Let’s Get Back to Storytelling

Let’s Get Back to Storytelling

posted in: Essays | 30

UCLA Winter Quarter, 1991. I open a glass door engraved Department of Folklore and Mythology for my master’s degree interviewbutterflies in my belly.

The adviser in her two-piece suit motions to me. “Come in. Sit down.”

I’ve not even reached the chair when she says, “First of all, we don’t do that Joseph Campbell comparative mythology stuff here. It’s considered poor scholarship.”

This confirmation takes me aback.

In my introductory folklore class, the professor had announced that Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model bordered on colonialism because it “takes the folk out of folklore.” I’d just assumed he was an academic Marxist.

“So what does the department do?” I ask.

“Well…” She leans forward. “We consider Folklore and Mythology the new MBA.”

That’s the last thing I wanted to hear, having fled the corporate world for academia in my 30s.

“One of our Ph.D students,” she continues, “has received a very large grant to do fieldwork at Hughes Aircraft.”

“Really? I worked at Lockheed Aerospace for five years.”

She looks impressed. “So you have real-world experience and connections.”

Unfortunately. “So, what kind of fieldwork is this person doing at Hughes?”

“It’s fascinating,” the adviser pauses for effect. “She’s working with their Human Resources department to recast Howard Hughes as a trickster god to help raise employee morale.”

Howard_Hughes
Howard Hughes: The new Loki?

I ask her to repeat that.

“She’s helping Human Resources recast Howard Hughes as a trickster god to raise morale.”

I can’t help myself. I snort.

Aerospace was probably the most conservative industry of the 1980s. In the days before Anita Hill, sexism and sexual harassment ran unchecked.

I learned to not sit by one old exec in meetings because he always fondled my thigh. I regularly refused another’s invitation to dine at the local Marriott because everyone knew he expected room service. I was eventually forced to resign so my supervisor could hire his buddy in my place.

And I wasn’t alone. For a female researcher to go into that environment touting Howard Hughes’ mythic, um, attributes? Come on…Mercury, Coyote, Loki, and Howie?

“I’ve been there and I don’t think that will work,” I say.

The academic adviser leans back, “I don’t think you’ll be a match for the department.”

It drizzles as I walk back across campus. I step on the damp yellow leaves, angry and confused. Why did academia need to denigrate Joseph Campbell and deify Howard Hughes?

In the “hallowed halls” of learning, corporate funding still dictates the curriculum.

Flash Forward

This anecdote is, of course, LaterBloomer.com’s origin myth — why I write about creative (not corporate) late bloomers.

UCLA disbanded their Department of Folklore and Mythology about a decade ago, due to funding cuts (ironically). I wonder if they regret it. Today, “storytelling” has become the new business buzzword.

They just missed churning out the next generation of high-concept marketing managers.

In a Forbes piece titled, “Not Just for Bedtime, Marketers Corner the Market on Storytelling,” Phil Johnson wrote:

At two recent conferences, almost every speaker opened with the words, “I’d like to tell you a story.” My hope for entertainment soared — and then was dashed just as quickly — as I listened to one attempt after another to wrap a business point in an anecdote masquerading as a story.

I could say the same about almost every blog I’ve visited recently (except the art and writing ones).

Storyselling has replaced storytelling.

Part of me wants to stamp my foot like a child and yell, “Why can’t stories be stories?” I just want to be inspired by someone’s authentic, individual experience.

The Roman poet Horace defined the essence of great storytelling when he wrote, “Change the name, and the story is about you.” Not burgers, cereal, deodorant, or Cialis.

I’d always planned to open LaterBloomer.com to personal stories, but couldn’t find time to do more interviews. Then it occurred to me — let people tell their own stories! (Duh.)

I want to hear your “late” bloomer tale. Please check out the new Your Story page for guest-posting guidelines. Let’s get back to storytelling!

(P.S. You can download a letter-size PDF of the “Heroic Living” image above, with Joseph Campbell’s words and my photography, here.)

30 Responses

  1. Joanna Paterson
    | Reply

    Selling creeps everywhere. It starts to affect us as readers, consumers, audiences, people. What are they trying to sell us? We wonder, and filter filter filter.

