Our fascination with Story is so deeply embedded I would be surprised if genetic researchers haven’t turned up a receptor gene for it. We are almost as fond of categorizing things as we are of telling stories, so I wasn’t surprised recently to come across an article about the seven archetypal stories. This take on it says that the seven stories are: overcoming the monster, rebirth, quest, journey and return, rags to riches, comedy, and tragedy. Other genre categories break it down differently: love story, thriller, murder mystery, epic adventure, etc. The point is, we relate deeply, even subconsciously, to stories that have familiar themes and structures.
Just as there are types of stories, there are also types of storytellers. Some we call entertainers, others leaders or politicians. Some we call teachers, or pastors, rabbis or imams. Some are advertisers, others activists. All understand the power of Story to help us make sense of our lives, to show us our struggles and shine light on a pathway through them. It’s telling that this particular article ran in an advertising magazine.
The appropriation of storytelling by advertising is nothing new. Advertising wants to make us believe something about ourselves and our world, and based on that to buy products. Our world is full of stories that provide useful frameworks for the strategy of selling, but such subversiveness is worth a second look and a healthy dose of caution.
Storytelling has always had a scared role in human culture. Stories guide us to come to terms with our identity and purpose, particularly when those are changing. In the absence of consistent institutions or strong community, advertising rushes in to fill the vacuum. Storytelling is co-opted to get us to buy that car, take those trips, use that brand of gasoline or deodorant. Some, like public-interest creative Jonas Sachs, use Story for nobler purposes, such as their campaign to ban factory farms. The work of his company, Free Range Studios, is sophisticated and full of humor. He shares their philosophy and strategies in his book, Winning the Story Wars,
I do tend to be wary of appropriation in any form. There’s something creepy about blatant domestication of a wild art form that has survived millennia of human use. How has it managed to do that? I think of Story as not wholly a creation of humans, certainly not owned by us. It’s more of a vehicle that we hitch a ride on. Or a magical device we can wield only when properly trained. Like the enchanted sword Excalibur or Harry Potter’s wand. You don’t just find Story laying around, pick it up and start using it.
As with Harry Potter’s wand, a Story chooses its teller. Some people have the rare ability to spin stories that move us to laughter and tears and wonder, that teach us in subtle ways and take us to places we’ve never been before. Such stories change us forever. Not everyone has this gift, and not everyone who has it uses it for good.
Just like in “Star Wars,” there are those who use the power of Story for evil purposes. The Dark Side of storytelling is the politician who cheerfully tells his audiences what they want to hear in order to get elected. Or an advertisement that tells us that drilling for natural gas is the best way to a clean future and energy independence. “Think about it” sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it?
In the classic Hero’s Journey detailed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, there’s always a mentor figure who schools the hero and teaches him the necessary arts, and/or magic, that he will need in order to survive his adventure. Who is the mentor today? Who is imparting wisdom and telling stories? Are we letting too many Dark Side stories into our consciousness uncritically?
Everyone has a story to tell. That may be the appeal of the Everyman Hero – we get to witness the story of someone just like us who overcomes trials through their grit and determination. People love not only to tell their own story, but also to hear the stories of other regular people, just like them. This accounts for the popularity of storytelling organizations like StoryCorps, or the Moth or Stoop Storytelling here in Baltimore. The Tlingit in Alaska believe that your story is your own and no one else has the right to tell it. We have lost that sense of privacy and personal ownership of stories.
I am intensely curious about what happens when we start telling different stories, or when different storytellers step up to tell those stories. For instance, what are the stories we tell ourselves about gun violence here in the U.S.? My husband and I recently had a long conversation about this. He can be rather conservative on some matters, but on this, he is even more radical than I. He believes in nothing short of making all gun ownership illegal, even if it means having to rent guns to hunters on an as-needed basis. Others say that gun violence is a public health issue best tackled with rigorous study and policy. Yet others believe gun ownership is a sacred right etched into the cornerstone of our country.
In so many areas of life, we’ve turned over our power to experts. In the same way that we have police, lawyers and judges to adjudicate our conflicts, we have HBO TV show runners and advertisers and politicians telling us what our stories should be. Maybe we actually have more power than we think—not only to tell our own stories, but to rewrite the stories that are being told in our culture. If we want to change things, it’s up to us to change the story.