Story Relay #01: Behind the Story

Editor’s note: We’ve finally released the output of the first Story Relay. Here, Sue Quirante shares her experience as the first story master. This post explains the process she as well as the rest of the Project Chiron staff went through from producing the story seed to moderating the Relay and polishing the output.

When Project Chiron decided to develop Story Relay, all we had was the tentative idea of bringing chain writing online. The specifics about how we were going to do it were left to me as the first story master. I had to write my own instruction manual. Research on collaborative writing led me to a variety of rules and forms from highly structured renga to loose collections of images, text, and videos of online story challenges.

After some mulling and discussion with the Project Chiron team, we decided to do Story Relay on Facebook because it allowed the story master to post comments for keeping the relay on track. We also decided that the best course was to wing it and form rules as the need arose. This decision was motivated by fear, that too many restrictions would kill creativity, and also by our willingness to observe, learn and tweak our process to meet the needs of our intended audience.

The Seed

I focused instead on creating the seed, what we call the first string of words collaborating writers have to develop into a narrative. Above all, I needed to write seeds that would interest people to join the relay so I went for writing something relatable, something in accord with the mood of the season. I wrote the first drafts toward the end of October and so came up with dark scenarios that hinted at potential horror. The team volleyed the seeds back and forth, revising and improving my suggestions. Well, the end of that was December happened and the seeds became inappropriate. (Editor’s note: We released this seed as a writing prompt instead.)

Back to the drawing board, I wanted to push the December release, afraid that if we don’t ship by 2012, our enthusiasm for Story Relay was going to languish, followed by eventual demise. So I got busy in my head, more than willing to follow any promising thought down every alley and corner it chose to tread.

Meanwhile, the world around me decked itself out in wreaths, ribbons, glittering foil and iridescent lights in a display of Christmas splendour. At the same time, the destitute became more visible in the streets, out to take advantage of the season of gift giving, when people were inclined to loosen their purse strings.

On my way to and from work, I saw stooped grandmothers meeting crowds with hands outstretched for alms, blind men on their knees beside their beggar bowls, and children boarding jeeps, pressing their envelopes to our palms, or laps, or bags in entreaty for a charitable coin. This was the atmosphere of December where the celebration and gaiety only served to heighten the contrast between abundance and poverty. I took this atmosphere with me into drafting what eventually became the seed for Story Relay #1.

Story Relay #01: Seed

The story seed for the first Story Relay. December 14, 2012.

Personal experience presented me with a setting for the clash between the comforts of middle class wealth and everyday poverty. As a frequenter of food joints partial to glass windows, I remembered the many times I had been stared at by a hungry street child and the attendant guilt that soured the taste of whatever food was in my mouth. The minute the scenario popped into my head, I knew I had my seed. I hoped it would strike a resonant chord with our restaurant-going generation and start a discussion about how to respond to poverty and what to do with guilt. I wanted to see how others would resolve this conflict that also bothered me. Indirectly, I was injecting my personal politics into the relay and involving participating writers in an ongoing discussion with myself about the value of writing and its potential to engender change.

The Fruit

Change or not, the marvel of collaborative writing unwrapped itself as friends and strangers alike took up the pen and grew the seed with their words into a running tale. I saw our motley little group bring their strength and style to the collaboration, infusing the tale with dialogue, keen attention to detail, brooding introspection and even the flair for thrilling action.

In only a few strokes, the sketch of characters that I began had been marked with their flaws and inked with their virtues. But the conflict that I dared everyone to solve with a sumptuous leg of ham as bait did not yield so easily. The writers took the first character, Anthony, through a rollercoaster of feelings from the depth of pity to the flare of anger, and back down again to the gut-wrenching tug of guilt.

Original image by Sue Quirante.

Original image by Sue Quirante.

There was that moment fraught with tension when I thought Anthony would succumb to Brandon’s evasive and exonerating rationalization. It was a crossroads, and though I had raised the conflict, I had no clue which road would be taken. I only hoped the writers would not forget the hungry child. And they did not. Anthony who was capable embraced this child, and the relay ends with an unconventional family.

Change or not, it brings me some measure of comfort that Anthony, Brandon, and Aaban may symbolize who we want to be. But I could be overreading the text. It is after all just a story. I wonder what the readers and writers think, was this story relay a moment of faith in humanity restored?

Sue Quirante creates content for Project Chiron and sometimes edits for a local textbook company. She likes ham and cats. As the first story master for Story Relay, Sue had to juggle deadlines, prepare for surprises and work around limitations. We’ve been toying with the idea of having the Relay since we began Project Chiron, but we were only able to finally launch due to Sue’s passion for the concept and her dedication to promoting the Relay. Congratulations to Sue and our contributors for a successful run!

Till the next Relay!


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