Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 1: From Rhythmic Systems to Scenarios as Theatre

Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas, and former Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Betty Sue Flowers

She has been a consultant for NASA and the CIA, Visiting Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, Public Director of the American Institute of Architects, and editor of scenarios for organisations including Shell International, the OECD, the University of Oxford, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

She has written scholarly works on Robert Browning, Adrienne Rich, and Christina Rossetti among others, as well as serving as a consultant to television series including PBS’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. You can see more of her work and her extensive publication history here.

In September 2020, I talked with Betty Sue about her career, her accomplishments, and her understanding of the diverse fields she’s worked in, from foresight and healthcare to poetry, literary studies, and library leadership.

The interview will run in three parts on this blog, but you can also read the full transcript now as a PDF download.

You’ve had such a varied and accomplished career, it’s hard to know where to start. Then I saw one of the earliest and most curious entries on your CV: you were a lab assistant at something called the Rhythmic Systems Laboratory?

I started life off as a scientist. I put my way through college working in a zoology lab. I’m still in touch with my mentor, who went on to the University of Virginia. My love of poetry took me away from that path – I just kept following it in another direction.

What are “rhythmic systems”?

Everything has rhythm, from poetry to the passage of a single day. Circadian rhythms are the rhythms that the body has around the 24-hour cycle.

Our zoology lab was studying extra-retinal photoreceptors in birds – that’s to say, trying to find cells, for example, which respond to light but aren’t located in the eyes. What I learned in that lab has helped me avoid jetlag over a lifetime of international flights!

So why zoology?

I’d originally started off wanting to be a doctor. I was doing pre-med and the professor of my freshman biology class asked me to start working in his lab during the following year. I continued doing that after I switched to poetry.

In high school, I worked after school in a hospital, and that’s where I got to know institutions, and how institutions work. I worked in every part of the hospital from the emergency room to the autoclaving room in the basement. Over the years I saw hierarchies, management; I learned a lot about how human systems work. It turned out to be a wonderful experience, even though I didn’t become a doctor.

You’ve had a long relationship with several institutions, including the University of Texas and Shell. Institutions can provide a home, but also restrict our liberty. Is there a tension there?

It depends on how you define yourself; you can define yourself freely within an institution. If it’s too oppressive, you can leave! But the experience that really gave me a glimpse into large institutions was the LBJ Library because I was a federal bureaucrat, working for the national archivist under the complex rules of the federal bureaucracy.

What was it like entering Libraryland? How did you come to head up the LBJ Library?

I knew people who had been part of LBJ’s administration, and I’d also been an administrator at the University of Texas. Although I’d been a university administrator, I’d never run an institution before, but I’d worked with a lot of corporate leaders, and I thought: “You know, I should put myself in harm’s way, at least once!”

I learned to deal with budgets, and people, and boards, and all those things you learn to deal with when you’re the boss.

LBJ Library by Flickr user Clarissa Peterson – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I had all these plans for conferences and such, and then the first day, when I took a tour of the building, down below I saw stalactites and stalagmites – the building was about to fall in! The architect was a New Yorker who didn’t really understand the weather in Texas, which is hot one day and freezing the next. He had designed this flat marble plaza where ice had cracked the marble and other problems had been caused. So I spent the next seven years making repairs underground – you couldn’t even see the effect of the thirty-three million dollars we spent! It was invisible. I still have the hard hat.

That wasn’t the only unexpected thing; on that tour, I also saw lots and lots of stanchions. I asked what they were there for, and I was told, “Mrs. Johnson’s funeral.”

I hadn’t taken into account that this was a semi-state affair, with all these protocols, and then we spent years planning that, and overseeing it when it happened. We made one very bad decision, which had to do with our estimate of the timing it would take to drive from the funeral to the burial site at the LBJ Ranch. We thought we would drive slowly through town and then speed up on the highway, not counting on people lining up on the highway all the way to the Ranch, many with signs and flowers. So we had to drive funeral speed all the way. Very moving.

Can you see a common thread running through your diverse career, from pre-med to running the LBJ library?

It’s not visible from the outside, because there’s very little overlap between working at Shell on scenarios and teaching poetry, but I think I’ve always been on a quest to understand the way the world works, whether through science, or art, or human institutions, or the amazing capacity human beings have to shape their own environments through the stories they make up about the future. Curiosity has driven me, and fun – it’s got to be fun!

As a pre-med student, I had already loved poetry. The pull to be a doctor had been to relieve suffering, and as I worked in the hospital I saw that a lot of suffering was caused not by physical injuries but the stories we told ourselves. I thought I might be better at helping to relieve unnecessary suffering through stories. If you break your arm, of course you’ll necessarily endure some pain, but although the suffering caused by the stories we tell ourselves is very real, often it is unnecessary. This is why I began to look into the fictions that create us.

Was that a common perspective in a literature department at the time – narrative as a tool to make an impact in the real world?

No, definitely not. When I got back from my dissertation work at the University of London, I returned to the department I’d been a student in. Everything had changed in my absence; deconstruction was the fashion. It was highly abstract and philosophical, kind of the opposite of using narratives or using anything else, for that matter. That led me off into all kinds of side currents, because I felt as if my profession had abandoned me. I stayed because I loved teaching, but it led me to do a lot of other, non-academic writing, alongside my scholarship.

