At the beginning
Like yours, our business began with a story. And like most stories, ours began a long time ago in another place.
When I was a little girl, I was enthralled with my father’s ability to make up stories on the spot.
Dad made a living with his hands. By day he operated a bandsaw in a furniture factory, making fancy turnings in wood for expensive furniture that would find their way into some of the nicest homes all over the country. In the evenings and on weekends, he worked hard fixing our old cars so that we didn’t have to spend money to keep them up. He and Mom always had a big garden, the plot covering much more of the land than did our two-bedroom house. I can still hear the motor of the monstrous two-wheeled tractor Dad muscled to plow the red North Carolina clay where my parents planted rows of peanuts, corn, “little white” cucumbers, tomatoes and half-runner beans.
Sunday was the only day my Dad didn’t work from sun up long past sun down. That was the Lord’s day, and it was sacred. We went to church twice, in the morning for Sunday School and preaching, then at night for Baptist Training Union and again for preaching. Unless I wanted to crawl under a car and hold a wrench for him (an honor that usually fell to my younger brother, because — well — he was the boy), play time with Dad was limited.
So we learned to beg Dad for stories. There weren’t a lot of children’s books in the house, both because there wasn’t a lot of extra money and because it probably never occurred to anyone that having a lot of them around was important. In addition to a thick Bible story book, there were a couple of others.
I remember one, “The Big Brown Bear,” that had our random crayon scrawls throughout. Dad eventually got tired of reading that so he began making up stories, mostly starring The Little Ground Squirrel. His yarns were full of adventure, pathos and even tragedy. The Little Ground Squirrel’s mother died in one, leaving him all alone in the world, reminiscent of Bambi. My brother and I got so upset that we couldn’t go to sleep, resulting in Mom calling a moratorium on stories for a while. But we still begged for them.
From that experience, I grew up with a hunger for stories. As early as the fifth grade, I began writing Paul Bunyan-style “Tall Tales.” The following year, when our sixth-grade class was housed in a trailer-style classroom adjacent to the main school building because of space problems, I became the editor of a mimeographed “magazine” we published called “The Nutshell.” In high school and college I was into student newspapers and literary magazines.
The ’70s were the time of Vietnam and Watergate, and, like many young people in that era, I was captivated with the possibilities that journalism offered to change the world. Meeting Sam Ervin, the Watergate prosecutor, while crossing campus one day at the University of North Carolina, sealed the deal, so I switched my major from English to journalism.
I worked for five years in community journalism, covering more mundane — but still important — topics such as school board meetings, robbery trials and nor’easters. While this was not “Deep Throat,” it was the stuff of people’s lives, and real stories happen everywhere, every day. I loved the work.
In 1980, my career took me into public relations. I thought I would be leaving the storytelling aspect that I loved behind, but that was not the case — and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. I’ve spent much of the past three decades of my career working in health care and higher education, where there are daily stories of conflict, struggle and overcoming obstacles against all odds.
Public relations is sometimes unfairly labeled as puffery or “spin,” but the way I — and those professionals I know — practice it, it is an honorable profession that supports the best practices of storytelling and communications. Through public relations, the stories that show how a nonprofit is fulfilling its mission come to light. The story of how a business grew from someone’s garage and now supports thousands of employees is repeated. The story of how a grassroots effort on Facebook to get 88-year-old Betty White to host Saturday Night Live becomes infamous. Like telling stories around a campfire, corporate storytelling is the passing of culture among employees and the positioning of brands in consumers’ minds.
I haven’t always viewed PR writing quite this way. While I loved my work, in the back of my mind, I believed it wasn’t real writing. I wanted to be a writer of stories, the kind published in books — fiction, preferably — and most definitely the kind found on the New York Times Best Seller List.. So 10 years ago, I started a long journey to earn an MFA in creative writing. Taking one class at a time, it took me eight years and many trips through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel to Norfolk to earn that degree.
While I learned a lot about the craft of writing, the most important thing I learned was that all the stuff I had been doing for all those years was writing stories. I didn’t have to go to school again or get published in a book … I am a storyteller. (Hint: And so are you.)
As I mentioned once in a management meeting at a hospital where I worked, as stewards of that institution our focus should be on the fact that people were suffering or getting well, finding or losing hope, dying or being born all around us every moment of the day. And, as I observed, it was our great privilege to be present for those moments, even when we could not cure someone or stop the pain. Those moments are where we find transcendence and meaning if we pay attention. That’s where the stories are.
Though my Dad died far too young more than three decades ago, the stories he told me as a child and those he lived not only shaped my career, but molded me into the person I became. And just as Dad is still with me, so are his stories.
That’s what happens when we honor important moments, whether they are from our personal lives or those in the lives of our businesses and organizations. It was how indigenous people before us passed along their wisdom, and it’s how we do it, too.