Walter Benjamin – Storytelling vs. Fiction

Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections (English translation 1968), will be thought-provoking for anyone who loves to write or read fiction. Most of us think of fiction as storytelling, but it isn’t really. I can attest to this from experience. Back on a September day in 2004, my drumming mentor, Barbara Borden, gave me a day pass to “The Healing Power of Art” at Moscone Center in San Francisco. On my way to Moscone I passed an intriguing stranger. What caught my eye at first was a large patch of burnt-looking skin on his face. I recognized it immediately. Years ago I’d known one other person who had that deformity – my Mariner scout leader, a spinster who was obviously ashamed of it and never spoke of it. But that wasn’t what drew me to this fellow; it was his bright eyes. He smiled at me, and I felt as if we were kindred spirits. As I walked on, I really wished I could have gotten to know him. But he was with another man, and they quickly disappeared down Market street, I thought, probably going to lunch. I had a couple of hours to spend before drumming with Barbara. At the sign-in table I grabbed a brochure about the speakers. I picked a workshop on “Transformational Storytelling”. I found the doorway to the building the workshop was in and descended down the steps of a narrow corridor into a small basement room. About thirty folding chairs were set out. I was dismayed. There was only one other person there. But when that person turned, I was delighted. He was the man I’d passed on the street earlier. We both sat in the front row talking while waiting for the workshop leader and the others to arrive. Soon the room filled up. And to my surprise the man I’d chatted with got up and went to the front and faced us. His name was David Roche. David told the story of his face and how a doctor helped him accept it age age 19. That event was the catalyst for his career as a storyteller, a career that included four invitations to the White House. David then went over details of how to tell a story and invited each of us to tell our story. I got up and told my very first...

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