PLATTSBURGH — What is it that truly makes us human?
One of the answers, Jonathan Gottschall believes, is that we tell stories.
Author of the new book “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Gottschall grew up in Plattsburgh.
His mother, Marcia Gottschall, is the interim English as a Second Language program coordinator and English lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh; his father is Jon Gottschall, a professor of political science.
“It feels very comfortable to be here,” Jonathan said during a recent visit. “From the time I got off the plane in Burlington, there was a sense of homecoming and nostalgia.”
Gottschall now lives in Washington, Pa., with his wife and two young daughters. Since the publication of “The Storytelling Animal” last year, he has traveled nationally and internationally to discuss his ideas.
He was part of a panel, along with Joyce Carol Oates and other noted authors, at the World Science Festival in New York City, and he has had speaking engagements in Lisbon and Beijing.
But visiting Plattsburgh made him recall childhood memories from Hillcrest and Grace avenues.
“We got here when I was 3 years old,” he said of Plattsburgh.
Gottschall went through elementary, middle and high school here.
His book argues that stories are everywhere in human life — literature, film, television, commercials, sportscasts, comedy, music, history and religion. So, it’s no surprise to hear him use a classic movie quote to describe his own feelings about visiting the place where he grew up.
“There’s no place like home,” he said.
Of course, Gottschall’s book about the prevalence of story has its own origin story — one that he described during a recent talk in Krinovitz Hall at SUNY Plattsburgh.
He spoke of driving down the road on a beautiful day, alone in the car and listening to music, his spirits buoyant.
Then, a country song started playing on the radio, “Stealing Cinderella” by Chuck Wicks. Although not a fan of country music, Gottschall was intrigued by the lyrics.
“I started listening to the singer tell a story.”
Moments later, his mood had changed completely: He was in tears, thinking of the day in the future when his two young daughters would be growing up and leaving home.
He had been caught up, mentally and emotionally, by the story the song tells.
“I was melted into helplessness by a kind of storytelling I don’t even like.”
His own surprising reaction to the story told by the country song helped him make the decision to write about the importance of story in human life.
While it wasn’t the first time he had thought of the idea, he noted, “you’re always on the fence about a book. If you do that book, there’s another book you’re not doing.”
AMID THE RUINS
Gottschall presented a striking image during his talk: a photograph of Londoners in a library following a World War II air raid.
The building has been hit, its ceiling has caved in, and charred timbers have crashed to the floor.
But amid these ruins, two men and a woman are calmly browsing the bookshelves. The image illustrates how humans are drawn to story even under the worst of conditions.
“No matter where you go and when you go there, no matter how hard people’s lives are, they tell stories.
“And their stories are basically the same as ours.”
Using an analogy from J.M. Barrie’s classic work, “Peter Pan,” Gottschall noted that the Darling children leave Neverland and grow up, but Peter refuses to leave.
“Are we more like the Darling children or like Peter Pan? I think we’re more like Peter Pan.
“We may leave the nursery ... but we never stop pretending,” he says in his book. “We just change how we do it.
“Novels, dreams, films and fantasies are provinces of Neverland.”