Molly Catron: From Molecule to Metaphor

Molly Catron is a chemist turned professional storyteller, a journey, as she says, “from molecule to metaphor.” Catron talked about the art and practical applications of storytelling on your Library’s Facebook Live on Thursday, February 25 at 6 p.m. She explained the cognitive things that happen when we hear stories, and how stories can help us think critically, understand differences, and work to change.

Since Catron taught us about storytelling, we wanted to listen to some of her own stories and how they’ve shaped her worldview. Read our interview below to hear her fascinating life story.

JOHNSON CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY: How did you get into storytelling? Why were you drawn to it?

MOLLY CATRON: My original career was chemistry. I got the chemistry degree because I was a single mom and it was a good way to support two kids. But I was always more of a right brain, creative type. I started at Eastman Chemical Company as a chemist, and in the early 1980s there was a push in the business world to empower workers, to move away from the top-down approach. So they pulled some of us off the floor to teach the operations people in the production area this new empowerment model. I think they had me do it because I come from “those kinds of people”—I understood the culture and they liked me. So I started teaching these empowerment classes, along with my other job.

What I learned pretty quick was, if you’re going to empower workers in an organization, you’re going to have to move from rules-based leadership to principle-based leadership. And principle-based leadership requires character. So I found myself having to teach character development, because somehow in the industrial age we’ve lost some of that knowledge. In these classes, I found myself telling stories to illustrate the principles I was trying to teach. Principles operate in the gray area, they’re not black and white, and it’s the same for stories. So stories lend themselves well to explaining principles. I told a lot of my own family stories, stories that I’d been told, especially by my grandpa, to teach me principles and character.

I didn’t see myself as a storyteller at the time. But eventually I was made a manager and continued to tell stories in an effort to empower the people in my group. And my boss kept getting feedback about how much people liked my stories. That ultimately led to a career shift; they put me full-time into focusing on business and cultural change. One day my boss threw a notebook on my desk and he said, “This has you written all over it.” It was an offer to partner with the International Storytelling Center (ISC) to study the deliberate use of story in organizations.

So the next thing you know I’m sitting in Jonesborough (at the ISC) drinking peach tea on company time, thinking, “God is good!” Once I met the storytelling community, I knew that was my tribe. That’s when I realized how out of sync I was with the engineers and chemists at work. I just had a more creative bent, and I didn’t know what I was missing until I met the storytelling community.

So that led me to get a masters in storytelling at ETSU. I was just so eager to learn more about the art form—not just telling a story off the cuff, but how do you tell a really good story? So I got my masters and retired early from Eastman to pursue a consulting career in storytelling for the business sector.

JCPL: Do you remember the seeds of storytelling being planted when you were young?

CATRON: Oh, yeah. Both sides of my family used story. My daddy’s side in Alabama, they hold history really dear and want you to know your roots. They want you to know it better than anything. And so they tell family stories over and over to remind you who you are. My great grandchildren now talk about Mikey Bianca, our Italian ancestor who emigrated here, as if they know him. They even use expressions of his that they’ve absorbed through the stories we’ve told them.

On my momma’s side, my grandpa and grandma both taught principles through stories. They had all kinds of little vignette stories, a lot of them crazy. Usually they were cautionary tales, like somebody did something really stupid and they didn’t want you to do the same thing. And God help you if you did something dumb in that family, because there would be a story told about you for years!

So yeah, family storytelling formed me from a young age, but I didn’t know to call it storytelling, I took it completely for granted. I didn’t even call them stories, it was just how my family talked. But those stories became a wealth of knowledge when I started doing trainings at Eastman on principle- and character-building.

After you become a storyteller, you have a tendency to look at life through a storyteller’s lens. So I didn’t just rely on those old family stories. I was accumulating new stories of my own and observing the creation of stories all around me all the time. When you see the world through a storytelling lens, there’s always an endless supply.

JCPL: Why do you think people need to engage in storytelling, both telling their own stories and listening to others’?

CATRON: Humans went from the agricultural age to the industrial age, and then the information age, and somewhere along the way we lost the ability to communicate effectively. And now in the information age we live or die by communication. And we’re a global organization, so we live or die by relationships with the other. Our success now is mostly based on relationships. We can’t hide in our little worlds, our own little brains, it just doesn’t work.

Throughout all these transitions, we’ve become human ‘doings’. We need to relearn how to become human ‘beings’, and that’s where stories come in. What stories do is they reveal our humanity, bring us back to being human beings. And when we listen to stories from others, they allow us to see that we have much more in common than we do different. And where there is difference, we can honor that difference. Storytelling helps us do both.

We see the world and process information through our stories. Our experiences can get so etched in our brains, we can’t hardly see anything else. But it’s mostly under the surface, sometimes we aren’t even aware of how we’ve been formed, why we think the way we do. And we tend to only listen to the stories that confirm what we already believe. That’s what’s so powerful about listening, really listening, to people who are different from me; their stories expand my world, I see things differently. Listening to others’ stories helps me “think about my thinking”—to step back and question my assumptions and worldview.

Telling and listening to stories also helps us problem solve and work together. Listening to diverse stories can make us system thinkers—to see the larger systems we’re in, rather than just individual events or our singular experiences, and we can work from that. In the middle, between the different sides and different stories, are most of the answers we’re looking for.

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