Spinning Yarns – Part II

When Watergate overflowed, the news media — led by Washington Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — relentlessly dug for the facts. And they brought down a president.

Where are today’s investigative reporters? The media today sit around and listen to the administration’s stories like children at bedtime. The narrative lulls the press to sleep like a lullaby. And they join in on the chorus.

As a word-worker, I worry when the media raise the deceit ceiling …  and the credit rating of words gets downgraded to junk status.

What troubles me more, though, is the co-opting of the very power of narrative. Stories help define who we are. Our first memories are of our mothers and fathers reading us stories.

The Torah is framed in stories. The Ramban (Nachmanides), based on the Midrash Tanchumah, tells us “Maaseh Avos siman labanimeverything that happened to the Patriarchs was a harbinger for their descendants. Their actions and experiences foreshadow the future. That is why the Torah goes into the minutiae of their travels and adventures.

The word maaseh means both a deed and a story. It is the stuff of our history and our lives.

The festival of Pesach is more than just matzah, maror and macaroons. It is the Birth of the Jewish Nation. And it is the Yom Tov of stories.

“And you shall your children on that day …” The continuity of the Jewish Nation depends on our continuing to tell the story. No matter how wise or how learned you are, the story must be told — so that it shall never be forgotten. And it must be told in all its transparent, unvarnished truth: “Mit’chilah ovdei avodah zarah hayu avoseinu — At first, our fathers were idol worshippers.”

Novelists, psychologists and marketers all know the power of stories — the ones we hear and, especially, the ones we tell ourselves. Marketing sage Seth Godin writes in All Marketers Are Liars — The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World:

“Marketers aren’t really liars. I was lying when I named this book. … They are just storytellers. It’s the consumers who are liars. As consumers, we lie to ourselves every day. … Successful marketers are just the providers of stories that consumers choose to believe.”

Here’s the BUT … and it’s a big one: If the storyteller doesn’t deliver … if the product doesn’t satisfy … the spell is broken. And then the story really is just a lie.

DISCLOSURE: I know whereof I speak. I am no stranger to spin and hype. I put English on the ball for 25 years as a PR and direct marketing copywriter — including 13 years of creating smoke and mirrors direct mail sweepstakes promotions. Never hustle a hustler.

Stories are vital; they impose the structure of plot on events. They give us a frame of reference to make sense of our lives. Journalists use literary narrative technique to help us better understand the news. As Jack Hart, managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian, wrote in Storycraft:

“Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action leads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.”

When you co-opt and subvert that power, you spread confusion. And you undermine trust and caring. When stories are used to cloud — instead of illuminate — reality, our whole world becomes darker.

What happened in Egypt during the Plague of Darkness? “There was darkness across all the land of Egypt — and no man saw his friend!”

The Alter Vorker Rebbe, zy”a, commented, “The worst kind of darkness is not seeing your friend.”

However, the Sages tell us, even a little light dispels a lot of darkness. So let’s light a candle for the cause … and tell a story.

For part 1 Click here


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