By Rillke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Would you like me to tell you how to cook pasta? No? Pretend you do for a minute so I can make a point. It’s about stories, I promise.

First, choose a pot with a good thick bottom. If the pot’s bottom is thin, the water will not boil evenly, and the pasta will clump. Fill the pot with enough cold, filtered water to cover your pasta, plus another inch or two. Put the pot on the stove. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Set the burner heat to maximum.

When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta all at once. Don’t add the pasta before the water is boiling, because it will soak up too much water and end up soggy. As soon as the water returns to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-high. Do not keep the heat at maximum, because the pot will boil over. Stir the pasta occasionally while it is boiling (to avoid clumping).

After a few minutes, pull out one piece of pasta with a fork or spoon, blow on it to cool it down, then taste it. If the pasta is still hard, keep the heat on. If the pasta is chewy, it is done. Turn off the heat, take the pasta pot off the stove, and dump the pasta into a colander you had waiting in your sink. Watch out for the steam, it’s hot! Do not leave the pasta in the water; it will get soggy. Enjoy your pasta, and remember to turn off the stove!

So why have I just told you how to cook pasta? To help me prove that instructions always contain hidden stories.

Where the stories hide

I used to wonder why I found so much conflicting advice in sets of instructions. Once, when I was working on software about gardening, I pulled out and compared hundreds of pieces of advice from dozens of books on gardening. I was amazed to discover that the books disagreed as much as they agreed. At the time I wondered how such knowledgeable people could give such different advice. Now I can guess that the authors must have simply had different experiences. They must have varied in what their parents and grandparents told them about gardening, what their first garden was like, which pests they actually faced and which ones they just read about, and so on. Expert as they were, they were still working from experiences, and experiences differ. Looking back, I can now see that I was only reading half of the books I thought I was reading. Hidden behind every author’s book of instructions was another book only they could read: a book of stories.

I started thinking about this hidden-stories issue one morning a few weeks ago, because my husband made some pretty good pasta the night before. We’ve had a friendly decades-long argument about the best way to make pasta, and I’m right, of course, but somehow his pasta keeps getting better, even though he follows none of my sage advice. So I thought about the instructions I might write to teach him how to make pasta right, and that led me to think about those old gardening books, and that led me to think about hidden stories in instructions.

One thing I’ve noticed about instructions is that you can guess at some of their hidden stories if you know what to look for. For example:

When instructions say… What they really mean is…
Do this This is what I’ve always done. I don’t remember why I do it, but there was probably a good reason a long time ago.
Do this because… I’ve tried this both ways. The times I tried it this way went better.
Don’t do this I’ve heard that you shouldn’t do this. I don’t really understand why you shouldn’t, but I don’t do it anyway, just to be safe.
Don’t do this because… I did this and something awful happened. I never did it again!
Watch out for this This happened to me, and it could happen to you.

Bring out your stories

My own instructions for cooking pasta contain many hidden stories. Being myself, I can tell you exactly what they are. At the serious risk of boring you, I will draw them out. (If all this talk about pasta is too much for you to bear, skip down to the next header below.)

First, choose a pot with a good thick bottom. If the pot’s bottom is thin, the water will not boil evenly, and the pasta will clump. I used to have a thin, cheap pot that I inherited from somebody. I used it for decades, not knowing that there was anything wrong with it. I just thought pasta always clumped. A few years ago I got a new, thicker pot (for reasons I can no longer remember). What a revelation! Now the water boils in perfect physics-lesson Bénard cells, and I get to watch them roll around for a while before I drop in the pasta. And the pasta comes out better too. At least I think it does. It helps me justify buying a new pot when my old thin pot was technically still serviceable. The pasta has to be better, or I wasted my money. So it’s better.

Fill the pot with enough cold, filtered water to cover your pasta, plus another inch or two. I grew up in a house that was a hundred years old when I was born, so my mother was always worried about hot water leaching lead out of the pipes, so we used ice-cold water for everything. I still do that. The house I live in now is nowhere near that old, but we do have an old dug well, so we don’t drink plain tap water just to be safe. I suppose I could use tap water for pasta, since the water gets boiled, but I’m so much in the habit of getting drinking water from the filtered tap that I get it there for pasta too. You might be able to use hot unfiltered water, but who knows.

I suppose I should say exactly how much water to use, but I don’t measure it, so I don’t know. I just put the pot under the filtered-water tap and get something else ready while I’m waiting. Besides, you only have to use too little water a few times to realize how much you need, which is “more than you think you need.” If you are cooking pasta in a context in which you actually need to know how much water to use, I’m clueless.

