Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Storytelling: The Most Important Job in the World

I want to tell you a story.

The story is about a movie. Specifically, it's the story of an animated Japanese film by Hayao Miyazaki called Princess Mononoke

If you've ever seen it, just hold on for a moment while I talk to the unfortunate souls who haven't yet.

Princess Mononoke came out in America in 1999. I was eleven. Miramax dubbed it and released it to theaters, and though it didn't do super well in the box office, they did a surprisingly good job with the dubbing, featuring voices like Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Billy Bob Thornton.

That's not really the point of this story, though. Princess Mononoke is an epic film about San, a young girl who's been raised by a wolf god. Since humans have arrived in the home of the ancient gods, where San lives, they have begun pillaging it for iron. San is hell-bent on protecting her homeland from environmental destruction, and leads the attack against the humans in an effort to drive them away. Except the humans have a secret weapon: their iron. And when they load these one-of-a-kind, giant beasts full of iron bullets, it turns them into horrible demons and destroys them forever.

At its core, Princess Mononoke is a story about the materialistic desires of humans, and how these unchecked desires eventually ruin everything that is unique, awe-inspiring, and Old in this world. It's about our ignorance; it's about the fragility of nature; it's about how you can't turn back the clock once you've gone and thoroughly destroyed something beautiful. 

So now, imagine the effect a movie like Princess Mononoke has on an eleven-year-old girl—an independent, pushy eleven-year-old girl who loves nature, animals, and mythology.

The first time I saw it, it occurred to me for the very first time that there are some mistakes you can't undo. That when we wreck our environment, it's done. It's over

That finality utterly terrified me.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Princess Mononoke made eleven-year-old me into an incredibly passionate, active environmentalist. It pushed me to realize that the only true crisis facing our world today is humanity's reckless destruction of nature, and by extension, itself. War is not the problem that needs fixing. War is a symptom of a much greater, much more insidious threat: our species' shortsighted, callous disregard for everything around us (our planet, our creatures, each other) in the pursuit of personal gain.

Okay, so philosophical views aside: the power this story held over me as a child has never, ever waned. To this day I can look back at the moment I watched Princess Mononoke for the first time and remember vividly how hard I cried—not just over the loss of the old gods, or over the pulverizing of San's innocence—but for my whole species, and my whole world. As cheesy as it may sound, it was for the last white rhino that can never, ever be replaced. 

Through this story, I'd been jolted out of my warm, comfortable existence as an eleven-year-old girl in modern-day America—and I'd realized that the responsibility for protecting this Old, Priceless, Irreplaceable Planet fell squarely on my shoulders. 

I was a newborn, abruptly ejected from the womb, and it was damn cold out.

Don't read this like that was a bad thing; like it was a traumatizing moment. Well, maybe it was a little traumatizing—but meeting and facing reality can be scary and difficult, and usually leaves a lasting impression. That doesn't change the fact that it's still necessary, that it's a natural part of growing up and of becoming who we're supposed to be.

This is, at its very core, the role of the storyteller: to bring the truth to the masses in a frame and skin that's digestible, consumable, palatable, and easy to spread. Storytelling is wrapping Reality in a package that speaks to an eleven-year-old girl, in a way nothing else can.

And the storyteller is the most important job of the future.


I like the following prediction from Daniel H. Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, not just because it elevates the profession of storyteller to critical (ha, ha), but because it highlights the role all creative types will come to play in the future.

We are leaving behind the Information Age. We've made the internet and Wikipedia and the challenge now lies in the "next," in what we do with what we've made and how we manage the abundance we've created. Where once the left-brain functions of MBAs and computer engineers were the most highly-valued skills, and the building blocks of the Information Age, the upcoming Conceptual Age will require something else: right-brain functions, like storytelling, which offer something to society in this era of abundance that computers cannot offer.

The thing that appeals to me about this prediction is that it acknowledges the very real possibility that we will automate away most of our left-brain functions–and in the wake of that process, creative work will become the most valuable kind of work humans can do.

Why? Because computers cannot reframe and re-skin reality with giant wolves in ancient Japan. They cannot speak to the eleven-year-old yearning to learn and grow and change. They cannot release her into the world like a squalling infant the way Princess Mononoke did.

The role of storyteller is critical to the future—and to our species' continued existence, because it shapes the values of the next generation. And the next. And the next.

I know. Big shoes to fill, right? 

It's up to us to change the world, one story at a time. And we can totally do it. We just have to remember how incredibly important our jobs are—and then forget as quickly as possible, to focus on telling the story with all of our hearts, instead.

You've got this. 

I've got this.

We've got this.


Find out more about Kiersi at her website, check out her writing blog, or follow her on Twitter.


  1. I've read books and watched films that have changed or clarified my perspectives on Life. They have changed my vision enough for me to make changes in my world. Having watched most of Miyazaki's animations, I'm sorry that Princess Mononoke is the one I've often heard about and not seen yet. Your post has just nudged me to go check out its DVD. :)

  2. This is so inspiring! I'm going to stop procrastinating and go work on that novella now.