Some stories that get told aren’t quite as pleasant. They label and pigeonhole people. Those stories put people in a box that the protagonists can never get out of, and the storytellers never relinquish control. It’s like a ventriloquist act, with real people. My wife and I know a couple of people like that. I’d be hard-pressed to call them friends, because they’re insufferable.
When that couple tells stories, those people don’t really tell you anything about anyone. And the more the stories are repeated, the less you know. They’re used as crutches, as symbols, as ways to speak in sign language. The person tells the story. It has some beginning, middle, and an end. Then you go and grab some more chips, turn on the TV, and let someone else tell the story for a change.
For my whole life, I didn’t really appreciate the dark side of storytelling. After all, we’re in an industry that embraces it. For years now, the theme of advertising and marketing conferences has been all about stories. It’s been the dominating theme of South by Southwest – one of the seemingly trendier and more forward thinking conferences out there. We’re obsessed with stories. We feel like this is what marketers do best, and it’s everything they should do. Tell a great story, one that people will fall in love with or relate to in some way. If it’s a really great story, they’ll share it with others.
Yet we have it all wrong.
You know how I realized we have it all wrong? My wife said a comment that forever rocked my world. And no, it wasn’t, “David, you’re totally right.” I’m talking about something real here, not science fiction. Here’s what happened.
One day several months ago, my wife, Cara – she has a name – was venting about the couple I mentioned. She lamented, “All they do is tell stories!”
And this started to worry me. My job is all about telling stories. I fancied myself a writer around when I was five or six years old, as soon as I learned how to write. I’m invited to speak here because someone probably thought, “This guy isn’t just a decent speaker, but he’s a storyteller.” And they used that in the most flattering way one could. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read – and maybe this is just because of the kinds of books I usually like to read – that reference A Thousand and One Nights, Alf Leila Wa Leila. All of these books glorify the storytellers and the art of storytelling.
Cara, please, I’m thinking, not only are you making a totally valid, undeniably valid, remark, but you’re ripping apart so much of what I love, and so much of what I do. I’m a storyteller at a storytelling company helping deeper pocketed storytellers tell their stories, and then I go on the road and tell stories about all that while listening to others’ stories and then, often enough, winding up enjoying a few Jack & Gingers until it’s time to go to bed and do the whole thing over again. This is my existence.
But no, she said, not realizing everything going through my head, disturbing my worldview – and by the way, I can’t believe I’m saying all this out loud. It’s like I’m in Confession. I’ll admit I don’t know how the whole confessional thing works. I think it involves kneeling and dark booths and –
Well, I’ve got a funny joke about an old Jew going to confession and he says, “Father, I just had sex with the most beautiful 25-year-old woman!” And the priest goes, “Wait a second, aren’t you Mr. Moskowitz?” And the Confessor goes, “Yeah, that’s right.” And the priest goes, “And aren’t you Jewish?” And Mr. Moskowitz says, “Yeah.” So the priest goes, “Why are you telling me this?” And Moskowitz says, “Telling YOU? I’m telling EVERYBODY!” And there I go, stuck in a joke – another story. An old favorite of my father’s. I can’t help it. I’m still used to the storyteller being the hero.