Put the pot on the stove. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt. It’s not really a teaspoon of oil, it’s more like a blop of oil, but “blop” doesn’t sound authoritative. My mother always did this. I’m not sure if it matters, but I do it anyway. It makes me feel like I’m carrying on some kind of tradition. Maybe it tastes better too, but that’s not why I do it. Actually, I read on a web site that adding oil keeps the sauce from being absorbed and makes the pasta less flavorful, but I’m not buying it. If it was good enough for my grandmother and my mother, it’s good enough for me. Also, I use olive oil for everything, because it is the least likely cooking oil to have food-allergy-triggering preservatives in it. Maybe everybody doesn’t like olive oil, but it’s the only thing I know about.

Set the burner heat to maximum. I don’t actually know that that’s the best way, but I don’t have enough time to wait around. Seems to work.

When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta all at once. Don’t add the pasta before the water is boiling, because it will soak up too much water and end up soggy. My husband always puts the pasta in before the water heats up, and I’m always yelling at him about it. My mother didn’t do that! Sometimes he waits (to get me to stop yelling) and puts the pasta in when the first tiny little bubbles detach themselves from the bottom of the pot and float up. But I say, if you’re going to do something, do it right! Wait until the very last second! Besides, his pasta never tastes as good as mine (to me) so he must be doing something wrong. Also, with my new pot, I really like watching the Bénard cells roll around before I put the pasta in. He finds this less exciting for some reason.

As soon as the water returns to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-high. Do not keep the heat at maximum, because the pot will boil over. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve soaked the stove with boiled-over pasta water, I wouldn’t have to spend my time writing instructions on how to cook pasta. But seriously, you do not want to do this. It’s a mess. Husbands in particular tend to freak out when you soak an electric stove with water. And why oh why did they have to put the burner controls on my stove behind the burners? Didn’t they realize I would be reaching over the wildly spurting boiling water trying to turn the heat back down? Maybe your heat controls are somewhere else, but that’s not important to me.

Stir the pasta occasionally while it is boiling (to avoid clumping). It does clump. This is one I know for sure. You can’t just ignore pasta, because I have. You might think you can walk away, and maybe you can, but I certainly can’t. Pasta isn’t so tasty when it’s all in one big clump.

After a few minutes, pull out one piece of pasta with a fork or spoon, blow on it to cool it down, then taste it. If the pasta is still hard, keep the heat on. If the pasta is chewy, it is done. This is another thing my mother always did. Also, I hate reading instructions on pasta packages, and this method means I don’t have to pay attention to what kind of pasta it is. I just keep sampling until I like it. Do be careful about putting hot pasta in your mouth, though (that’s the “blow on it” part), because ouch. That’s one piece of advice I can be sure of.

Turn off the heat, take the pasta pot off the stove, and dump the pasta into a colander you had waiting in your sink. Watch out for the steam; it’s hot! And I should know because I’ve gotten my hand, or head, in the steam many times. Do not leave the pasta in the water; it will get soggy. Have I actually seen pasta get soggy from not being drained right away? Not really. It’s just another one of my theories as to why my husband’s pasta sometimes turns out soggy, because he thinks you don’t need to dump it out right away. I drain the water right away because … my mother always did it that way. I’m not totally sure why she did that, but I remember being amazed by the clouds of steam rising up from the sink. It seemed so adult of a thing to do. So I like to do the same thing now. (She didn’t tell me steam is hot! I had to learn about that on my own.)

Enjoy your pasta. Great pasta is great! Badly made pasta is horrible. I’ve had both. In fact, this whole set of instructions is actually a stealth campaign to get my husband to try cooking pasta my way. He, however, is adamant that his pasta is fine and that most of the things I do when I cook pasta are unnecessary and based on dimly remembered things my mother did. I suggest we ignore him and do it right.

Which is more important: the instructions or the stories?

(For those who skipped the previous section, I’ll summarize it. I demonstrated that the way I cook pasta, which seemed so simple in the first few paragraphs of this essay, actually rests on a complex tangle of idiosyncratic experiences. If you had read the section, this realization would have dawned upon you slowly, as the flavor of a delicate sauce blooms on a receptive palate. But noooo, you just had to cram the whole essay down your throat, didn’t you. People today.)

Cooking pasta is a silly example, of course, but I wrote about it to illustrate a point that is actually quite serious.

