Activism and Storytelling

mister fox & little prince
The oth­er day Mis­ter Fox and I dropped in on the Lit­tle Prince’s plan­et to have a talk with Fox. You remem­ber, the one that want­ed to be tamed, became the Lit­tle Prince’s friend, but then became sad when the Lit­tle Prince went away. Fox remind­ed the Lit­tle Prince of his respon­si­bil­i­ty to all that he’d tamed, and mem­o­rably said:

It is only with the heart that one can see right­ly; what is essen­tial is invis­i­ble to the eye.”

Mis­ter Fox and I are inter­est­ed in that, because it some­times seems that a lot of people’s hearts are blind. I’m always sur­prised by how some peo­ple can see sto­ries all around us and some can’t. How some see the oppor­tu­ni­ty in hack­ing at society’s sto­ries and some don’t.

Because there are some very strange sto­ries that lots of peo­ple con­fuse with absolute, rock-solid truth. Sto­ries like “You can tell if the world is get­ting bet­ter or worse by look­ing at whether the stock mar­ket went up or down.” Or more basic sto­ries like “Mon­day.” Or “Mon­ey.” Now I know this gets deep, but real­ly, those are all things that don’t actu­al­ly exist in nature. Mon­keys aren’t hap­pier on Fri­day, Giraffes don’t get the Mon­day blues. We’ve not only for­got­ten that those sto­ries are not real, we’ve for­got­ten that we made them up. That we shape our dai­ly lives with sto­ries about what’s pos­si­ble and what’s not, what’s right and what’s not. That we have the pow­er to change them. Think of the sto­ry of mon­ey — our con­sen­su­al agree­ment about what rep­re­sents trade­able val­ue, and how fun­da­men­tal­ly that mil­len­nia-old sto­ry is being chal­lenged by Bit­Coin and an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry of how val­ue can be deter­mined by a crowd rather than a bank.

Sto­ries are invis­i­ble and pow­er­ful, like ghost pup­peteers that wag­gle their fin­gers, pulling spi­der silk threads that make peo­ple march, or dance, or sing, or vote, or buy. They shape people’s expec­ta­tions of how the world works, of what’s true, and how they them­selves should behave.

Exam­ple?” asks Mis­ter Fox, lean­ing again­st a tree and brush­ing a but­ter­fly from his nose.

Fil­tered cig­a­rettes were once con­sid­ered lady-like, and a brand called Marl­boro was strug­gling to sur­vive dis­mal sales. Along came a sto­ry­teller, Leon Bur­nett, who cre­at­ed a char­ac­ter called the Marl­boro man, a rugged, non-con­formist cow­boy. It was soon the best-sell­ing cig­a­ret­te in the world, and fil­ters became com­plete­ly accept­able for men. Mil­lions of peo­ple would die of lung can­cer because of that sto­ry. In the days when I smoked, my inner smok­er and inner non-smok­er were at war, dai­ly. My inner smok­er would sad­dle up and just look with dis­dain at my inner non-smok­er, who wore a lab coat and heavy black-rimmed glass­es patched at the nose with a band-aid. He car­ried around a clip­board, charts, and graphs about lung can­cer. No mat­ter how good the lab guy’s facts, the Marl­boro man would just lean down from his sad­dle, give me a light with his Zip­po and say “pay no atten­tion to that pen­cil-necked geek: we’re out­laws, out­side the main­stream of soci­ety, mak­ing our hobo cof­fee by a brook as the moon ris­es over the rock­ies and the coy­otes sing. Tip­ping our hats to the ladies in the streets of Dead­wood, where, sure, peo­ple die fast.”

It was no con­test. Bur­nett told a roman­tic sto­ry about that cig­a­ret­te that I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to not just believe, but inhab­it, and break­ing free of that story’s grip took years of effort.

But that was sto­ry designed to sell cig­a­rettes. What if we put that kind of cre­ativ­i­ty into sto­ries designed to save the world?

For the last two years, I and a pirate band of col­leagues have been teach­ing sto­ry­telling as an activist tool. Today I’m begin­ning a series of arti­cles about what we learned, what we got right, what we got wrong, and why I’m con­vinced this is seri­ous­ly strong mag­ic for world-chang­ers, and why sto­ry has more poten­tial today than at any time in his­to­ry to change the course of the future.

If you’d like to fol­low along, you can sub­scribe here to get new entries via email. Or fol­low the bounc­ing mouse:

Activism and Sto­ry­telling: Lev­el 1 

Activism and Sto­ry­telling: Lev­el 2

Activism and Sto­ry­telling: Lev­el 3

This entire jour­ney began with one book: Jon­ah Sach’s Win­ning the Sto­ry Wars. If you want to get to the heart of sto­ry as the­o­ry of change, that’s a great place to start.

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