I’d been writing poetry since my childhood; I always thought of it as just part of living. I never thought you could make a living at it, however, until I saw poetry professors as an undergraduate. That was very eye-opening.

I decided to “follow my bliss”, as Joseph Campbell says, and to keep studying poetry until somebody or something stopped me, and nobody ever did. Poetry is like a combination of music and thought. It seems to me fundamental to human beings; babies speak in poetry before they speak in prose. I don’t think most people see it that way, but I really see it as key!

Title card from PBS series Joseph Campbell & The Power of Myth

That draw to be a poet, and to be a doctor; did those come from family traditions? Were these pursuits encouraged from an early age?

No, not at all. I grew up in West Texas, and we didn’t have many books in the house. In fact, that’s how I got mono vision, near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other, from reading the library books under my covers at night. It had a permanent effect on me, this reading.

The physiological impact of our curiosity and our choicesGiven your interest in alleviating the suffering caused by the stories we tell ourselves, and your early experience in the hospital, did you ever consider becoming a therapist?

I had a Jungian training psychoanalysis, and did consider doing that with the left hand while being an English professor with the right.

We dream in stories, we make sense of the world through stories. Poetry exists to undo the sense we’ve already made, and recreate something inside us, with the sensemaking mechanism. I’ve written about poetry therapy: reading poetry, which goes straight to the emotions, can have a healing effect.

It makes me think of an article by George Burt and Anup Karath Nair, who talk about scenario planning as an “unlearning” process “by which individuals and organisations acknowledge and release prior learning (including assumptions and mental frameworks) in order to accommodate new information and behaviours.”

Burt and Nair argue that whereas “to learn” derives from a Germanic word related to tracks or furrows, to “unlearn” implies “eradicating furrows and returning to the unfurrowed flux of […] experience […] Unlearning requires letting go or relaxing the rigidities of previously held assumptions and beliefs, rather than forgetting them.”

So we don’t fall into the same rut.

I love the idea that poetry can cause that.

As a scenario writer, I want to drop some seeds into the new furrows before you cover them over. Then different things grow out of it, and you might be able to harvest them for a long time to come.

An image can be the seed of a poem, just as a rhythm or an emotion can be. Poetry arises from lots of different seeds. With scenario writing, no matter how it’s arisen, I do try to come up with some images which will encapsulate the feeling of the whole. “Jazz”, for example, suggests people playing together with their own emergent structure, created in the moment.

Such images help people to build on the scenario, which is what you want. You’re not aiming for a reading experience like Jane Eyre, where you sit down with the beautiful prose and the amazing story; they’re meant to lead to strategy, to action. It’s very different from most literary forms, and a very intriguing form which merits more literary analysis.

If the scenario process was taught the way poetry is taught now, working together to create stories of the future, it would be of great benefit. I think we have to work together to take control of the stories we’re telling about the world to come. That means inviting more people to create scenarios, and also theorising the scenario process more profoundly and rigorously.

We need to be much more conscious of the stories that we’re living into, that we just accept blindly. Economics, for example, for all its use of scientific methods, resembles theology more than anything else; you can’t question the basic assumptions all that much.

Teaching young people how to build scenarios, would make for a better politics, even. Perhaps that’s a utopian vision.

I’m reminded of JFK’s remark, “if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live.

By poetry, I do think he means poesis, the imaginative process and the ability to appreciate imaginative constructions. Then you could make better imaginative constructions, which is after all what politics is all about. Scenarios are literary constructions which don’t live in the ivory tower; they exist to make a difference in the world.

In that same speech, JFK spoke about “the differences between the laboratory and the legislature”, and the need for engaged intellectuals. As President, he also wasn’t afraid to talk about Robert Frost, and the artist having a “lover’s quarrel with the world”.

Your first book, was a study of Browning’s poetry. Browning was known for debunking spiritualism, which made me think again of scenarios and “unfurrowing”, and in your book you explore his writing from a number of angles: the musical analogy, common speech, the prose-poetry method. It made me think, again, of the scenario as this genre which is somewhere between creating a poetic seed and creating a stage set on which others can play. Can you connect this to your later scenario work?

Browning was well-known for his dramatic monologues, which were quite different from Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”. Browning was holding a present conversation.

Scenarios, it seems to me, are trying to evoke a strategic, dynamic, and dramatic conversation that actually performs work in the world. Browning’s conversations were artistic entertainment, perhaps with the effect of influencing individual lives, but not an attempt to save the planet or improve politics – but there is that notion of dramatic action in the present.

Before I wrote poetry as a teenager, I also wrote plays. There’s something about drama, and seeing drama on the stage, which gives a sense of dynamism and being in the moment. That can be when the most potent work of scenarios is done. It’s like improv: making up a story that is deeply meaningful and might shape the future in the dramatic moment. It’s all intertwined.

And drama is often intended to be political. I think of Vaclav Havel’s journey from playwright to president of the Czech Republic.

Look at Boris Johnson, look at Trump! Reality TV is about staging, not reality. Politics and drama have so much in common.

So scenarios become the place to offer alternatives. It begins as fringe theatre, and then some scenarios may receive mainstream attention.

Join us next time for more from this interview with Betty Sue Flowers, or read the full transcript as a PDF download now.

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