WASHINGTON, PA (Sept. 3, 2014)—A Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) professor was among 30 renowned speakers invited to present at a recent writer’s conference, an honor he said was truly “a once in a lifetime experience.”
W&J Professor Jonathan Gottschall, distinguished research fellow and author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, was an invited presenter at the recent Sun Valley Writer’s Conference, attended by more than 1,500 people and featuring more than 30 speakers. The theme of the conference was “The Stories We Tell.”
Gottschallis a leading figure in a new movement to bridge the divide between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities. His book examines human beings’ need to tell tales and immerse themselves in a world of fantasy and make-believe.
“Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the emergent world of story – it’s very early history, its neurobiological geography, and its emergence as a human imperative – has long remained an undiscovered territory in an unmapped country,” Gottschall said.
Gottschall said the opportunity to speak at the conference was very special, because his family was with him and because of the caliber of the speakers. In addition to Gottschall, speakers included U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an architect of the 1963 March on Washington and the only member of the “Big Six” leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement alive today. Lewis is the author of three memoirs, including the #1 New York Times best-selling graphic-novel memoir March.
Lewis has received many honors, including the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal, the only JFK Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement ever granted, and America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 2011 by President Barack Obama.
Timothy Geithner, secretary of the U.S. Treasury during Obama’s first term, also spoke. Geithner was a principal architect of the administration’s strategy to avert economic collapse and reform the financial system. His behind-the-scenes account of that time, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crisis, was recently published.
A third speaker, Bret Johnston, is the author of two books, the novel Remember Me Like This and Corpus Christi: Stories. He is also the editor of the best-selling Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of the creative writing program at Harvard University.
“All of the talks were great,” Gotschall said, “But John Lewis had by far the most beautiful speech I have ever heard. He believed in the nonviolent, civil rights movement and showed so much bravery. He is a very quiet and humble man. He received a 10-minute ovation. It was amazing. That speech will stay with me forever.”
In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Gottschall argues that human beings never outgrow a need to tell stories, and that stories are a way of rehearsing life’s complex social problems. He spoke during the first session of the conference.
“We spend more time in story telling that anywhere else,” Gottschall said. “Dreams, literature, fantasy, music, television—these and other forms of storytelling really saturate our lives.”
Gottschall looks at dreams, religion and children’s pretend play as he examines different types of stories.
“People have an appetite for stories, for consuming them, for telling them. It’s part of what makes human beings special, part of what sets us apart,” he said.
The Sun Valley Writers’ Conference started in 1995 and the first event, featuring 12 writers and 108 attendees, took place at The Community School in Sun Valley, where David Halberstam gave the opening talk. A growing number of readers and writers had a deep yearning to hear from experienced authors—to engage, match wits, learn and listen. Word quickly spread that something special was happening in Sun Valley.
“I was invited to speak at this conference on the strength of my book,” Gottschall said. “I am proud that it is a book that has sold well and found the audience it was supposed to find.”
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a national liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional liberal arts curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent student work.