    Glad story telling is more powerful – and still there to be claimed.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Joanna, you’re one of the most authentic people I’ve met on the web. Everything you do exudes truth and passion. Yes, real story telling is still out there.

  2. Diana Beebe
    | Reply

    Great post, Debra! I would love to hear how that field worker’s myth-making attempt went. 😉 I like what you’re doing here.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Diana! Your comment made me run to UCLA library database to see if I could find the dissertation. Not surprisingly, it looks like it was never filed. I did find a dissertation titled “Tricksterism in Popular Tradition” from 2005, but it seemed to focus on Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which actually sounds fascinating. I just might read it 🙂

  3. Lindsay
    | Reply

    This is one of your more brilliant posts. That single phrase “storySELLING has replaced storytelling” captures so much truth. Notion of field worker going into Hughes with notion of pasting trickster god on top of mountain of corporate culture to improve employee morale sounds like a great story about storyselling.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Lindsay, especially coming from you. I’m really disgusted by the corporate appropriation of storytelling. I tried to chase down that study, but couldn’t find it. I wish I would have paid more attention at the time, but I was so disappointed that they actually wanted to send me back to Lockheed. (The conversation went on a bit longer than I indicated here and that possibility came up, which was really when I snorted.)

  4. florence fois
    | Reply

    I remember a quote from Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes fame … “Tell me a story.” He believed that everyone has a story to tell and there were no boundaries on how those stories needed to be told.

    Late bloomer? I might have started calling myself an ancient “boomer.” I will think about my story although I have given you a few sneak peeks from my snippets. Love that you are creating a venue for those who need to tell us their story. I look forward to reading many of them 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I hope you considering contributing, too, Florence! I love what you’ve been doing on your blog.

  5. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    Fascinating. “Deifying Howard Hughes and denigrating Joseph Campbell.” That is the essence of the corporate culture that has us in a death grip. It’s so true that all those political spin doctors are just using archetypes to sell us politicians as products. Thought-provoking post.

    • Anne R. Allen
      |

      BTW, for those of you on Facebook, there’s a new FB page for Boomer Lit https://www.facebook.com/BoomerLit–for readers and writers of books for our generation.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Just found out about them and have been meaning to check it out. I think they have a GoodReads group too. Thanks, Anne!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      So true, Anne. We really saw it last time out when both parties did everything they could to mythologize their candidates. Just another place where storytelling is being appropriated!

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    In today’s more socially-connected world, the old ways of marketing are losing effectiveness for traditional products from big companies, too. It’s no surprise that they want a way to connect products to people, in hopes of making those ever-elusive connections. You nailed it with “authentic, individual experience” – and if that experience relates to something commercial or business – it can still be worthy and/or entertaining. The problem with most of these marketing pitches cloaked in “let me tell you a story” is that they are still just marketing pitches. Great post! I’ll look forward to reading about more later bloomers!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I agree, Jennette. I was talking more about the takeover of storytelling by commercial interests that really have nothing to do with art. As writers, we’re storytellers. We want to sell our stories to make a living (hopefully), like in the olden days bards requested food and shelter in return for entertainment. I consider that completely different.

  7. S.J. Driscoll
    | Reply

    I’ve been wondering the same thing lately, Debra.

    Earning money for my stories is great. I like it. But money isn’t the reason why I write. That’s an inversion of values.

    I am a capitalist. But, as a capitalist, I know that money’s only useful for trading things with people. I don’t write in order to trade. Trading’s the result of my writing, not the cause. And nothing I can trade for is as personally valuable to me as my writing.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Well said, S.J.! As I wrote to Jennette, we are still bards. Our storytelling is the result of our passion, not something we create or make up in order to sell.

  8. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Interesting Debra. I can believe how preditorial that industry was just by the reputation that Howard Hughes had as a womanizer. I subscribe to Copyblogger. Almost every post has something about storyselling. It does grab the attention of the buyer. And it works. I like the idea of people sharing their own Later Bloomer tale. I look forward to reading it. I, at the moment, am a Later Bloomer in progress. Not much to tell yet Debra. But hopefully someday. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Karen, Later Bloomer in progress is the best of all stories. I hope you’ll consider sending yours in, if you feel so moved. How to keep your vision through immense struggle, the dark night of the soul — that is what everyone wants to hear.

