Take Your Shit Seriously, Not Yourself

Take Your Shit Seriously, Not Yourself

by Don Hall

I sometimes teach a storytelling class.

The first thing I wanted the students to know was that, in the ancient tribes, there were two completely superfluous members of the collective. Neither of them hunted or gathered or cleaned up shit or built shelter. Pragmatically, there were useless in the day-to-day survival of the clan.

One was the Shaman. The Historian. The Keeper of Records. His gig was to tell and re-tell the stories of the tribe. He would impart the lessons of mythology, the tenets of Religion, the stories of bravery and cowardice. He taught the tribe its past. His was a very serious endeavor as he needed to make sure that all in the tribe learned and became wise on the mistakes and victories of those who came before.

The other was the Village Idiot. The Buffoon. The Fool. His job was to provide distraction from the mundanity of daily life. To remind the tribe to laugh and enjoy the fruits of their labor. He showed the clan their own hypocrisies and stupidities and faults by exploiting his own clumsiness or childishness.

And for these services, the Shaman and the Village Idiot got to eat.

The best storytellers (and the best stories) have elements of both in them. 

Show me a storyteller who only strives to teach the audience a lesson, to show the audience her pain and victim status, who takes his shit so seriously that every story told has a moral or a sense of condescension, and you have a Shaman. Show me a storyteller who only wants the attention for the laugh, who only tells stories of her "most embarrassing moments" with the sole purpose of being liked, and you have a Village Idiot.

Most storytellers I see are one or the other. The rare ones are the people who can spin a tale that both makes you laugh or shock you but has a serious intent underneath - a transformation revealed, a lesson learned, a point to make beyond the anecdotal "...this happened and then this happened and then I shit myself!"

I believe that there are very few places in the world of smart phones and iPads and constant information when people will pay money to sit and listen to others talk. I believe that when you are in the position to say something to those people, you shouldn't waste the opportunity on bullshit.


Politics is a business of stories. Narratives spun one way or another designed to convince. If the case is made effectively, the populace will vote for it or against it. Sure, it doesn’t seem much like a game of winners and losers when your kids are taken from you at the border or there are more of your type in prison than any other type, but a game it is. How you craft your story is the key to winning this particular Life and Death of a Nation game.

If you don't balance the important stuff with some buffoonery, your message is dry and lifeless and you will lose. If it’s all laughs and taunts, your message won’t be seen as serious and you will lose.

When losing means the stripping away of everything good that came out of the 30’s and the 40’s and the 60’s, maybe you should try to be a better storyteller. 

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