People write and read instructions about many weighty, important things, like screening patients for diseases, troubleshooting equipment, handling security violations, installing monitoring systems, and so on. You might argue that instructions written by experienced experts are not likely to be riddled with hidden stories, but I think it would be dangerously optimistic to think that.

I am considered by some to be an expert in the field of story work, and I can definitely tell you that the stories hidden behind my instructions on how to do story work are just as abundant, and just as idiosyncratic, as those behind my instructions on how to cook pasta. In fact, my book (Working with Stories) has been described as “half memoir, half textbook.” I wrote it that way on purpose, because at least three people independently suggested that I add more stories to the first edition when I revised it. But I still included only a fraction of the stories I could have told.

So let’s say you agree with me that every set of instructions is full of hidden stories. I would like to ask you a question. Might it, sometimes, be more informative to read the stories behind the instructions than it is to read the instructions themselves? I think it might.

When we read instructions, we learn what to do. But when we can read the stories behind the instructions, we can gain knowledge of the contexts in which advice has been derived from experience, and we can evaluate the instructions in order to make decisions about our own actions. We can learn why to do things, and why not. We can juxtapose the contexts in which the instructor has had experiences and the contexts we face. Bringing out the stories can transform instruction into understanding. In fact, I would argue that the more critical a set of instructions, the more important it is to find the stories hidden in the instructions and bring them out for people to use.

Homemade and store boughten

To explore this issue of stories and instructions, I’ve been reading about the history of cookbooks. It seems that for a long time there were two versions of cookbooks written down. Those written for servants and strangers were terse and involved barely more than lists of ingredients. Here, for example, is a recipe for “Chines of veal boiled with fruit, whole” from “The Accomplished Cook,” published in 1685.

Put it in a stewing pan or deep dish, with some strong Broth, large Mace, a little White Wine, and when it boils scum it, then put some dates to, being half boil’d and Salt, some white Endive, Sugar, and Marrow.

Then boil some fruit by it self, your meat and broth being finely boil’d, Prunes and Raisons of the Sun, strain some six yolks of Eggs, with a little Cream, and put it in your broth, then dish it on sippets, your Chine, and garnish your dish with Fruit, Mace, Dates Sugar, slic’t Lemon, and Barberries, &c.

Not a story in sight.

The other version of cookbooks were created and used by families. Family cookbooks were filled with beloved anecdotes as they were handed down from generation to generation. They were personal, contextual, unpublished, usually hand-written, and as likely to include advice about marital spats and the care of horses as they were to include recipes. Here is a description of a mid 19th century family cookbook in a collection at the University of Iowa:

Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, the family from whom this cookbook comes. Though she probably did not cook any of these recipes herself and though it is not written in her hand, she probably did eat food prepared from the the recipes in this book. There are some thirty recipes here, mostly for sweets, such as Gingerbread and Lemon Cheesecake, but there are recipes for Curry Sauce, How to Fry a Fish, and Salad. There are also instructions for double knitting, washing a hair brush, and fitting a dress. At the end of the book and scattered throughout there are pages on which someone practiced Latin and wrote commentary. Bound in original velum boards with brass clasp. Unpaginated.

Family cookbooks were closely related to commonplace books, in which people wrote down or pasted snippets of things they wanted to remember, like newspaper clippings or quotes from novels. Today we would call them scrapbooks. Also related to family cookbooks were community cookbooks, which fell somewhere between personal and professional. Community cookbooks were sometimes written simply for mutual support, but they were also sometimes sold to raise money for a cause, such as temperance or women’s suffrage.

Prior to the mid-19th century, most published cookbooks were written by male chefs for audiences of professional cooks. But as it slowly became more acceptable for women to author books, women started to publish cookbooks that drew on all of the cookbook genres women were familiar with: family, community, and professional. Eventually families started to hand down annotated copies of published cookbooks (such as Fanny Farmer’s 1896  Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and Irma Rombauer’s 1936 Joy of Cooking) with personal instructions and stories remaining only in the margins and on pieces of paper slipped into the books.

When the stories go away

The Joy of Cooking has had a particularly interesting history. In 1931, a recently widowed Irma Rombauer initially self-published the book. It was officially published in 1936 and became quickly popular for its depth of explanation as well as its anecdotal, conversational style. Says the Joy of Cooking web site:

The human bond represented by cooking meant more to her than fixed yardsticks of elegance or authenticity, and from the beginning, users of JOY felt that they were being addressed as friends, not pupils. They sensed the presence of a real person who could always take time to inject something extracurricular into the proceedings, whether it was a mention of her favorite comic-strip characters or literary quotations like Mark Twain’s “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”

In other words, the Joy of Cooking was written more like a family or community cookbook than its professional cousins. The book was updated, keeping the same style, five more times until it reached its most popular version, updated by Marion Rombauer Becker, Rombauer’s daughter, in 1975.

