Written by Rachel Beck
We are the music makers,
We are the dreamers of dreams.
Wandering by lone sea breakers
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world forsakers
On whom the pale moon gleams.
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world, forever, it seems.
The lines above come from the poem entitled simply “Ode”, by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a man renowned as much for his writing as for having a last name longer than most of his works (I’m kidding). O’Shaughnessy is by far most famous for this piece, Ode, because he speaks to the heart of so many storytellers. Though he was not the wordsmith that Virgil was, O’Shaughnessy recognized the power of a story to “trample an empire down”. Stories hold this kind of power because they shape the way we perceive of and interpret the world around us.
Without digging too deeply into the specifics of narrative theory, the stories we hear and tell have a profound impact on whether we perceive the world as mostly good or mostly bad. We also choose to internalize stories that fit within our already existing framework of the world, making it a partially cyclical process. For instance, a person who perceives the world as mostly dark with small, bright patches of light is unlikely to internalize a story in which everything generally goes well for the protagonist and people are helpful and trustworthy. The inverse is true as well.
Stories are powerful because they force perspective taking. If we cannot understand the motivations, reasoning and reaction of a protagonist, then we are faced with a story that we cannot understand. The act of storytelling is the act of putting the audience in someone else’s shoes, and therein lays the power to inspire sympathy, understanding, and perspective taking in an otherwise resistant, egocentric mind. When the population agrees with and internalizes a story, society changes and empires must change with them, or be overthrown.
Whenever we tell a story, we are making some assertion about the world that is, or the world that ought to be. We whisper or shout what we believe is true in the punch line of a comedy or the monologue of an epic. The audience, for a moment, must see the world through our eyes. In the telling of a story, we shape the world.