2014 Conference Program Abstract
All of us have heard about the great benefits of storytelling for children and using patron stories in library advocacy campaigns, but why do these things work? What is about stories that draw connections between people and open up opportunities for such disparate ideas as funding, education, and self-realization? Explore the why behind "Once Upon a Time" with a small introduction to Joseph Campbell, modern business theory, and the growing popularity of oral performance.
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"Story is the glue of the world." - Jane Yolen.
Once an old ragged traveling woman came through town. She knocked at the first door she came to, asking only for a bit of meat and wine for her supper and maybe a bed to stay for the night. The owner said they couldn’t spare anything for there had been sickness in the house. She moved on and at the next door, she asked for a bit of bread and water and perhaps a place in their barn where she could rest her weary bones. The owner only shook his head and closed the door. At the third house, she couldn’t even get out her request before the door was slammed in her face.
She knocked on every single door in the town and not one person would give her a crumb. She wearily made her way to the center of the town, where there was a beautiful fountain. She sat down heavily, wondering how she could find the strength to take one more step.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of footsteps rushing toward her. When the dust cleared, she saw a beautiful young man sitting high in his horse’s saddle, his shoulders covered in a rich red cloak. The doors of the townspeople flew open and they rushed to greet the young man. In their arms, they carried gifts of meat and wine, artisan breads and the purest of water, soft pillows and blankets. All of these things, they lay at his feet.
When the crowd began to disperse, the old woman made her way to the young man, sitting on his high horse. She pointed a finger in his face. “Who are you--that these people who wouldn’t give me a single crumb, would throw down their best for you?”
The young man smiled down at the old woman, “My name is Story. People are always happy to see me for the gifts I give to them when I stay. Who are you that they would treat you so roughly?”
The old woman spit in the dirt and said, “My name is Truth. People always turn me away no matter where I go, leaving me nothing but air to live on.”
The young man reached back and took off his rich red cloak and handed it to the old woman, “Come and ride with me. For when Truth is clothed by Story, no one ever goes hungry.”
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We tell stories all the time. It is so part of being human that to talk about it as a separate action is like giving someone specific directions of how to breathe, walk, etc. Every single night, when we gather with our family over dinner, we share stories. When we comfort a grieving friend, we share stories. When we create jokes with our kids, we share stories. But why do our brains work this way?
The most famous person to get the academic ball rolling was probably Sigmund Freud who taught and influenced the Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung. From Freud’s groundbreaking theories in psychiatry, Jung developed his own work concerning dreams, archetypes and something he called the Collective Unconscious, which is basically a big melting pot of ideas that all human beings share, whether they know it or not. Deep down, we all desire the same basic things in the world like love, achievement, and comfort, and those things show up in our global stories. In the 1930s, Joseph Campbell took Jung’s work one step further and developed something called Mythological Studies. He discovered that archaeologically speaking, primitive cultures could develop on two completely separate continents, have absolutely no interaction with each other and still develop a collection of stories that only differed in minor detail.
Look at the fairytale “Cinderella.” Despite what they say, it wasn’t originally spun by Disney. Outside of the French version published down by Charles Perrault, which most of us learned, there are similar tales in Germany, where her name is Ashenputtel; and in Asia, where our princess wears fur boots; and in Mexico where “she” is a “he” and has a magical talking horse instead of a fairy godmother. In every single story, a disadvantaged person goes on an adventure, seeking his or her heart’s desire and finds it with the help of something greater than the self. That should sound very familiar, because it is basically the outline of another of Campbell’s ideas, “The Hero’s Journey,” which is pretty much every story we tell.
Suffice to say, George Lucas was Joseph Campbell’s greatest student and Star Wars: A New Hope was his Master’s thesis made flesh. We all know the archetypes there—the innocent boy who goes on a quest; his foolish roguish companions; a feminine complement to the adventurer in the form of his twin sister; and of course the Dark Side, embodied by his father who abandoned him long ago and who now gives him a choice—join evil or die, which is to say, change and grow up. Some of you tell this same story over the dinner table with your co-workers or patrons or bosses filling in the appropriate roles.
