What’s that well called?
There once was a well, in the middle of a field. It was known, quite unimaginatively, as the well in the field. Then, one morning, the farmer who owned the field found a drowned body inside. Shocked, the nearby villagers changed the well’s name to well of ill luck. They avoided it, superstitious lot that they were, and it was considered bad luck to pass that field at night.
A few months later, it emerged that the body belonged to a notorious criminal, who had escaped the authorities. Henceforth, the well was known as the well of Divine justice.
Thus, local storytellers interpreted reality in three different ways.
As time passed, zealous locals embellished the story. A just spirit now resided deep within the well. Anyone making offerings to it, would get justice. People started referring to the well with reverence, and those who had been wronged threw coins and jewelry inside. The farmer now spent all his time managing the well, until a small temple was built on top; then a larger one.
Thus, local storytellers shaped reality.
When did it all start?
Okay, there was no such well or subsequent temple. I made it up, based on an old Zen story. But it made you think, didn’t it? Perhaps it even made you look differently at things.
This is the twin power that lies at the heart of narrative. To not only interpret, but also shape reality. You may think me wise to have discovered this, but actually I’m a little late.
The very first mention of the power of narrative is made in none other than the Bible. For what is the devil’s power but that of a storyteller? When he convinces Adam and Eve to go against God’s will and eat the forbidden fruit, all he has done is offer an alternative interpretation. One where God is portrayed as a jealous entity who fears man’s potential power. And thus, the world as we know it is formed – at least, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Reality has been shaped.
The Greek origins of the devil’s very name allude to this. Diavallo literally means to besmirch; to sully; to slander. More liberally translated, to twist one’s words in order to defame them. This is the devil’s sole power and best-honed ability: to whisper a self-destructive narrative in our ear. That is why Jesus referred to him as “a liar and the father of lies.” By contrast, He declared Himself to be the Truth. So much did early Christians detest lies, that they’d rather face terrible death, when a simple Peter-like lie (“Me, a Christian? You’re joking, right?”) would be enough to save their skin.
Any other examples?
The power of narrative has been used this way throughout history. You may be forgiven for never having heard of the old man in the mountain (no, not the Unabomber), but he led one of the most feared Islamic cults of Medieval times: the Hashishin sect. Even Saladin and the Crusaders feared him.
You see, when the old man wanted to get rid of an opponent, his men would find the perfect patsy, drug him and take him to their mountain sanctuary. This palace was designed to resemble paradise, with lush gardens filled with exotic trees and wild – yet docile – animals. Beautiful girls played the lute in every room, their sweet voices singing joyous songs. There were all the gorgeous women the poor soul could enjoy. Copious amounts of wine and hash enhanced the experience. Delicious food spilled over from every table (presumably, most of it sweets).
After a few heavenly days, the kidnapped man would be drugged again and taken back to his village and his dreary dreg of an existence. Upon waking up, he was told he had experienced a glimpse of heaven; a heaven that he could enjoy for all eternity, if only he did a small deed for the old man. He need not fear death, for even if he failed, he would still be a martyr and go to heaven.
Needless to say, few failed to meet their goal, and thus the term assassin (Hashishin) was born.
How about them Nazis?
No exploration of the power of narrative can be complete without a hat tip to the masters of propaganda; the Nazis. Goering is quoted as having said the following:
“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Besides Goering’s eerily contemporary words, Nazi propaganda before the start of World War II had several distinct audiences, as described by democraticunderground.com:
- German audiences were continuously reminded of the struggle of the Nazi Party and Germany against both foreign and internal enemies, especially Jews.
- Ethnic Germans in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and the Baltic states were told that blood ties to Germany were stronger than their allegiance to their new countries.
- Potential enemies, such as France and the United Kingdom, were told that Germany had no quarrel with the people of the country, but that their governments were trying to start a war with Germany.
- All audiences were reminded of the greatness of German cultural, scientific, and military achievements.
Until the conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad on February 4, 1943, German propaganda emphasized the prowess of German arms and the supposed humanity German soldiers had shown to the peoples of occupied territories. Pilots of the Allied bombing fleets were depicted as cowardly murderers, and Americans in particular as gangsters in the style of Al Capone. At the same time, German propaganda sought to alienate Americans and British from each other, and both these Western belligerents from the Soviets.
