both as potter seeking meaning in work expression, and as purchaser, seeking meaning in what we surround ourselves with. One of the interviewees in the article, Kate Westerholt (who co-curated Proud) sees is as akin to the Arts and Crafts movement, with people tiring of industrialisation and craving individuality.I don’t think it’s just that. I think there’s more too it, but it is a sign of an important trend.

I’ve been writing elsewhere about negative space, and, by inference, about the necessary slowness involved in the ambiguity of making your own meaning.This struck me too the other night when I was watching Pan’s Labyrinth, quite a chilling mix of fact and fantasy set in the Spanish Civil War. As with all Guillermo Del Toro’s films, there’s a great big allegory in there. What’s great and big about this one is that like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ the fusion of both fantasy and fact make for a whole new personal narrative journey. And you have to park your analytical mind because the meanings are not, as my friend Markie would term it, isomorphic. The surrender to ambiguity and random resonance during the experience is what makes it meaningful.

This all seems to me to be part of a bigger search for personal meaning. Which Doris Lessing was also saying in her Nobel Prize Speech at the weekend. We need storytellers and writers don’t come out of houses without books in them, she says. But beware: 

“The inanities of the internet have seduced a generation, and we live in a fragmenting culture where people read nothing and know nothing of the world, the new Nobel laureate novelist Doris Lessing warned yesterday…. “We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.” I’m off to read and write real fantasy now

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Drumming to the rhythm of James Joyce

I’ve a friend, Mark, who once coined the term ‘synthalpy’ for the next big movement which would wash knowledge management away into the past of tired, failed, organisational managements of once kind or another.  Synthalpy is the positive energy which flows when two worlds, hitherto unknown to each other, collide.    

When I look around, he gets righter and righter.  Except it’s not just two worlds I don’t think.  In Saturday’s Guardian was an article about the artist Anri Sala, whose take a drumless recording of a new Franz Ferdinand song, a gallery in London, and fragments from the text of Ulysses by James Joyce.  Visitors are asked to record the drum beat.  Their instructions  are extracts from Ulysses – ‘ bootless’ ‘lickitup’ ‘window-sash’ ‘boo-entity’ with some placing in context of the music.  The instruction, in essence, is that the rhythm of the word is the drum beat rhythm which is sought. The artist, Sala, ends the instructions with Joyce ‘With care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving remembered, repeated with error.’ J

ohn Cage would be proud.I wonder too, what happens in the brain where the rhythm of a word is the instruction to produce a series of beats in a sequence.  

I’ve been reading, too, a marvellous book called ‘The Actor and the Target’ by Declan Donnellan, who founded Cheek by Jowl, the theatre company in 1981.  Essential reading for anyone interested in work and performance in any settings.I need to read it again, but have been most struck, in my vague meanderings through time and its meaning in organisational settings by his characterisation of Fear (capitalised) in particular. Fear, he says,  splits real time into two fake times to avoid you being present.  He splits time into the past, riddled with Guilt and the future, infused with Anxiety.  The guilty past and the anxious future do not exist, only the present exists.

I notice some move in me, with this and with the time in two modes (mackerel, memory) a lurching away from interest in the future and to being present, ever present.Donnellan also says that acting  (but life I think) is about the pursuit of seeing rather than of being seen.  Seeing, in the sense of using the faculties to be present and to see fully what is happening.I’ve an embryonic thesis that we mistake, hugely the value of planning and the value of reordering the past with offical, and officious, programmes of evaluation, lessons learnt, business planning, visioning, mission statements – the dross of illusory structure which deludes we are, somehow, captains of the organisational ship and have a choice where we can see it.  I’m thinking now that the richness of organisational life unfolds in an acute awareness of the present, an ability to look around and see what is, and, by seeing and describing it well, to open it up lines of sight which are otherwise blocked.  I think metaphor is permissable too, with all its dangers, to allow the heightened language to describe complex depths and darknesses which are not otherwise safely explored, or even explored at all. For some things, only the language of metaphor allows access.