Jonathan Gottschall, the author of The Storytelling Animal, a book that came out last year, argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. We use stories in little things like entertainment, sharing events at the end of the day, and in tricks to remember people’s names. We use stories in big things like community rituals like weddings, religions, and politics. When one has a problem to solve, what is the first reaction? Find a precedent. Find a story that can help us understand what is happening to us.
In the documentary Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley, which came out two years ago, she takes the viewer on this journey to meet her mother. But that’s not what the film is really about. With subtle twists and careful editing, Sarah explains that she is only telling us one side of her family’s story, despite the fact we’ve witnessed a multitude of interviews and seen seemingly authentic footage. There were hundreds of other interpretations that she did not even cover.
We tell ourselves stories all the time, casting ourselves in different roles depending on each telling. Sometimes we are the hero. Sometimes we are the trickster. Sometimes we are the victim. When our perspectives and perceptions change, so do our stories. Despite or maybe because of this volatile and subjective process, we rely on stories to define our beliefs and connect with others.
There are so many stories out there, how do construct a story worth listening to, no matter what our personal or institutional desire is- to build a new addition, to expand children’s minds or to explain a new policy to an irate patron? Gotschall wrote that “Lab studies show that when we are deeply absorbed in a story, we lose our skepticism and we can be made to feel and believe just about anything the storyteller wants.” Thus, the key is finding not only a story that connects to your patrons or your board, but one that is going to help them remember your “brand” and ties them to your particular narrative. Think about your mission statement. Can you consolidate that bulky message down into a “elevator pitch”? Distill it further into a 1-3 word phrase. That’s the seed of your story.
I will caution you to be consistent throughout this process. No listener wants to be taken out of their suspension of disbelief with a technicality or a glaring detail. Tell your story in every single advertisement, flier, program, staff meeting, and interaction. Live your story and make it come to life.
To make your story heard, find not only the connection to your audience, get them involved. You want people to listen and then for them to become believers and proselytizers and missionaries on your behalf. You want them to carry your story out into the word, letting that seed grow fertile in other patrons’ and sponsors’ minds. Knowing your audience is the most important part of storytelling, outside of preserving the story itself. And there are a lot of different audiences and storytellers.
The National Storytelling Network hosts a variety of special interest groups whose goals are to use storytelling outside the “traditional” performance sense. They cover such ground as healing arts, higher education, business or organizational telling, religion, environmental issues, and diversity and social justice causes.
A year or so ago, CNN had a lovely feature talking about the growing popularity of storytelling in America. In it, annual storytelling festivals, like Jonesborough’s International Storytelling Festival and University of North Alabama’s Front Porch Storytelling Festival in Florence, Alabama, highlighted their target audiences of grandparents & kids, but where, the reporter asked, were the 20-30-40 somethings? They were at MOTH, a creative non-fiction/personal narrative event, where the real life stories can get very honest, and sometimes risque. Other such venues have cropped up, just here in Nashville. Cafes and bookstores are hosting monthly tellings from volunteers at such shows like Ten by 9; Great Eastern; Night of Free Speech; That Time of the Month; First Time Stories; Tell It Like It is and The Porch Collective, to name a few. I belong to a storytelling guild in Hendersonville called Explorastory that will be performing kids’ stories at the Tomato Festival this year. Suffice to say, there is a place for everyone.
I ask you- where are the librarians, either as tellers or as hosts for these kinds of events? If the Preston Medical Library at UT can host a Poet-In-Residence, then how many other institutions could tap into this great need for a story by either hosting formally recognized resident storytellers, or at the very least self-appoint their staff as bards ready to spread the good news of their libraries?
Let us start here. Tell me your story. I’ll listen.
Murphy. Clare Muireann. “Truth & Story,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyjrK_rmSPQ
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, org. c1949.
The Power of Myth, hosted by Joseph Campbell and broadcast on PBS in 1988.
Star Wars: A New Hope, directed by George Lucas, org. released 1977.
Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal, c2013.
Stories We Tell. written and directed by Sarah Polley, org. released 2012.
The National Storytelling Network, www.storynet.org/
Christy Underdown-Dubois a Cataloger for Ingram Content Group. She can be reached at email@example.com.