In 1997, Joy of Cooking was updated again, but this time it was edited by a group of professional chefs and food writers. The new version was widely panned, and people clung to their 1975 editions, treating them gingerly as “the last good Joy.” One of the strongest criticisms was that the new book editors removed Irma Rombauer’s anecdotal style. In other words, they took out the stories.

Here are some comments from the 1997 edition’s Amazon page:

Instead of recipes written by real women cooking for their families and friends, the recipes [in the 1997 edition] are from professional chefs and often read more like formulas. Technically sound, but without the soul of the previous version.

Some of the recipes seem to be missing, as well as some of the delightful stories and commentary.

Alas, new Joy has succumbed to food snobbery. … Old Joy was a lot more practical and understood contingency. Don’t throw out your old Joy of Cooking. The publishers should take the old version and try again, but this time, leave the heart and soul in.

The amazing thing is that they did try again. In 2006, a 75th anniversary edition of the book was produced, and its creators (including Ethan Becker, Irma Rombauer’s grandson) took special pains to bring back the conversational tone of the original book, including its many stories. Julia Child, who famously consulted on the creation of the 2006 book, said of it, “They’ve put the joy back in Joy.”

Said readers about the 2006 edition:

When [the 2006 edition] arrived, I sat down and started reading it. This will sound silly, but I actually CRIED because it was so fantastic and brought back so many good memories.

My friend aptly called Joy of Cooking “a grandmother in a book.”

Perhaps the most appealing aspect [of the 2006 edition] is the personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Talk about friends and relatives and even mini history lessons abound. … This is more than just a cookbook.

Actually, that phrase, “more than just a cookbook,” can be found over and over again in comments on all editions of the book (except, markedly, the 1997 version).

I myself have relied on the Joy of Cooking since I was a teenager. I had to transition to a second copy of the 1975 edition about ten years ago because my first copy literally disintegrated. I have several other cookbooks, but I tend to go to the Joy of Cooking to learn why I should use a particular ingredient or what I should do in unusual contexts (like when I’m out of an ingredient and need a substitution). I’m certainly not saying that other contemporary cookbooks don’t explain things well — many do — but there is something about real stories that can’t be replaced.

A few examples will illustrate. Here’s a story under “Sourdough Rye Bread”:

We love this recipe which comes from Merna Lazier, who has run, among many other successful projects, a bakery of her own. She says: “You may object to the number of stages in this process, but I must say that old-time bakers who were proud of their rye bread really nursed it along — so there must be a reason.”

To me, that story says, “Baking bread can seem to be irrationally repetitive. In fact, many of the things cookbooks tell you to do can seem irrationally repetitive. But there are reasons behind each stirring, rising, separating step. Maybe nobody remembers the reasons, but try the recipe another way and you’ll find out that it doesn’t taste the same.” I found this out myself while making my annual failed cake for my son’s birthday. The more I pay attention to repetition and keeping in steps that seem unnecessary, the better the cakes turn out.

Here’s another example, from a recipe for “Sour Cream Apple Cake Souffle Cockaigne” (Cockaigne being the in-the-know code for Rombauer family recipes):

[This cake is] The specialty of our great-grandmother, who came from Lübeck. It was once served to us in a pie crust as a renowned confection of Lyons. We feel the pie shell makes an attractive container. However, the crust does not greatly improve the flavor.

In other words, there are other ways of making this cake, but we like this one best because it has been in our family for a long time. That’s just like one of the stories I told you about cooking pasta. Reading a story like that makes you feel like you are talking to a person, not being programmed to complete a task. The stories behind the instructions help both authors and readers to understand contingency.

Do family and community cookbooks still exist? Of course they do, and in fact they’ve made a comeback due to the spread of desktop publishing and other means of small-scale printing.

However, my guess is that the place where stories have come back into cooking in the biggest way is on recipe web sites, where recipes are annotated with lots of “tried this” comments. In fact, when I’m thinking about making something new today, I might look at the Joy of Cooking, but I am equally likely to type some ingredients into Google and see what recipes I find. I don’t usually go with the first recipe I find but compare three or more (because you can’t trust the internet). Also, I find myself paying as much attention to the comments under the recipes as I pay to the recipes themselves.