After Stalingrad, the main theme changed to Germany as the sole defender of what they called “Western European culture” against the “Bolshevist hordes”.
In a particularly poignant example of Nazi propaganda, on June 23, 1944, the Nazis permitted the Red Cross to visit concentration camp Theresienstadt in order to dispel rumors about the Final Solution to the Jewish question. In reality, Theresienstadt was a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, but in a sophisticated propaganda effort, fake shops and cafés were erected to imply that the prisoners lived in relative comfort. The guests enjoyed the performance of a children’s opera, Brundibar, written by inmate Hans Krása.
The hoax was so successful for the Nazis that they went on to make a propaganda film at Theresienstadt. Shooting of the film began on February 26, 1944. Directed by Kurt Gerron, it was meant to show how well the Jews lived under the “benevolent” protection of the Third Reich. After the shooting, most of the cast, and even the filmmaker himself, were deported to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
So, there’s no hope?
All wars and atrocities start with a narrative. Our neighbor is stealing our land. We are threatened by a fifth column right in our midst. There is human vermin that’s threatening us and needs to be exterminated. Desensitization is always the first step to a massacre, whether in Nazi Germany or modern-day Rwanda and Serbia. And it all starts with a story – one of fear.
Thankfully, narrative can also offer salvation. Socrates; Buddha; Lao Tzu; Jesus Christ; Gandhi: these are just a few of those who changed the world for the better not by force, but through their words. Empires were felled and built by the narratives they offered, and humanity grew through them.
They also tried to warn people against destructive narratives; whether they come from within, or without.
“The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” cautioned Buddha. One of the Five Buddhist Precepts is “to abstain from false speech,” just like one of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Islamic tradition lists lying as the seventeenth greatest sin, and clarifies: “All the evils have been locked in a room, and its key is lying.”
Lao Tzu so distrusted the power of words, that he repeatedly warned against them:
True words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not true.
Those who are good do not debate; Those who debate are not good.”
(If you think that last line is a simple warning against lawyers in general, please remember they were rather scarce in 4th century BC China).
Where does that leave us?
What prompted this post is that I often listen to writers describe what they do with a bit of an embarrassed smile and a shrug. Indie authors are often the worst, as if the publisher’s medallion missing from their book’s spine means they’re nothing but hacks. As if their words are meaningless. As if the endless hours spent writing; editing; proofing and marketing amount to nothing.
It’s almost like we’re ashamed of our chosen passion. Like it’s the sort of thing best done behind locked doors at night. With the lights off and the curtains drawn. Almost like watching Reality TV.
Well, if you ask me, we should take more pride in what we do. We should be aware of the power of our words, and use it wisely. We create worlds, characters and stories. We share our vision with the world. We touch people’s lives with every book, every blog post and every tweet we write. Hopefully, this post will remind you of just how much your writing matters – how much you matter.
So, next time someone asks you what you do, lift your chin and say proudly, “I’m a storyteller.” And smile, for you don’t just describe and interpret reality: you shape it.
When not practicing in front of the mirror how to say “I’m an Indie author” with pride, why not read my children’s book, Runaway Smile, for free?
Great post. I loved it. Lots to think about there. I am a story teller or perhaps, a teller of tall stories. 🙂
Both is the best 😀
I could do with a ‘well of divine justice’ right now. Skillful storytellers know how to encapsulate and ensnare their audiences. Your post made for dynamic reading, Nicholas 😀
Thank you! 🙂
I read it on Effrosyni’s blog. Thanks for reblogging, Fros. Thanks for writing it, Nicholas. I’m somewhat stuck on my WIP right now. This may not help directly, but it sure makes me feel better about how I’m spending my time.
Glad to hear it 🙂
Reblogged this on Effrosyni's Blog and commented:
I read this awesome post by Nicholas Rossis and had to share! Not only is it highly informative but also tremendously touching towards the end. Read it, and feel proud you’re an indie!
OMG, Nicholas – what a gem! BRAVO! Not only is this highly informative, but also seriously touching towards the end. You are so right. Words have an enormous power and by being so meek and mild we are selling ourselves short. In the past year I have changed a lot; I used to be one of those cringing newbies who hated being asked about my writing. But by now, thanks to the encouragement I receive from fellow authors and of course my readers, I’ve come to say it with pride: “I am an indie author and I’m loving it!”