This is social constructionism gone mad of course, but not gone bad I don’t think.  It does call into question the happier clappier parts of appreciative enquiry, the dreamy bits, imagining Chicago, imagining this, imagining that. But I think that might be necessary.  Untrammelled imaginings are whimsical in some way.  And I don’t think that’s where the valuable moments happen in the expression of dreams. I could be terribly wrong to do that.  But it does not diminish the value of the act of enquiry itself, which appreciative enquiry values so much, and rightly too. I think dreaming belongs in bed at night, and in taut forms, vehicles of expression like theatre, poetry, where the dangerousness or newness or impossibility of the imagining is contained, bounded and made safe for exploration by the traditional forms in which these things are contained.  

I think the double unboundedness of sprawling imagining, has less power to make change that either the imaginings bounded in literary or musical forms and compositions which give them density and punch, or by the permission to describe things and be listened to. The presentation of the unthinkable and unsayable in forms which have familiarity and create a certain sense of safety in the listener or viewer to engage seems important.

In the work we’re doing for museums at present, there’s a drumbeat recurring theme about the loss of touch, feeling and rawness in today’s worklife. Museums and archives are used, but in a tidied up, refined way, by interpreters of, say, brand, to package them for accessibility and purvey them to organisations who want things tidy. That’s one trend. Against mess, against the rolling up of sleeves and plunging yourself into the unknown (which is certainly where Fear splits time into two, with great glee). But there’s another trend too, towards treasuring the archive. And for more than just presentation purposes I think. In this world of ephemera and transience where people float in and out of work and work relationships and commitments, some lineage seems more then ever essential. Levi, John Lewis, organisations which are brand-smart, but also thoughtful, are finding that the archives must be made visible and feelable. Not just to plunder them for clever ideas and a kind of pseudo-heritage which might make things feel more solid and permanent. But in a genuine move to treasure and share the inspirational moments from the past so that they come forward and provide inspiration, context and meaning for those who relate to them in the present, which will, in some way change their future.

One person we interviewed said that all work is changing, becoming less linear, more reliant on simultaneity, in the present of a rich resource, in a place of character. These insights prompt me more than ever to the conviction that knowledge is not to be buttoned down, but only exists in the presence of others and in the presence of rich resources. It can only flow and cross gaps. In turn this leads me ever more to the conviction that knowledge is about not-knowledge. I’m taking a look at the negatives of things, the other sides, the shadows, the dark, the blocks, the gaps, the un-things, the not-knowing to see where this leads me.

This goes right back to Declan Donnellan. Acting, he says, is not about the actor, its about the target. The target is not a goal, or objective, or intention, or mission of any kind. Its something that exists outside the actor which fuels the actor. Like dancing with a bamboo stick. You’ll find, if you dance with a stick, that the more you allow the stick to lead, the more graceful, ambitious and dynamic the dance is. Surrender to the stick.

Matisse, and I’ve shared this before, had no idea what he was doing or why when he spent four years carving backs. He did it because it needed to be done. I’m not Matisse, I’m not Declan Donnellan, I’m not an artist of any kind. I’m unlikely to be a writer. I’m most likely to provide some kind of invisible mending and some spaces of invitation and conversation in different settings. But I do recognise the growing need to do something because it somehow needs to be done, rather than need to know why. And what needs to be done by me now is to understand the importance of absenting the future from organisational planning, reconnecting with rawness, and shining a light on the negative, hidden and lurking places which are where knowledge really lies.

I’m not quite sure where this rambling gets me but it feels like something important is flickering at the edges of my vision. I hope David Cooperrider writes in to tell me how wrong I am and persuade me otherwise.  Or anyone else for that matter.     

Must do better

I have decided while walking the dog to take my own school report seriously. I’m sitting here, coffee at hand, dog at feet with Clandinin and Connelly, Anne Carson, Ivan Illich, all assembled and am going to rewrite yesterday’s blog more seriously.

Here goes.

