Recently, I have been thinking about the difference between reading stories and watching them, and how our own inborn creativity takes part in our experience of story. There are two basic kinds of storytelling, which I will call picture-storytelling and word-storytelling. Picture-storytelling includes movies, TV shows, comic books, and anything else that tells a story through a primarily visual medium. Word-storytelling, on the other hand, consists of stories told without the aid of pictures, whether they are written down or verbalized. Both of these types of storytelling seem to be more or less as old as humanity. All you have to do is look at Stone Age cave paintings and take a few moments to consider our languages to realize that. Both types have their own place and their own advantages. However, I think that word-storytelling is the better of the two, and that picture-storytelling especially has fallen into decay in modern times. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the value of movies and comics and the skill and creativity that goes into making them. I very much enjoy picture-storytelling and our world would be a poorer place without it. However, I don’t think it can be denied that stories which are told purely in words give our minds more work to do, especially when compared with the modern forms of picture-storytelling, which leave little or nothing to the imagination. Sight is our primary sense. Fill up that sense, and suddenly the brain has little left to create. Deny it, and the brain must manufacture an entire world.
Here is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between picture-stories and word-stories, and also between the Modern, and the Medieval or Ancient forms of picture-storytelling. Stories told in words (whether they be books or your grandfather’s tall tales) require audience participation–imagination–in order to work. Stories told in pictures do not. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. When a movie is playing, you really don’t have to pay much attention to it to absorb its story. Everything that you need to know is presented on-screen; the images to see are given you; the words to hear are all there and spoken by unique voices. The only thing lacking is smell and touch, and I’m sure that sometime in the relatively near future, virtual reality will have advanced enough to add those senses into picture-storytelling, as well. You do not have to participate in order to “take in” the story. It is all given to you.
Now consider a book. If you are to get anything out of a book, you must let yourself sink into it. You must actively use the words on the page to construct whatever they’re describing in your own mind. A book tells its story in collaboration with the reader. We don’t often think of this, because we’re so used to reading that we don’t stop to consider what we’re actually doing. But stop and consider it. You don’t have pictures of every character and setting. You don’t have different people speaking aloud all the dialog so that you can hear it. You must create all that in your mind–and a well-written book will also prompt you to create details of scent and touch (a thing which films very rarely do). Word-stories are like a game of telephone. The author must very carefully choose what to leave out and what to put in, in order to describe the scene which exists in his mind. Then he transfers it to the page or the empty air, and he must hope that he succeeded well enough, though most of the time he knows that he’s fallen short. Then you read or hear those words, and the scene is transferred once again, but this time into your own mind. Then you must must decode the author’s words and try to find his original vision of the scene. That is what we do when we read or listen to a story being told.
The importance of the difference
This decoding and re-creation of story is essential to its value. Storytellers need to embrace it. Of course, very often the reader will not be successful in properly decoding the author’s words. Some authors are afraid of their vision being distorted, and so they describe everything excessively in the hope that their readers will see exactly what they did. But that is a trap. It is precisely the uncertain aspect of word-storytelling, that it must be interpreted by the listener or reader, that is its beauty. That’s why reading is such a wonderful experience. Every story is different depending on who is reading it. Each reader brings his own background, his own understanding, his own context–his own way of seeing the world–and makes the story anew in his mind.
The human mind needs a creative outlet to be healthy. We are made in the image and likeness of God; as Tolkien would say, we are made to be sub-creators, modeling His great act of creation with our own smaller imitations. Not all of us have the skill to create great works of art, but anyone in full possession of his wits and senses can read or listen to a story and imagine it unfolding in his head. He can create it in his mind, using the words of another for a guide. Throughout our history we have told stories to each other, and through them we have been able to extend the ability to create to anyone willing to take it.
Recall how I said that the difference of participation exists also between Modern picture-storytelling, and Ancient or Medieval picture-storytelling. In the old days, the pictures were so greatly abstracted that they forced their viewers to use a good deal of imagination to understand their meaning. An iconographic painting is nearly as vague as a literary description, though the vagueness comes in a different way. When viewing this kind of story, the mind is turned not towards the pictures themselves, but towards what they represent. Now consider the Modern era. Picture storytelling has become incredibly widespread, and it has changed. No longer are the pictures abstract, stylized, and symbolic; now they are made to look real. More and more is shown, and less and less is left to the imagination. Another difference between now and the old days is that picture-storytelling has become most people’s primary exposure to story, whereas before, that exposure came predominantly from word-storytelling. There are people alive today who never read books! And it seems that we are mostly past the age when people would verbally tell each other myths and fairytales. Verbal storytelling today seems largely prosaic and lacking in the level of creativity which characterized it in the old days. Modern people still use stories as a lifeline when they have either no time to create art, or jobs which are oppressive and dehumanizing. But many of them only consume stories, in the form of movies and television, instead of participating in stories, in the form of novels and verbal tales. Modern picture-storytelling has largely lost the creative element that makes story an effective lifeline. For stories to truly be a lifeline, they must be of the sort that allows people to create through them, that allows people to exercise that vital creative part of their minds, instead of covering it with a blur of lights and noise.
We are at our most human when we are creating, when we are giving of ourselves, when we pour out our hearts and forget our personal pettiness. This is one reason why reading books and listening to tales can be so wholesome. Because word-storytelling is intrinsically creative when experienced by the reader or listener, it enables us to access that deeply creative part of ourselves. Consistent enjoyment of word-stories, therefor, can teach us how better to worship: for true, deep worship, where the heart and soul cry out to God and all else is forgotten, is a very creative thing. Word-storytelling trains up and strengthen our imaginations. Consider that God asks us to give our whole selves to Him–and that the whole self includes the imagination. An example of just one of the myriad ways in which worship can be creative is the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer emphasizes (among other things) gazing into the eyes of Jesus, envisioning His Holy Face and basking in the love that radiates from it. How is that possible if we do not use our imaginations, as they are consecrated and strengthened when offered up to Our Lord? And how are we to make a good offering of our imaginations if they are atrophied from lack of use?
Thus, the fostering of imagination through word-storytelling is essential. It is fundamentally different from the fostering of imagination that happens even through good picture-storytelling that still gives us room for our own visions. It is of a higher order because it is so much more all-encompassing. It is harder to embrace, but better for the soul. Word-storytelling is good for the heart and good for the mind, in a way that picture-storytelling can never be, no matter how good the story is. And if we are to reclaim the power of our imaginations, and the potential for deep, creative worship contained therein, then we must never stop reading.