People are starting to catch on about the power of story.
Entrepreneur magazine has noted, “Storytelling seemed to be the major business lesson of 2014.” Of course, business has a particular interest in story. The piece continues, “Financials still matter to investors, but your story is now the story—and the one that will land you cash money.”
Story is thought to release oxytocin, a hormone that, when released in the body, may encourage trust and empathy. Dr. Paul Zak has demonstrated in a number of tests that when oxytocin levels rise people are more likely to be trusting, to the point of giving money to people they don’t know.
Let me bring you back now to 1980. I’m working at a gas station on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California. You sit in a gas station all day, you see lots of morality and immorality, let me tell you. So one Sunday afternoon, a man walks into my cashier’s booth with this beautiful jewelry box. Opens it up and there’s a pearl necklace inside. And he said, “Hey, I was in the men’s room. I just found this. What do you think we should do with it?” “I don’t know, put it in the lost and found.” “Well this is very valuable. We have to find the owner for this.” I said, “Yea.”
So we’re trying to decide what to do with this, and the phone rings. And a man says very excitedly, “I was in your gas station a while ago, and I bought this jewelry for my wife, and I can’t find it.” I said, “Pearl necklace?” “Yeah.” “Hey, a guy just found it.” “Oh, you’re saving my life. Here’s my phone number. Tell that guy to wait half an hour. I’ll be there and I’ll give him a $200 reward.” Great, so I tell the guy, “Look, relax. Get yourself a fat reward. Life’s good.” He said, “I can’t do it. I have this job interview in Galena in 15 minutes, and I need this job, I’ve got to go.” Again he asked me, “What do you think we should do?” I’m in high school. I have no idea. So I said, “I’ll hold it for you.” He said, “You know, you’ve been so nice, let’s split the reward.” I’ll give you the jewelry, you give me a hundred dollars, and when the guy comes … “
Zak was the victim of a team of con artists using what’s known as the “pigeon drop.” He attributes trusting gullibility to a spike in his oxytocin levels caused by the stranger’s act of trust in him. It’s a typical human response, and it happens when people listen to stories, he found. (About five percent of people don’t share this response, and they may be the ones who can take advantage of others without feeling anything. Zak’s technical term for them is “bastards.”)
All of this, even the marketing mania around storytelling, pleases me. I can still see the brass tacks against the coarse fabric on the back running up the back of the one upholstered arm chair in my parents’ living room in South Carolina.
That’s where I hid as a child to listen to the adults telling stories about what was happening in their lives. Maybe it had to do with the way Southerners tell stories – if you don’t know what I mean, try reading something by former New York Times writer Rick Bragg, such as Ava’s Man (which, by way of example, opens with the lines, “She was old all my life. Even when I was sitting in the red dirt, fascinated with my own toes, Ava’s face had a line in it for every hot mile she ever walked, for every fit she ever through.” That’s the way Southern storytelling feels.)
It occurs to me that I would have done my writing self a favor if I had paid more attention to this sort of storytelling and how it works. The problem, I suspect, is that my desire to write didn’t manifest itself until later, long after I had moved out of the South as a twelve-year-old with my family. When it did appear, journalism seemed to be the way to go. I’ll mention somewhere else on this site (read: in another post at some point) how journalism screwed up any storywriting capability that I might have had.
What ruined my writing more, though, is that I tried to figure it out on my own. If I could start over today, I’d take writing classes, even to the point of going for my Master’s of Fine Arts right after getting out of the Army. It wouldn’t repair all the stumbling about that I did, but it would have sped up the process of getting to where I am. I still have my issues – Lord knows – and I certainly don’t have any prescriptions for perfection, but I understand something about the infectious power of story.