Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 2: From “Fire Alarm Time” to Generations of Love

This is part two of a three-part interview with Betty Sue Flowers – you can catch up on the first part here, and read the whole piece as a PDF download here.

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.

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.

Just thinking of your own writing for a moment, with your early poems, with your teenage plays, did you have an ideal audience, or a specific reader in mind?

I wrote plays for my cousins to perform at Christmas, but actually as a teenager, a play I wrote was performed on television in my home town of Waco, Texas. It was a satire on the Kennedy administration. It was put on TV, and I thought it was quite funny, and obviously it was a political play, intended to be of relevance to the world; they were going to rebroadcast it, and then the assassination happened, and that was the end of it.

That shocking, moving event changed my sense of where I was heading. But my first published poem, which I wrote as a Brownie scout, was about meeting a beggar selling pencils on the street in Abilene, Texas. I was in my uniform, and I thought the appropriate thing to do was to give him the Brownie salute: to stop and acknowledge his humanity. I did this, and he saluted me back, and that was an interaction I wrote about. The little girl and the beggar. The point of the poem was to establish a human connection which overcame the way people were treating him on the street. Insofar as my writing has had an implicit purpose, it was something about opening eyes.

Can you talk a bit more about your process when you’re writing your own poetry?

With an academic essay, I have an idea; with a poem, I have something that’s more like an embodied feeling. It comes in rhythm, it’s more like a melody you hear, that is shaped by thought, but isn’t a thought, until you start writing it. Then different things happen – including throwing it out! But you just don’t know until you do it.

There’s a relation to scenarios, too; if you can find the right image for a story you need to tell, knowing that leaders are very busy and don’t have time to read academic prose, then those leaders can recreate their own story from that particular image.

A lot of scenarios are written in that very academic prose, which they have to be, so that they stand up to scrutiny. But a powerful, memorable theme is something that leaders can use as a platform for their own thoughts.

You’ve written elsewhere about “fire alarm time”; the idea that leaders only have the time when they’re forced away from the desk by a fire evacuation to consider these thoughts.

This is what happened to me on my first day at Shell! There was a fire drill and I ended up standing next to the head of Group Planning, who otherwise I’d never have encountered. He dared me to write a scenario in ten pages; I took him on, not realising that typical Shell scenarios ran to hundreds of pages at that time.

I still produced the lengthy scenario documents, but I also produced a ten-page public booklet, and then a twenty-page internal version, and then two hundred pages of studies backed it all up. It was the “have your cake and eat it too approach”, but you could still get the main story from the ten-page booklet.

The big challenge was working with a team, which is always fun but also difficult. Writing poetry, you’re by yourself, but when you’re producing scenarios, especially somewhere like Shell, you’re really herding cats, and often working with a lot of people who are smart and have strong opinions.

A scenario is very different to, say, a novel. What’s it like when you’re writing something while being very conscious of the fact that you’re going to invite someone else in to populate the stage or bring the scenario to life?

When you’re writing a story with a lot of people in a scenario workshop, you listen in a slightly different way to the other participants. I’m listening for the story that wants to emerge.

In Presence, a book I did with Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, and Joseph Jaworski, we explored this idea of emergent phenomena. I’m trying to sense the stories that are emerging from people talking about various bits and pieces of the world, of the future that might come to be.

In these situations, is there a story somewhere “out there” which the collective are reaching for, and you can see it by virtue of where you’re training your gaze while they’re busy talking – or are you yourself creating the story by how you selectively piece together the mosaic of their individual contributions?

Every observer disturbs the system, especially one who is trying to find images that will hold things together in one piece. I’m mangling it, but I try to hear what is emerging from what they are actually saying. That’s where the fun is for me, because it’s not my story, not something that I thought up but something I hear and then retell.

It resembles an ancient form, oral storytelling. You listen to people, hear the story and tell it your way, and then someone else, hearing you, will retell it again their way. It’s more word-of-mouth; I really think of scenarios, initially at least, as stories that are told by and to groups. They’re not primarily intended to be read. They are more like folk forms than literary forms.

Rafael Ramírez, who I work with on the scenarios programme at Oxford, talks a lot about the importance of the scenarios process relative to the product. The “a-ha” moments come when you’re figuring out the scenarios, as much as when they’re finalised. And he also talks about conversation itself as a form of technology.

I’m also reminded of the work done by scholars of children’s play on the kind of open-ended, plotless storytelling very young children do to make sense of the world: “Whatever has latest caught their fancy is tested on their perpetual stage.”

And Josh Polchar at the OECD has compared scenarios to instructional fables like the Tortoise and the Hare – stories that needn’t come true for us to learn from them, and make better judgments after hearing them.