Yay you! So glad to hear it 🙂
Love it! Stories = thoughts, after all…
Thanks and welcome! 🙂
I say if you want to spin a yarn, at least have a goodwill moral ending for your yarn. Propaganda is not a story, it is a purpose,
Regards and goodwill blogging.
Nicholas, this post has me swinging between inspiration to go forth and fictionalise, and despair that the most skilful storytellers historically have often been extreme despots! I agree that we should use our storytelling for good and not for evil. We can have story wars instead of real ones. Actually, that’s a story in itself 😉
Lol – a story that I’m looking forward to reading in your blog 😀
I’ll just add that to the list, which is now flowing out the door…
Reblogged this on Michelle Eastman Books.
Reblogged this on Leisure Lane Book Store and commented:
Welcome to Leisure Lane Bookstore, friends. The following post is by author Nicholas C. Rossi…insightful and inspiring. Until next time, may happy days abound! Marianne
Just read your story, Runaway Smile…a true delight. I’m sure this could be interpreted different ways by different readers. To me I liked that aspect that the boy was quite in charge of his imagination – the closet monster, for example – something that would be feared was given different attributes by the imagination and not scary at all for a boy. I’m not sure that’s what I should have read from it, but….
My favorite illustration was when the boy plops himself into the chair with only his dangling feet showing. It made me laugh aloud – I could really sense his frustration.
And the message is wonderful. An overall great book, that I hope is most successful for you in every way. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’m very happy I got to read it. I will also reblog this.
Thank you so much for the kind words and the reblog! There is no right or wrong message here, and I really liked your interpretation 🙂
If you have the time and inclination, I’d really appreciate an Amazon review on https://www.amazon.com/Runaway-Smile-fairy-unshared-wasted-ebook/dp/B00QQC2YLY/
Riveting, Nicholas!!! And I needed to read this. You have no idea of the “failure” narrative playing in my mind these last few days…even prayer has eluded me; the very thing I need most at this time. Thank you.
Sincerely from my ♥,
I’m so very glad to hear it helped! Perhaps that post was the answer to your prayers, after all 🙂
Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
Nicholas tells writers, especially Inday authors, to be proud of their accomplishments as storytellers.
Nicholas, this was a very inspirational and informative post. I enjoyed reading it.
So glad to hear it! Thank you 🙂
Reblogged this on BOOK CHAT and commented:
Nicholas Rossis on storytelling.
Reblogged this on Jeanne Owens, author.
Great post. Here, in the US, it’s hard to find anything that isn’t propaganda. You have to wear protective underpants just to watch the nightly news.
It’s the same everywhere, I’m afraid. That’s why we need to be more aware of it.
Excellent Nicholas!!! I love the origin of legends and words conveyed. I’m reminded of the gossip game we played as children…one sentence or story passed from player to player and in the end nothing like the beginning. My grandfather introduced me to storytellers on the front porch of an old country store. I’ve been fascinated since and am proud to be among them.
Ooh, I love that image – and the game 😀
Wow! Nick! Amazing post! You were inspired, and are inspiring!
Aw, thanks Ali! It means a lot coming from a wonderful storyteller such as you 🙂
Now dont you start with that Greek charm of yours…
Lol – Just calling them as I see them 🙂
This is an informative, uplifting post – reminding writers of their power but also their joy!
When I think of the power of the narrative in the present world, I cant help but think how the present US administration has used narrative to create an alternative reality for us, based on half-truths and outright lies, but presented so earnestly, so positively, that we’ve been snookered!
Without wanting to get sucked into politics, has there ever been a government that *hasn’t* tried to pull a fast one?? 😀
Words absolutely have power. I’ve never thought of writing as something to be embarrassed about, although I do consider that some people won’t like what I write and won’t “agree” with some of my points (even though it’s fantasy).
In the real world, the use of “lies” to sway public opinion drives me f**king insane, Nicholas. Don’t get me started or I’ll write another book about the end of the world.
Lol – that’s okay. I’d read it 😉
First, Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights. A great example of storytelling power. 🙂
I notice the shame too. I think it’s from years of being made to feel like indie authors are hacks. Even those who are new to the trade seem to be coming in with this sense of not quite making it. The removal of the stigma is going to take a long time, especially with the overall landscape changing. Another aspect might be these authors come from backgrounds where artistic endeavors were discouraged or mildly mocked. I still have family members who see what I’m doing as a hobby and want me to get a ‘real job’. Almost like I can’t claim success to them until I get a publisher, movie deal, and prestigious awards.