I keep crafting the metaphor blog in my mind and then not getting round to writing it. Meanwhile I spend quite a bit of time whitening my tennis shoes to avoid
a. the metaphor blog
b. writing 7,000 words on knowledge work

(In the interests of true honesty I should add that this re-write is a tsw (tennis-shoe-whitening) activity to avoid me
a. doing yoga and
b. sorting out the recording kit to take to Geneva tomorrow)

Luckily tennis-shoe-whitening has got me through four loads of washing and a lot of kitchen cupboards. Which reminds me of a man who extolled the virtues of uncompleted tax returns. As long as they hang over you, you must feverishly undertake apparently useful displacement activity to avoid the horror of the looming thing.

At least, courtesy of Ivan Illich and his gorgeous early ’70’s rants, I know that the metaphor blog is called ‘poets and clowns’. So I’m creeping towards it.

‘Poets and clowns have always risen up against the oppression of creative thought by dogma. They expose literalmindedness with metaphor. They demonstrate the follies of seriousness in a framework of humour. Their intimate wonder dissolves certainties, banishes fear, and undoes paralysis. The prophet can denounce creeds and expose supersittions and mobilize people to use their lights and wits. Poetry, intution and theory can offer intimations of the advance of dogma against wit that may lead to a revolution in awareness.’

(I’m also finding his attacks on the professionalisation of knowledge quite heartening for my enquiry to to what the hell knowledge workers are.)

And meanwhile, to show I’ve not forgotten my self-imposed task of wregular writing, here’s a little amuse gueule from the father of Louisa M Alcott which I picked up from the Guardian Weekend magazine:

‘more routine, less living.’

So perhaps the blog can wait awhile.

Of course Anne Carson is quite pointy in ‘Decreation’ about self-serving purpose of quotes, caesared from full texts and cut loose from their context.

‘What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. you suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is a sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because you can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous.’

Objects and subjects, subjects and objects. The subject of objects is accumulating a kind of magnetic interest.

Ana Antonio Gill wrote to tell me that she is currently working with a group who were victims of violence, mainly racial abuse. They are using workshops with objects as prompts and digital photography. The final exhibition will be of the photographs, the objects themselves and a sketch/story book which the participants will then keep in order to recollect their experiences and help them find forms of expression.

This leads me on to my dereliction of duty as a narrative inquirer which I was hoping to avoid but must confess to at least in part. Clandinin and Connelly’s book has dauntingly useful passages on field texts, how to construct and use them:

‘Field texts aid the enquirer to move back and forth between full involvement with participants and distance from them….When narrative enquirers are in the field, they are never there as disembodied recorders of someone else’s experience. They too are having an experience, the experience of the enquiry that entails the experience they set out to explore.’

‘To illustrate the various kinds of field texts the narrative enquirer can use, we look at a variety of field texts employed and interwoven by one researcher. We explore the use of teacher stories; autobiographical writing; journal writing; field notes; letters; converseation; research interviews; family stories; documents; photographs; memory boxes, and other personal-family-social artifacts; and life experience. All of which can make valuable field texts.’

And I so don’t. No poetry. No two-columned observations – facts in one column, emotions in another. (Marginalia). No photos. No scraps and fragments of experience, observation, lists and literature. My narrative notes are in torn out bits of newspaper, random sheets of paper, half-baked diagrams scrawled on the back of envelopes, scrunched up and put in a back jean pocket and forgotten about until after they’ve ruined the next wash, moleskin books intended at outset to be orderly, dated, well documented, neat, but instead scrawled and circled and incomprehensible, hijacked for other projects when that project notebook was not to hand.

But at least this has got us thinking, in our work which is about to kick off for the Museums, Libraries and Archives London partnership, about how we want to create collaborative field texts which articulate our journals and observations as enquirers as well as assemble desk research, interviews, photos and other things. To some extent I suppose you could regard it as formalising the marginalia so that they cease to be marginal and make their own life – an attempt to document the evolving internal world of the enquirer, suitably distanced from the offerings of those who are enquired of, so that there is not contamination but the voices of both can be heard distinctly.