  9. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    Heh, I laughed about the idea that portraying Howard Hughes as a trickster god might be conducive to employee morale — particularly because trickster gods like Loki, Coyote, etc. tend to be recognized for their deceitfulness and unconventional / incestuous sexual practices.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Yeah, I think they were going with the unconventional outsider and rule breaker version of the trickster. The whole thing seems so bizarre that it almost makes no sense. I really wish I could find this dissertation, but it looks like it was never filed. All I know is that I walked out of there, went back to my own department (anthropology), and applied for the M.A. in Archaeology. Send me back to the past, please! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Chris.

  10. Gloria Bowman
    | Reply

    Just discovered your blog courtesy of Lindsay. I’m inspired!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      That’s my aim! Thanks, Gloria. Lindsay is such an amazing writer and inspiration, so I’m flattered.

  11. Patty
    | Reply

    I love this so much I want to reach through my computer and give you a hug. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and feeling sorta forlorn about this co-opting of storytelling going on all around us. You just nailed it (and told a great story to boot!). Thank you!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Patty! I wish there was a solid way to counteract this. A few of us chatted on Twitter about starting a hashtag for real stories (since #storytelling is all about marketing). But I think the counter-movement is underway in small steps!

  12. Monica Devine
    | Reply

    There is a new, insidious wave of marketing that penetrates every corner of our lives. Companies aim first to give away their product free, a way to draw them in for a taste…nothing new, but on a much grander scale today. And the viewing of a commercial is now called an “ad experience.” And through storytelling, a company aims to develop a consumer’s “relationship” with a company. Thanks, Debra. You really got me thinking on this post.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Monica. I really hate the aspect you mentioned — stories used to sell via a faux relationship. It’s becoming insidious and even infiltrating the blogging world. I think there’ll probably be a backlash soon. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Christine Hayward-Fooks
    | Reply

    Hallo Debra,
    I found you whilst browsing around – I was just taking a look at Buster Merryfield stuff because I knew him personally, with two different connections! Firstly my father was a fellow bank manager, and when I became an avid member of a local drama group (at Banstead, Surrey) in my teens, Buster was an adjudicator for drama competitions which our youth group entered… one year I won Best Actress too – what great fun those days were! Buster was indeed a real character, and it was really delightful when he achieved his well deserved success with OFAH, having turned ‘pro’ not so long before – I can remember he mentioned his initial roles playing at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, and I remember the day he came over to our house and was justifiably proud, excited and just ever so slightly boastful to announce he had the part of Uncle Albert! All after a full career in the bank… amazing. By the way, I am something of a ‘latebloomer’ myself – at 54 I am hoping to be accepted on a museums traineeship next year in Norwich with NMAS, the Norfolk Museums and Archeology Service.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      How cool, Christine! It must have been so fun to have known Buster. And as for your late-blooming achievement — I still harbor a dream of working in a museum. I got the archaeology degree, but veered off museum studies for various reasons. Good luck, I hope you get it!

  14. Krithika Rangarajan
    | Reply

    Hey Debra

    I am just reading your fascinating first anthology about late bloomers! #HUGSS You have a fan for life in me.

    This post made me laugh out loud, forcing my dog to look quizzically at me (I bet he was scared that his mum’s insanity had reached a new high;) )

    Indeed, storytelling has been replaced by ‘storyselling’ across the world of marketing. Although inbound marketing – which is the practive of offering ‘value’ to your customers in return for their loyalty – is touted as a nicer way to market, the basic tenet remains the same: how do I rip my customer out of more money?

    Storytelling has transformed from a magical art-form into a subtler way of seducing your current and potential clients to dole out their dollar bills!

    LOVEEE – thank you so much, Debra #HUGS

    Kitto

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank YOU, Kitto! I’m in a bit of a hiatus at the moment, dealing with my father’s death and my mother’s illness. Some days I just don’t want to put the effort into keeping the blog going. But then someone like you comes along and makes me realize this is my life’s calling, celebrating other inspiring lives. You’ve inspired me to keep going.

Leave a Reply