So you could say that the internet has brought back the anecdotes and conversation of the family and community cookbooks, but on a global scale. Still, when I find a recipe I like online, I don’t keep it online; I write it down on a piece of paper (with my favorite commenter suggestions included) and slip it into my stained, flour-dusted copy of Joy of Cooking.

Why do the stories get taken out?

So the question I have, after all of this reading and thinking, is: if stories are so useful to learning, and if people prefer to hear the stories behind instructions, why do well-meaning people take them out? Why did the editors of the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking take the stories out? Why did they think they were making a better book? I can come up with three reasons for stories to be taken out of instructions.

Reason one: tl;dr

There aren’t very many negative comments on Amazon.com about Joy of Cooking, but those I found were all similar to this one:

I know it’s a classic but it is a very boring book. Too much wording. Not easy to read. Not enough pictures. I prefer recipe books that aren’t in a novel format. I like my recipe books to list ingredients, instructions, pictures, and maybe a few other things. This isn’t the book for me.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on a long rant about The Shallows, because it would only prove my point by not being read. But clearly the appetite of most people today for long “walls of text” has declined. My appetite has not changed; I still either read things fully or not at all. This may be why every time an article starts with “Unless you’ve been living under a rock” I know that the next part of the sentence will contain something I’ve never heard of. But I understand that I’m the rare holdout and that most people are skimming the surface these days.

So are we doomed to concise, clinical descriptions? Is the age of wandering, serendipitously marvelous reading at an end? Will the stories never return? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe reading enjoyment is experiencing a new beginning. Why? Because the internet has doomed us and saved us at the same time. Even though its rapid flux has caused people to fly through long texts, the invention of hyperlinks has made it easier than ever for writers to create optional elements, thus rendering long texts amenable to many levels of enjoyment.

Thinking specifically of stories hidden in instructions, it’s easy today to write instructions in a wiki (or anything else with hypertext) and make the stories behind the instructions available yet unobtrusive. Thus there is no real tl;dr reason to exclude stories from instructions. (In case you’ve been living under a rock, tl;dr means “too long; didn’t read.”)

Reason two: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

Here is an excerpt from the Heelis family cookbook I mentioned above:

Sponge Cake Dissolve 3/4 lb sugar in half a teacupful of water break 7 eggs leaving out 3 whites, + pour the sugar boiling hot over them beating them all the while. The whole must be beaten 20 minutes. Then add 1/2 lb. flour (ground nice) & get it into the oven quick when not too hot

I can just hear the stories of mistakes in there. Can you? Somebody didn’t take the egg whites out. Somebody didn’t beat the eggs while they were pouring the sugar-water in. Somebody beat “the whole” for less than 20 minutes. Somebody didn’t use flour “ground nice.” And somebody definitely didn’t get the mixture into the oven before it got too hot. Ouch!

In contrast, here are a few lines from a contemporary cookbook I have on my shelf:

Heat the oil in a wide skillet with the garlic. Cook over medium-high heat until the garlic turns light gold, then add the spinach, salt it lightly, and cook until bright green and limp, just a few minutes. Move the leaves around the pan, picking them up and turning them over as they cook. Season with pepper and serve.

Maybe there’s a story in the “just a few minutes,” but I don’t get the same feeling of “don’t do what I did” as I get from the family cookbook recipe. The first excerpt was written by an amateur cook for other amateur cooks; the second was written by a professional chef for amateur cooks. It is of course understandable that a professional chef, writing for an amateur audience, would want to appear as knowledgeable as possible.

It’s a standard expectation in story work that people will have a hard time admitting mistakes, even when they know the mistakes will help others improve their skills. When I wrote “Bring out your stories” in the header above, it was only partly a Monty Python joke. When you are an author trying to appear author-itative, bringing out the stories behind your instructions is a little like bringing out your dead. Your dead and gone mistakes, that is, the ones you’d rather not exhume and parade around in public.

I’ve gone through this myself. The first edition of my book was like one of those just-the-facts cookbooks. It had very little in the way of any stories in it. When I started on the rewrite of the book for its third edition, I started adding stories, but at first they were all stories of success. As my confidence in the book grew, I began to tell the stories of some of my tamest mistakes. But as the mistakes got more serious, I started waffling. Some of the mistake stories went into and out of the book several times, and got rewritten over and over, as I struggled with the need to instruct and save face at the same time. Some of the most embarrassing mistake stories were written only in the last few months of the work, when my conscience insisted on my putting them in. And of course some sneaked out in the end.