I know that in this respect I’m going to be indebted to Bev Traynor (who accidentally pushed me into setting up this blog) and her tremendous thinking about the documenting implications of new media – take a look at this co-authored wiki space:
Remembering and forgetting: a Review of Narrative and Technologies from a Communities of Practice Perspective

And sometimes it’s the smallest things. In km4dev skype conversations with Bev and others she has used the the chat space to make a log of what the conversation covers – a kind of unmeeting note.
Obviously. So very obviously. Why didn’t I think of that before?

Must do better.

‘More routine, less living’

I keep crafting the metaphor blog in my mind and then not getting round to writing it. Meanwhile I spend quite a bit of time whitening my tennis shoes to avoid
a. the metaphor blog
b. writing 7,000 words on knowledge work

Luckily tennis-shoe-whitening has got me through four loads of washing and a lot of kitchen cupboards. Which reminds me of a man who extolled the virtues of uncompleted tax returns. As long as they hang over you, you must feverishly undertake apparently useful displacement activity to avoid the horror of the looming thing.

At least, courtesy of Ivan Illich and his gorgeous early ’70’s rants, I know that the metaphor blog is called ‘poets and clowns’. So I’m creeping towards it.

And meanwhile, to show I’ve not forgotten my self-imposed task of wregular writing, here’s a little amuse gueule from the father of Louisa M Alcott which I picked up from the Guardian Weekend magazine:

‘more routine, less living.’

So perhaps the blog can wait awhile.

Of course Anne Carson (not to hand, in the library room somewhere) is quite disparaging in ‘Decreation’ about self-serving purpose of quotes, caesared from full texts and cut loose from their context. But it will serve for now.

And the subject of objects is accumulating a kind of magnetic interest.

Ana Antonio Gill wrote to tell me that she is currently working with a group who were victims of violence, mainly racial abuse. They are using workshops with objects as prompts and digital photography. The final exhibition will be of the photographs, the objects themselves and a sketch/story book which the participants will then keep in order to recollect their experiences and help them find forms of expression.

This leads me on to my dereliction of duty as a narrative inquirer which I was hoping to avoid but must confess to at least in part. Clandinin and Connelly’s book (again not to hand, I’m rushing) has almost exhaustively useful passages on field texts, how to construct and use them. And I so don’t. No poetry. No two-columned observations – facts in one column, emotions in another. (Marginalia). No photos. No scraps and fragments of experience, observation, lists and literature. My narrative notes are in torn out bits of newspaper, random sheets of paper, moleskin books intended at outset to be orderly, dated, well documented, neat, but instead scrawled and circled and incomprehensible.

Must do better.

Fiction as a place of truth

I’ve written on this before and I’m bound to write on it over and over again because it’s at the very heart of our work as narrative enquirers in an organisational context.

It comes up for me again now because of the literary festival currently going on in London which has the theme of saying the unsayable A session I missed was with Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam. In an article preceding the session in the Guardian Kamila Shamsie writes of growing up in a censoring dictatorship in Pakistan, an era when the ‘absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies.’. She writes of the thrill of the effect of Shame, by Salman Rushdie, a book about politics in Pakistan:

‘Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10 too young to read the book – it was the first indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworth than the news.’

She goes on to say that fiction writers can go to places which news reporters and historians fear to tread. And all the same, the emotional truth which becomes possible through fiction is not possible without facts:

‘You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it.’

Another take on the truth and fiction comes in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. The subversive women’s book club she sets up reads first ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Nafisi says:

‘I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novles provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.

So for Nafisi, rather in the Chinese way, the dislocation of time and space and examination of the big stories of birth, death, love, freedom, oppression, through literature creates a freedom for the reader to see their own life through the window of another experience.

But what about another challenge of the truth – it’s relative dullness. In his brilliant book ‘Stuart, a life backwards’ Alexander Masters starts, in chapter 0, with a disappointed conversation with his subject (Stuart, Shorter: thief, hostage-taker, psycho, addict, raconteur):

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.”

