In Memoriam: Mike Littrell, Cultural Mythologist (1948-2010)

A few weeks ago my friend and mentor Mike Littrell closed the book on this earthly story. True to his passion for narrative and mythology, this intriguing, brilliant man left more questions than answers and he left us wanting more.

Mike Littrell

Mike Littrell (Photo: Gene Miller)

Mike had many friends who each experienced a different facet of this handsome diamond-in-the-rough. But I’m pretty sure everyone would agree that he was a Master Storyteller. He drew on a profound knowledge of ancient mythology, deep history and popular culture, which gave him an insightful perspective of our collective narrative history. I  learned more about storytelling and mythology during the brief 18 months that I knew him than I had in the previous 30 years that I have been working as a documentary filmmaker, editor and narrative consultant.

Tell Me a Story and Make It About Me

The beautiful eulogy delivered by Mike’s sister Barb Morgan bore the poignant title “Tell me a story and make it about me!” and it spoke volumes about the man and his work.  “Don’t tell your story, ” he often advised. “Tell the audience’s story. The key is getting them to think, Oh yeah, me too!”

I first met Mike at an inspiring un-conference I regularly attend on Cortes Island.  “Media that Matters” annually brings together media professionals dedicated to positive social change.  We brainstorm, network and chill out on the beautiful beachfront property at Hollyhock. Mike’s brilliance shone a light into our May 2009 gathering. We were enthralled by his quiet charismatic presence.

Sutton’s Law

I’ll never forget the first story I heard Mike tell about Willie Sutton, the notorious 19th century bank robber. Sutton spent over half his life in prison and when asked by a reporter why he had robbed so many banks, he replied: That’s where the money is. “Don’t ignore the bleeding obvious,” cautioned Mike with a twinkle in his eye. “The simplest answer is usually the right one.” Sutton’s Law is widely used in medical training.

During the summer of 2009, Mike and I met regularly at his ‘office': the outdoor patio at the Day’s Inn on Belleville Street. I was developing a documentary project and he was generously offering his insight. Accompanied by coffee and sunshine, two of Mike’s favourite things,  we talked about Homer, Parcival, Abelard, Dionysius and the proverbial Dragon we must all face in our lives. “Who’s dragon is it?” he would ask, making a distinction between the pragmatic slaying of someone else’s dragon and the transcendent quality of devouring or assimilating our own epic life struggle. “Make sure you don’t kill your own dragon!”

When Mike was holding court, the rich layered meaning behind his words was too dense to absorb in one sitting. His bright blue eyes danced as he spoke, making it almost impossible to do anything but listen with rapt attention. But I always had a notebook open, pen poised to jot down key words as he spoke, in the hope of mining the narrative gold at a later time. I’m so grateful I did that: I’ve been pouring over these cryptic scribbles in the last few weeks, amazed at their poignant relevance, treasuring every reminder of his sparkling intellect. I can still hear the plaintive sound of the Coho passenger ferry sounding its horn in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It invariably offered timely punctuation to our timeless conversations, ringing down the ages.

A Bird’s Eye View

An American living in Canada since the late 60’s, Mike’s own story was both universal and unique. His lifelong dream of being a pilot was never realized due to less than perfect eyesight, but clearly he could ‘see’ in other more profound ways. He arrived at his deep understanding of narrative through studying physics and chaos theory, offering him a quantum view of the world. In the 1970’s he the international director of Earth Day International and later he worked as an adviser to the Obama campaign during the Iowa caucus. During recent years, he developed a practical theory of narrative alignment (MPA-N theory) that we will likely be hearing more about in the months and years to come.

While Mike had a deep intuitive understanding of the emergent story being ushered in by the internet and social media, he himself was not a digital native. I’m still amazed that until his death, googling him drew a virtual blank. You can read more heartfelt memories of Mike here and here.

Mike’s favourite quote was from Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and after, some are stronger in the broken places.” Although he is no longer with us, his ideas and inspiration are more relevant than ever. Mike posed a riddle that I will enjoy puzzling over for a very long time to come.

You are deeply missed, Mike but far, far from forgotten.