The New Storytellers

How we live the story is as important as its content

One of the articles in The New Story (IC#12)
Originally published in Winter 1985/86 on page 39
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

David Spangler was co-director of the Findhorn Community in the early 1970s, and then founded the Lorian Association as a vehicle for education about cultural change. His most recent book is Emergence, The Rebirth Of The Sacred (New York: Dell, 1984, $ 10.95).

DURING THE EARLY 1950s, my parents and I lived in Morocco not far from Casablanca. An exciting weekend adventure was to drive south to the ancient walled city of Marrakech and visit its souk or native market. If you have ever seen the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, you will have seen that market as it was then, for part of that movie was filmed in Marrakech while I was living in Morocco.

I loved the excitement and bustle of the great souk at Marrakech. It seemed a place that belonged more to one of Princess Scheherazade’s thousand and one tales than to the real world. I can never read the Arabian Nights without thinking of that market with its ordered riot of colors, sounds and odors as tradesmen and farmers hawked their wares and foodstuffs from open stalls and booths.

One of the attractions of the souk was to watch the storytellers. As I recall, there was a wall, and along it the storytellers lined up, each trying to attract the largest crowd, each vying to outdo his competition on either side. I could not understand Arabic, so I didn’t know what they were saying (my father would occasionally translate for me), but I was fascinated by their animation. Surrounded by circles of interested customers, many of whom were children, they projected a mystique and an excitement that spoke to me across the barrier of language.

The tradition of the storyteller and bard is an ancient and honorable one. We are a storytelling, story-loving species. Let someone be spinning a good tale at a gathering and watch a crowd collect to listen. We recognize that in the power to tell a story lies the power to shape our reality, to alter our perceptions, to create new worlds of experience. It is, in fact, a god-like power, one that can affect and change consciousness (which modern physicists tell us may be the ultimate reality after all). If, as St. John says, in the Beginning was the Word, then the Story followed directly after, unfolding the universe from the imagination of God. In emulation of the divine, we have sought to duplicate that moment of creation by being storytellers, too.

This issue of IN CONTEXT is exploring the idea that our times require a "New Story." My objective in this article is not to examine the evolving content of that New Story, which is being done elsewhere. Instead, in keeping with this metaphor, I would like to reflect on the question, "If a New Story is emerging, is there also a new Storyteller?"

To answer this question, we must also ask what the New Story is in terms of its function rather than its content. What is it intended to do? Does it simply provide information, a new world view, or does it seek to provide something else?

To understand my question, consider the difference between a lecture and a story. A lecture conveys information; it is a one-way flow of ideas. A good story, in contrast, not only conveys information, it also inspires involvement, if only in one’s imagination. I remember that in Morocco, the storytellers were often engaged in a dialogue with their listeners, as much as simply telling a monologue. The shaping of the narrative was in some ways a collective act. At the very least, the audience would help create the mood by their laughter, their exclamations, and their boos, all at the proper moments in the tale. The role of the storyteller as well as the power of the story was to inspire participation, making the experience one of a shared creation.

In this metaphor, a cultural world view can be more like a lecture than a story. We listen to it through the voices of religion, custom, law, government, education, economics, and politics. Its power and pervasiveness add to its aura of impersonality; it may even take on the status of a natural law, seeming to be part of the environment, immutable and incontestable. For many people, for example, the Christian world view is not one possible world view among others; it is the ONLY world view. Such a perspective does not inspire creative participation as much as it invites (or demands) acceptance. Like a person in a lecture, an individual may feel at most the power to simply agree or disagree with his society’s world view, but not the opportunity or capability to help shape it. It is too remote for that kind of involvement.

Using this distinction, as our paradigms shift, are we creating a "new story" or a "new lecture?" The difference is more than metaphorical. Where cultural world views are concerned, we are much more accustomed to "attending a lecture" than we are to "participating in a story." Yet the New Story itself is about participation; it is about living in a co-creative universe in which we are involved with and ultimately accountable to every other part of creation. It is about our power to contribute to the emergence of greater life, wholeness, and abundance in our world. Whether we see the New Story as an awareness to be personally experienced and embodied, or whether we see it as a new belief system to be accepted, goes to the heart of the paradigm shift. It determines whether there really is a shift, a transformation from being audience to being performers, or simply a rearrangement of the theater without a fundamental change in our status.

For example, one element of the New Story is the image of the earth as a living entity in whose unfoldment and evolution we are intimately involved. James Lovelock, the scientist who developed the Gaia Hypothesis about the living status of the planet, has commented that humanity may be the evolving nervous system of the world, the means through which Gaia develops self- consciousness. How do we relate to this idea? Is it simply a new datum which we accept or reject? Or is it the premise for an exciting story, one in which we become participants in the well-being of the earth, using our own awareness to shape a personal lifestyle and a society that serves Gaia as profoundly as we would serve ourselves?

The lecture/story dichotomy is not the only way of examining this metaphor of the New Story. Another is to look at the kind of stories that can exist. A story can excite us, involving us subjectively and imaginatively, and still leave us in the position of being a relatively passive audience. On the other hand, a story can be structured and told in such a way as to demand our direct involvement in its unfoldment. A good storyteller can do this. So can a new kind of storytelling that is evolving and becoming popular in our society – interactive fiction and its complement, role-playing games.

Interactive fiction is a story structured like a game in which the player’s responses to the situations that arise continually alter the flow and outcome of the story itself. In effect, a person becomes a co-author of the story. Such stories can be found published as ordinary-looking books or, more effectively, as computer games in which the program determines how the story unfolds depending on the actions and choices of the player.