The fact is, it’s hard to admit to having made mistakes when you’re trying to appear authoritative about something. But when I have helped people build instructional resources, I’ve found that there are ways to make it easier. The best way I’ve found is what I call the dilution principle. If you let people tell enough positive stories so that they feel confident that their expertise is being taken seriously, they will be ready to tell some of the mistake stories that made that expertise possible. In a story collection session or interview, I like to wait until people are speaking with confidence (no hesitations) and interest (investment in the outcome) to ask them about mistakes. At that point people are often willing to take a few pratfalls (as I did) for the good of the project.

Reason three: Best practices as comfort objects

I saw a great movie a month ago, called The Giver. It was about a weird futuristic society where … lots of interesting things happen. Anyway, in the movie they had weird futuristic names for everything, and a child’s stuffed animal was called a “comfort object.” When I was thinking about why people don’t want to write or read stories in instructions, I thought of the baby in the movie holding on to his comfort object.

The best practices businesspeople love to write and talk about, which might be instructions and might be success stories, are, when they touch on human, non-mechanical topics, comfort objects. They are rabbit’s feet. They are Dumbo’s feather. They are whistling past graveyards. But comfort objects are not useless; they are essential to survival. That’s why they are so magical. We hold them when we are afraid, because they remind us that sometimes things do turn out the way we want them to. Believing in simplicity and certainty, even if it’s just for a little while, soothes us as we prepare our next batch of courage to face the real world.

It is not weak or stupid to use and rely on comfort objects. However, it is weak, and stupid, to believe that comfort objects can be tools for learning. Some people claim that best practices are useful tools; I say that they are useful, but not tools. Deep inside, we all know that the only real way to learn anything is to put aside our comfort objects and take the plunge into uncertainty. When we are ready, when we are rested, we need to look beyond comfort as we reach for understanding.

And this is why we need the stories behind the instructions. They show us the messy, scary reality: that the people who can do things often don’t know why they can do them; that when things turn out well, we often can’t reproduce the effect; that nothing ever repeats, not when people are involved; that when things go wrong, sometimes the worst options become the best options; that disasters and miracles happen every day.

What can a community or organization do when people cling to best practices and don’t want to reveal or consider the stories behind instructions? First, don’t solve the problem by stripping away all comfort objects. People will only create more and hide them better. It is better to leave comfort objects in place and supplement them with well-labeled, optional elements people can choose to make use of when they are ready. For example, if true stories about mistakes and disasters from experienced experts are to be included in a learning system, it is useful to warn people who are not ready by giving the stories a meaningful, even symbolic label. You might connect to such stories with a link or tag, like “straight from the horse’s mouth” or “from the front lines” or “at the coal face” or some other term that designates brutal reality. Elements so labeled can be approached cautiously, after some preparation.

Of course, some people would argue that this is pandering. They would say that comfort objects should be stripped away, leaving people — for their own good — cold and naked in the harsh light of reality. I remember somebody once saying that they preferred to train people by throwing them into the deep end of the swimming pool, then coming back later to see if they were still alive. In this person’s mind, the only possible outcomes were coming back to see the person swimming and alive, or coming back to see the person floating and dead. I asked them, “What if you come back and the person is sitting by the side of the pool, having rejected your stupid test?” They said something to the effect that a person like that would be dangerous.

I guess I’m dangerous, then, because I respond very poorly to being forced to confront — well, anything. I like my comfort objects. I have lots of them, and I carry them around with me. Nobody is going to take my comfort objects from me, and why should they? I would be far less useful without them. I suspect that this is true for many people. I also suspect that those who make fun of best practices and suggest they be destroyed keep lots of comfort objects (with other names) around them and would fight to keep them. Best practices are not evil; they are only evil alone.

PNI to the rescue

Let me now summarize what I believe you can do with participatory narrative inquiry to help people bring back the stories behind instructions without breaking the learning process.

  1. To avoid invoking the dreaded tl;dr reflex, make the stories behind instructions available yet optional and unobtrusive.
  2. To avoid causing pain to those who need to appear knowledgeable, dilute the elicitation of mistake stories so that the preponderance of storytelling supports the identity of the expert.
  3. To avoid taking away beloved comfort objects, use separation and clear labeling to give people advance notice and options, so that they can choose when and where they will put down their talismans and face reality.

I believe that if you follow these guidelines, you can improve the utility of your learning resources with appropriate, revelatory, insightful stories. You can build far more than “just a cookbook.” You can build a phenomenon.