John Randall Q and A
John Randall’s work caught my eye because it’s in an area that is completely unfamiliar to me — narremes. I’m looking forward to learning about this field through this Q&A and John’s upcoming manifesto, Narremes. I also have a soft spot for him because he shares two of his names with my son, John Randall Hansen.
Bio: John Randall (Hart) is a Subject Matter Expert at IBM, a former writing professor at colleges in Oregon and Colorado, and a practicing narratologist in his spare time. He holds a B.A. in anthropology, an MFA in creative writing, and has published fiction, poetry, and essays. His website — Narratology.info — which he hosts under his pen name of John Randall — focuses on ways we make meaning in our lives by telling stories. He has been invited to present some of his ideas on uses of narrative in recovery at this year’s Iowa Advocates for Mental Health Recovery Conference. His presentation is entitled “Narremics: Ancient Keys to Making Meaning in Our Lives.”
Q&A with John Randall:
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: In my upcoming Narremes Manifesto, I talk about a turning point around 40,000 years ago when the first cave art appeared in Europe. These extraordinary paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, and numerous other sites, depicting ancient human activities, especially the hunt, clearly illustrate a knack for storytelling that was already quite sophisticated, and which I believe goes back, at the very least, to that dim period when language itself began to develop.
Similar turning points in storytelling occurred with the appearance of The Iliadand The Odyssey, with The Canterbury Tales and The Inferno, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, To the Lighthouse, The Shipping News. The list is long and far more complex than I can even suggest here.
The species of humans — our own — that began storytelling in those caves is at another turning point today. We’re a species in recovery. The clash of war and the hunt is being replaced by stories that emphasize meaning and hope over violence and conflict. If we are to survive into the next century and beyond, these are the stories that we must tell, and that is precisely what I think is at the root of the storytelling phenomenon we’re seeing today. Our best stories generate the necessary light and energy we need to accomplish a full recovery of what is “most human” in us all.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: My love of storytelling began with my mother and grandmother reading four books to me: Horton Hears a Who, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. Over and over and over. When I could read for myself, I read those same books and a few others (NOT Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff!) over and over and over — this time adding to the pleasure of repetition the desire to figure out how the magic of storytelling was performed. By the third grade, I had added Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Lost World to the list.
In the fourth grade, Miss Barr (my first of many teacher crushes) let me read King Solomon’s Mines to the class, chapter by chapter, every day after lunch. From that moment, my path in life was set. I never wanted to be a baseball or football player (to my father’s everlasting chagrin). Never a fireman, a policeman, or a soldier. For me, it was writer, paleontologist, archaeologist, explorer, teacher. Regardless of the job I held at any particular time, I found ways to shape it to these, my true loves. And now, at 60, for my last magic trick, I’ve rolled them all into one as an Internet Narratologist. And upon my death, I expect my last words will be the same that James Kirk uttered in Star Trek: Generations, at his own end:
“It was fun!”
Q: You describe on your Web site the time in your life that you got into narratology, but what attracted you to this field? What has inspired you to study this discipline since the 1970s?
A: In junior-high band, I discovered that I wanted to be the next Beethoven. Sadly, I also discovered I was a wee bit short of talent in the musical field. But I had also discovered long before a talent for words. I love words! I scoop them up in both hands like precious jewels and scatter them about the page with the 7th Symphony playing in the background to remind me that there are always even greater riches to be found ahead. It’s really as simple as that: I love words and everything connected to them, and it just so happened that in college I learned I could major in words as English Literature and as the essence of meaning itself in linguistic anthropology. A perfect marriage that I’ve been lovingly engaged in ever since.
Q: Your forthcoming book is about your studies of narremes and narratology. Can you give readers a bit of a preview of the book? In a nutshell, what can readers look forward to, and what will they learn?
A: The Seven Narremes that I discuss are story-analysis and construction tools that
- Go back at least 40,000 years ago to the very dawn of modern humans, and, in the case of certain activities, back further to even more primitive species, such as the Neanderthals, whose much simpler but still clearly story-based paintings have just recently been discovered in a cave in Nerja, Spain.
- Can’t be reduced to anything more basic;
- Can be combined to create even more sophisticated stories while still maintaining the unique characteristics of each individual tool.
My storytelling friend and colleague, Gregg Morris, gracefully summed it up for me:
In his Narremic Analysis and Construction Technique (NACT), John Randall has rolled Aristotle’s Poetics, Freytag’s Dramatic Pyramid, Polti’s Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, and a hefty dash of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell into a neat package of 7 variations on story structure that promise to add critical depth for those interested in analyzing stories, and enhanced structural flexibility for those who want to create more effective stories, regardless of the medium they choose to work in.
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: A little over 10 years ago, my friend Todd was severely depressed, fixated, as he himself wrote, on “death by revolver.” Isolated from everyone he had ever loved or who loved him, he lived in “the hollows” of existence. But a chance encounter with an old friend gave him just enough energy to begin reclaiming his life, to stop believing he was “no good.” He began challenging these thoughts and taking better care of himself in many ways. But perhaps most important, he began telling his story at schools and colleges all over Iowa. Amazingly, he overcame severely debilitating “stage fright and discovered he was good at public speaking.”
Todd is now the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and executive director of the Iowa Advocates for Mental Health Recovery (IAMHR). I am overjoyed that he has invited me to present some of my ideas on narrative as it relates to recovery at this year’s IAMHR Conference in Des Moines.
Todd’s story appears in a little self-published book simply entitled Recovery, by another friend of mine, Dodie Fuhr.