And he suggests
‘Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’

And so that is what Masters does. Triumphantly. It is an extraordinary story. Stuart’s life backwards, and Alexander Master’s own growth and change through the challenge of grappling with both finding out this life and struggling with a way to structure and convey it. And not only that, in the background, as he learns of the bigger issues of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and the institutitions involved, an extraordinary, vibrant, informed picture grows of this whole issue of homelessness which transforms the reader’s insight. So fact, fiction, story structure, biography, autobiography all blend to convey a far greater truth than either the facts or the story on their own. An embrace of narrative and analysis.

Dave Eggers faced the same kind of issue in trying to share the story of Valentino Deng, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. In the Guardian Review of 26th May, there is a long, fascinating article called ‘It was just boys walking’ which details his struggle to wrestle the facts, gaps and partial recollections of his subject into a form which would engage the reader:

‘Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Franciso, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth…..I had been working on a book of oral hsitories from the lives of publics chool teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemlbe the book from his words. I even imagined for a while – much of our first year together – that I would simply be the editor of the book, not it’s author.’

But at the end of the first year Eggers realised that the material he had ‘did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaer articles already avaialbel to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes.’

After huge labours and an emotional rollercoaster, Eggers finally did four things to make a window through which the truth and strength of the story could be conveyed:

1. He did source research himself, going to Sudan to fill in the gaps and increase the richness of the description
2. He wrote it as fiction

This raises some interesting issues for Thomas Jones, reviewing the book in the London Review of Books. In a genuinely favourable review, he raises some pertinent questions about authorship and ownership, which I’ll write more about another time:

‘And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a ‘variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.’

3. He used the more recent experiences of Deng, being mugged in his own home in the US by people he didn’t know as a framing device:

‘It was at this time I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino’s expeirences in Sudan ajd the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US.’

And finally, he underpinned the structure with an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan, which gave the book it’s final title ‘What is the What’

And then this today from Knowledge at Wharton on Michael Crichton’s new book ‘Next’. The article is called ‘A Novel on Genetic Research: It’s ‘Fiction, Except for the Parts That Aren’t’

A few extracts to get the juices rising, my bold:

‘In Next, published in November 2006, Crichton takes up genetic engineering again, this time from the vantage point of the law.

Next weaves together several storylines in order to trace the complex and confusing interplay of scientific innovation, legal loopholes, moral limits and economic opportunity.

Together, these real and imagined stories create a troubling portrait of a teeming biotech industry marred by corporate greed, legal confusion and moral uncertainty. Crichton’s is a world in which marketing executives promote the idea of using genetically modified animals to sell their products. It’s a world in which lawyers debate whether one’s body parts might actually be the highly profitable property of someone else. And it’s a world in which no one knows how to think through the biological and ethical dilemmas posed by a science that can rearrange natural boundaries at will. What people in this world are left with, in the absence of scientific and moral clarity, is the corrupting promise of unlimited economic opportunity and a legal system that is frighteningly ill-equipped to cope with the kind of ethical puzzles genetic research raises.

Crichton’s point is that as science outpaces the understanding of lawyers, judges, and government officers, our ability to maintain a coherent legal position on it is being radically compromised. And, as the examples cited above show, he has written convincingly on this point for some time. In Next, he crafts a novel around this argument as a way of painlessly developing it (a fast-paced story is always easier to follow than a complicated analysis). This might sound like cheating. And from an analytical viewpoint it does leave something to be desired. But a novel offers Crichton something nonfiction does not: It provides him with a way to help readers use their imaginations to grasp the implications of the law as i now stands

.’

it’s evident in new kinds of scientific research, futures work and horizon scanning, this kind of blend of fact and fiction, present reality and future imagined states will become a necessary form, because only through hybrid vehicles of this kind can we have the kinds of debate and be moved to the necessary actions which we need to have as a society, a nation, and beyond national, cultural and educational boundaries. It’s worth taking a look at some of the work done by Defra (and in part commissioned from Sparknow) in their Horizon Scanning and Futures unit to explore this further.