How do you find a story that people will take away and share further?

I’m kind of a hit-and-run writer, so I don’t always get to see how they’ve taken hold. However, I have seen some images take hold. The “Jazz” scenario which I wrote for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in the 1990s kept popping up. The word conveys this notion of loosely improvised self-organising systems and people kept using it – or discovering the image for themselves. The World Energy Council even had its own “Modern Jazz” scenario some years later.

I’ve also seen some of the scenarios that I wrote for Shell come true – and that’s a strange feeling, to live long enough that you see some of the things you were writing actually take place.

Yes, with this year’s scenarios for the future of schooling in Norway we had an accelerated version of that experience. We saw that in a highly digitalised future controlled by “the algorithm”, children’s health became a battleground between parents and institutions who each thought they knew what was best for the child.

Our scenario team had projected that forward to the year 2050, but within weeks of publication, COVID-19 meant we saw parents lobbying the city of Oslo on Facebook because their kids were expected to attend school even though the parents were working from home during the pandemic.

You wrote a widely circulated essay about the writing process, “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge”, describing the roles we have to take on to successfully create a text.

These roles are like Jungian archetypes. I really tapped into something when I hit on those four words. I recently was planning a writing workshop, where I was going to create some slides for a Powerpoint presentation, and when I was googling for an image to represent “madman”, I found that a number of people had already created visuals to accompany my text! It’s been used not just in writing essays, but in other fields, including music, architecture, and law.

The point of the essay is to make writing easier for people. Often I’m helping people who are already very talented writers in terms of grammar and so on, so the “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge” just helps to structure the writing process.

Do those roles, which are internal for an individual author, get decomposed and shared out among a group working on scenarios together? Do you have to encourage people to be the creative, generative “madman” so that you can later be the “carpenter” and nail their ideas together?

Very much so. If I get a chance to help shape the workshop, I try to design it so that there’s a lot of free thinking, which can then be shaped into stories. Other people work differently, and prefer to collect stories first, then combine them. But I like what bubbles up when people are just throwing things around, and aren’t trying to shape their ideas into a story yet.

Those archetypes aren’t just figures you can use to help writers get from inspiration to a polished final text. They underlie other aspects of the scenario process too.

If you find an archetype, it doesn’t just apply to one thing. Archetypes underlie what’s happening now, and will emerge in different ways on different projects. When you’re faced with a huge transformation, like this pandemic, we go down to the most basic human level: freeze, fight, or flight. There’s a longer-term perspective, which I’d call community, but to get to that, you have to get rid of the fight-flight-or-freeze response, you have to leap over that.

Yes, there are some interesting analogies between strategic or organisational panic and the kinds of fear reactions that have to be overcome by say, scuba divers, or air marshals, who have to deal with high-adrenalin situations.

That fight-flight-or-freeze response comes out of fear, and when you get down to it, if you want to speak poetically, the opposite of fear is love. So when you are talking about a crisis like the pandemic, there are responses formed of fear, and responses formed of love.

If you think archetypally, scenarios will share some elements because they’re being created by humans who have been thrown back on those archetypal, primal resources by the global crisis we are facing.

That also intrigues me, when we think about crises which may await us in the future, such as climate change, to consider them in terms of fear and love – not just for our present and those around us, but love for successor generations.

That might be the Indigenous concept of “deep time” and all that will outlast us, or Andri Snaer Magnason’s meditation on the generational impact of climate change. He writes that:

“[I]f you were born in the year 2000 you might become a healthy 90-year-old. At that time you might have a favourite 20-year-old in your life. A grandchild perhaps, someone you have known and loved for 20 years. When will that person be a healthy 90-year-old, maybe talking about you as the greatest influence in their lives?

The students do the maths and come up with a year like 2160. That is not an abstract calculation. That is the intimate time of someone in high school or at university today. This is time whose meaning they can touch with their bare hands. If we can connect deeply to a date like this, what do we think of scientists warning of catastrophe in 2070? Or 2090? How can that be beyond our imagination, as if part of some sci-fi future?”

“The glaciers of Iceland seemed eternal. Now a country mourns their loss”, Andri Snær Magnason

For me, this also connects to Joseph Campbell. Prior to my work on scenarios. I’d written a television tie-in book with him, which became a number one bestseller. People responded to that book not because of the mythology, but because of what he’d learned from Jung: he told these stories in an archetypal way, which made them appeal to many people. There have been much better scholars in myth than Campbell, but his ability to tell the story in a way that spoke to people made him the best-known and most influential.

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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