Role-playing games, on the other hand, are akin to improvisational dramas played out in some imaginary world. One player acts as gamemaster, creating the basic scenario or adventure and refereeing the other players’ actions according to a set of rules. The rules themselves only create the context within which a story may be created, conflicts resolved, and objectives attained. The actual adventure – the story itself – is totally the shared product of the gamemaster and the other players, unfolding spontaneously over the course of the game in directions that no one might have predicted at the beginning. For example, a gamemaster may say, "Tonight’s adventure is to free a princess held captive by an evil wizard and to discover his fabulous hoard of treasure in the process." How this is done, what challenges are encountered, and whether the players are successful or not unfolds as the game/story is played out and is the result of the players’ creativity and imagination moderated by the context established by the gamemaster.

Role-playing games and other forms of interactive fiction or storytelling have quickly become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States, particularly among younger people. Whereas traditional forms of fiction such as films, dramas, and novels simply carry you along to the author’s predetermined conclusion, these newer forms create conditions in which everyone is involved creating the outcome, and the story is shaped by acts of mutual participation. If we are to use the metaphor of the "New Story," do we see it as a traditional tale or as interactive fiction?

Whether a story is relatively passive or is interactive depends largely on how it is told. In interactive fiction, the content is secondary to a structure and environment that allows participation. Not that the content is unimportant; it defines the nature of the participation itself and determines what is appropriate. However, without that participation, the interactive story dies. It becomes unfulfilled potential. The function of the content, like that of the storyteller, is to invite, inspire, and even require involvement. It should develop a sense of one’s power to contribute to the shaping of the story, hence of one’s identity and responsibility as a participant.

Participation means the consciousness of being a storyteller and therefore of being accountable to the unfoldment of a process. This sense of being a storyteller is an experience of involvement different from simply being excited and drawn into the story by the newness or glamour of its content. The content of the New Story, when contrasted to the content of the Old Story, is exotic, exciting, different, challenging, and provocative. It is, as the name suggests, a new perspective that can inspire us to new actions. However, the content of the Old Story, for example the industrial-era paradigm and the Newtonian world view, was equally new, exciting, challenging, and exotic when it first emerged. It also inspired people to new kinds of behavior and actions. Yet now it has become the dead weight of a belief system with which we struggle in order to renew our creativity. What is there to prevent the new paradigm from following the same pattern, degenerating from story to lecture and becoming simply a new set of images and beliefs to which we give allegiance? If it is not the newness of its content, which in our media-intensive age quickly becomes old content anyway, cliches bleached brittle and bone-dry in the sun of exposure, then it must be something in the way the story is told.

An inspiring, involving storyteller becomes his or her story, yet stands beyond it as well, creating a space in which it can evolve and change through the participation of others. A role-playing game or a piece of interactive fiction has a story-line and also has a structure of rules which opens the possibilities for participation. In each case, there is an added dimension beyond the story, a meta-story as it were, that allows for co-creative involvement and the delight of discovery for all involved, including the storyteller. How do we find that added dimension in a new world view, the meta-story behind the New Story?

First, we must become familiar with the New Story itself, understanding its content and the implications of that content. It points, for example, to a conception of the universe that is more process- oriented, more fluid and malleable, more open- ended and participatory than we have suspected. When physicists state that the universe is more like a thought than a machine, that everything and everyone is at some level in touch with and affected by everything and everyone else, that consciousness may be the fundamental reality, and that physics may be a branch of psychology, then we enter a world in which our individual lives and contributions can affect far more than we realize. The world, the universe, possesses a deeper subjectivity than we have allowed for in our materialistic philosophy. We do not just live on the world but we live in it and with it in a profound way in which we and everything else shape each other in a continuous, interactive creative relationship. We are points of creative emergence for the world’s ongoing unfoldment.

Second, we should realize that the very metaphor of the New Story allows us to perceive a collective world view in a new way. We can be aware of paradigm shifts and reflect on our processes of social evolution. We can stand apart from them rather than being engulfed by them. Simply calling an emerging world view a "New Story" allows us to see the meta- story beyond it if we so choose. What is the meta- story? By being a Storyteller, a person stands beyond and behind the Story, even while living in it and performing it. The Storyteller is thus the Meta-Story. If we are the new Storytellers (and who else would be), then we stand beyond the New Story. It is not our identity; after all, it is only a matter of time until a Newer Story emerges. Instead, it is we who provide the conditions through which the New Story can live and evolve and be a creative force of vision for humanity.

Thus we find the meta-story by claiming our identities as the storytellers. Institutions and areas of endeavor such as science or religion, art or politics, psychology or ecology provide content, not the story itself. They provide raw facts but it is up to us to weave these into a living fabric. We create the story, and we do so through languages of compassion and community, caring and wholeness, insight and imagination, self-discovery and commitment. We tell the story by performing it, by embodying its principles and incarnating its dreams.

Finally, we develop the New Story and the Meta- Story by creating structures of "interactive fiction" in our lives and in society. These are attitudes and institutions, techniques and expectations that encourage and allow participation in how we shape ourselves and our culture. They are opportunities to live out, in the reality of our everyday lives, a new myth of co-creatorship.

The shift from one paradigm to another, one age to another, is thus not defined only by the emergence of a New Story. If that is the way we see it, we risk gaining not a New Story but a New Lecture. Instead, at this time in our history, we must perceive that this shift is also and more accurately defined as the emergence of New Storytellers, who are none other than ourselves.

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