I feel strongly that all these structural devices, the blend of fact, fiction, biography, autobiography, metaphor, myth, folktale, legend, traditional stories, the reorganising of time from liner to parallel to reversed, must all be explored by us who seek to do work using story and narrative in the context of organisations, to find ways to show people themselves and others, the worlds and systems they live and work in, the differences they can make. We must not be sucked into the pointlessness of the business case study in our attempts to render our lives, and the lives of others, truthfully. I’ll just keep on coming back, over and over again, to Clifford Geertz but Clifford Geertz plus.

‘In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.’

[From the introduction to Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, 1968]

In our narrative enquiry, we must hold onto our role as miniaturists and act as custodians who find ways to get people to see and hear and feel those tiny moments which hold huge difficult truths. And to do this we must play with new forms of representation to make sure what we make tears in the fabric that has been so cunning woven, which deludes us that the way organisations report on themselves, because apparently factual is truthful. It is not.

I’ve always liked, in this respect, the Buddhist notion of having a deep grasp of the past and taking a long view of the future in order to understand the now.

Marginalia – part of the equipment of the modern day knowledge worker.

A friend bought a gift over from the US last week. A pre-publication of a book by Jim Lord called ‘What kind of World do you Want?’ – broadly a slim but nicely done volume which proposes appreciative enquiry as a way to tip towards positive and against negative action, without referring explicitly to appreciative enquiry (or inquiry as the originators in the US would have it).

Before the index page is an exhortation in a box:

PLEASE WRITE IN THE MARGINS

Everything in this books is offered to stimulate your thinking.
As you turn the pages of this slim volume, allow your experience to be foremost. Write your insights in the book.
Really.
Most of us hear the grade-school librarian in the back of our heads and treat a book like a sacred object. To that I say: Go ahead, write in it. Make friends with it. Make it yours.

I was reminded of an excellent article from the Times on marginalia in December 2004 by Ben Macintyre. It tells of the rise and fall of marginalia:

“Marginalia blurred distinctions between writer, reader and critic. Passed from one reader to another, the margins and flypapers of some books became a sort of message board for this unique form of intellectual graffiti, with brief accolades, argumentative asides, addenda and insults. Even the greatest writers could be deflated with a sharp jab from the margins. An anonymous reader who rebelled against Samuel Johnson’s description of the weather as “gloomy, frigid and ungenial ” scrawled in exasperation: “Why can’t you say Cold like the rest of ye world?” Quite.”

The fall, largely brought about by the increasing access to Everyman brought about by printing, literacy and the rise of the public library in the mid nineteenth centry. And it was then, as books became public, borrowed rather than private, owned property that rules against writing in books crept in and marginalia were erased from the habits of the better behaved (always excluding the inevitable Eating Grammar owned by every prep school boy).

In the DEMOCRATIC REVIEW, November, 1844 Edgar Allan Poe says that the tone of marginalia (private jottings, thinkings out loud, or loudthinking as our driver in Saudi would have it) gives it a unconceited freshness which holds particular value:

“But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat–for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought;–however flippant–however silly–however trivial–still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly–boldly- originally–with abandonnement–without conceit”

Although then there is the challenge of carrying the text away from its context if the scribbles are to be put to work elsewhere.

We live in a written world of marginalia now although often written with the eyes of another reader in mind so a bit more self conscious. School books are to be written on (not as graffiit as in our day but it seems much private note taking is on the text now); texts are to be circulated and added to and amended collaboratively, “blurring the distinction between reader, writer and and critic” pdfs are annotated as they are passed round as collaborative texts; blogs inviting sprawling responses from the passerby; wikis even invite people to overwrite each other. The traces left by others become important clues for those who follow as to what stands out. These clues might be misleading, borrowed without thought from other references so that references become self-referential in a pointless way; footnotes might be accumulated and cross-referenced purely to notch up credibility and lead ultimately to circular superficiality which does little to deepen and broaden insight. But we should pay attention to these notes and journallings, private, original or borrowed. They are an inevitable part of the armoury of the modern day knowledge worker, offering thoughtul traces of noticing or provocation to others as they travel and so help individuals shape their own journey and gatherings.