I’m not sure even that would help: Kafka’s father, for example, hated his son’s work 🙂
Some people simply can’t be won over.
Brilliant post. I’ve been holding onto the seeds of a story and you may have just watered them.
So glad to hear it! 🙂
This is an amazing article, Nicholas. Loved it, start to finish. You are an amazing — da da — storyteller! 😉
Aw, so sweet! Thank you 🙂
Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
Nicholas Rossis writes that as storytellers we should be proud of the way we can shape the world as long as we are not too devilish!
Hey, where did your StumbleUpon button go?
Erm, no idea. It’s been acting up, as you remember!
Well get it back! This post needs to be there. Actually, I’ll do it the old fashion way… this one time. LOL
Lol – thanks! I’ll keep trying, though 😀
What on Earth have you done? I had 733 views in the past hour alone! 😀
Ha! Just helping a friend.
Wow! Much appreciated 🙂
Bravo, Nicholas. Bravo!
Lol – *takes bow* 😀
Brilliant Nicholas. It’s recalled to me the old poem which I now insert below;
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy
Auden said ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, and I know what he meant but on the other hand….what would happen without poetry, tales, fiction? I’ve just finished a book by Steve Walker, ‘The power of Tolkien’s prose; Middle-earth’s magical style’, an excellent and accessible book whether you are already into Tolkien or not. Near the end he concludes that ‘Tolkien’s invitational prose […] manages such carryover into the personal lives of readers who invest themselves in it. Experiencing the subcreations of Middle-earth makes us more capable of this-worldly creation, compounds our capacity for seeing the infinite potential not only in fiction but in life.’
So basically, if I were 50 years younger, I might conclude ‘we rock!’ Or is that passe now?
Not passe. And, might I say, you rock! Love the poem. Ahem… Sorry for butting in.
Lol – no way. We do rock 😀
And thanks for the sharing this amazing poem 🙂
Reblogged this on Books and More.
Great post – it just goes to show the power of the written word can be both good and bad. Words can draw you into a story and they can also repel the reader – just the other day I was reading an author’s first book and it just made me feel sick. The premise had sounded good but at the end of the day three canabis smoking males sitting under a tree leering at passing women whilest exchanging stories about a lord who got his sister pregnant just made me feel disgusted. Needless to say I stopped reading and deleted the book.
Finally, I personally think that Indie authors can spin a yarn, sometimes better, than a well known published author – so hats off to all you indie authors out there who have to wear so many hats in order to write, publish and market your books.
That’s so kind of you; thank you 🙂
Yes, the written word is a weapon that can cut both ways, and I think we need to be responsible as to how we wield it.
We sure are responsible for each written word.
That’s like saying one race can sing or play piano better than another. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude by butting in on your comment. I just hate this “war” between sides. NO ONE writes better. There are good AND bad books on both sides. But — we ALL are storytellers. One group, not two.
Hear, hear! 🙂
Hey Sue – I agree with you. As a huge reader, I am often on Amazon checking out new books or reviewing ones I’ve read. What I have noticed is that a lot of reviewers are very disparaging of indie authors and can be very uncomplimentary about proof-reading errors, poor grammar and story-line. I prefer to look at indie authors as real go-getters who wear not only the hat of author, but also throw themselves into the arena of marketing and publishing – a very tough challenge and one I admire. In an ideal world readers would value authors from both spheres equally, but unfortunately sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way. As you say, there are good writers in the published and indie sphere; just as there are not so good authors in the published and indie sphere 🙂
That’s very kind of you, Catherine 🙂
I’m surprised that people complain about “minor grammatical errors” in my books. I’m convinced it’s because I’m an Indie author, as all my books have been professionally proofread and edited. When I asked one of the reviewers about it, she mentioned things like starting sentences with a gerund – which is clearly a stylistic choice in my book! Oh well… 🙂
Exactly. Incidentally, these days BOTH have to market and promote their books. Gone are the days of sitting back while the publisher does all the work.
Yes, yes Sue!
“I’m a storyteller” does sound so much better than “I make up lies”. However, when I tell folk the latter, there are usually follow-up questions, often ending up with them telling me that I’m a writer!
Lol – I hadn’t thought of “I make up lies.” I have to use it some day 😀
Reblogged this on North of Andover.