We spend so much time delving into our writing, working at it, thinking about it, that it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re doing it. I’m not talking about our own personal reason for it (which would no doubt be a revealing exploration in itself), but about the effect what we write has on our readers once it leaves our laptop and ventures into the world on its own. Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re writing: to affect the lives of those who read our work.
And it turns out we have way more power to do that than we know.
It’s just that focusing on that power may feel, you know, a tad egotistical — I shall change how my readers see the world! Plus since writing is hard, we tend to spend much more time sweating over why on earth our protagonist would want to juggle chainsaws for a living, than on how the answer will change our reader’s worldview.
But it will change it. That’s the evolutionary purpose of story: to allow us to vicariously experience difficult changes without risking life and limb (or, um, heart), so that should the situation arise when life and limb are in jeopardy, we’ll know what to do. And, just as important, why we need to do it.
But that’s something only noble stories teach us, right? Literary novels, high-minded films, that sort of thing. Certainly not action movies like Delta Force, or frivolous comedies like Ghostbusters, or romantic fluff like Dirty Dancing. Those things are just “mindless entertainment” and so easy to dismiss as nothing but time wasters, thus of little consequence. It’s not like that kind of “drivel” could ever help a nation, say, topple a dictator. Could it?
In the 1980s one country’s secret police didn’t think so. And they were wrong.
Witness the moving, revelatory documentary currently airing on PBS: Chuck Norris vs. Communism. No, it’s not about Norris ranting to Glenn Beck, turns out (blessedly) it’s not about Norris at all. It’s about his movies. In fact, it’s about all the Hollywood blockbusters in the eighties, and the seminal role they played in the fall of what was believed to be the most rigidly Stalinist regime in the soviet bloc. Yes, we’re talking about the 1989 Romanian Revolution and the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
If you’re as history-challenged as I am (which, I shamefacedly admit, would be difficult), here’s a bit of helpful background by Jonathan Crow from Open Culture: “Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime was notoriously brutal and oppressive, even by Warsaw Pact standards. In his mad efforts to eradicate all foreign debt, he impoverished his people while building a massive, opulent palace for himself in the heart of Bucharest. He shut down all radio stations outside of the capital and restricted all television broadcasts to a mere two hours a day. And what was programmed was, by all accounts, pretty dull unless you’re a fan of Communist propaganda.”
Needless to say, no movies. No “mindless entertainment.” And so the people’s hunger for stories grew.
Until, against all odds, one man, Teodor Zamfir, began to smuggle blockbuster American movies into the country, and hired an intrepid young woman to translate them in a secret soundproof room hidden in his house. Her name was Irina Nistor.
Zamfir then distributed bootleg VHS copies of the movies via a covert drug-dealer style network to those who had VCRs – which were illegal and cost as much as a car. By 1989 Nistor had singlehandedly dubbed over 3000 movies, and by one estimate there were 10,000 VCRs in Romania.
And so whole families, neighborhoods, crowded around grainy black-and-white TV sets from dusk till dawn watching Rocky and Flashdance and Rambo and The Thorn Birds and Delta Force and The Karate Kid over and over again.
The movies changed them. And then they went out and changed the world. Here are some of them talking about how they were affected by the films:
“It was a window into the West from which I could see what the free world was like.”
“After the film ended, the street wasn’t just a street, a rock not just a rock, they were challenges. . . we started to want to be heroes.”
“The seeds of freedom planted by the films grew.”
But here’s the thing. The secret police knew what Zamfir was doing. They watched the movies themselves. Irina’s day job was translating for the government, and every evening when she left work the secret police officer assigned to their department followed her into the elevator and said under his breath, “I heard you last night.”
It was a threat, and an admission. And yet she was never arrested, never stopped.
Because the secret police, the members of the Central Committee, were just as enthralled as everyone else. Zamfir claims to have even supplied videotapes to Ceaușescu’s son.
The point is this: while the regime officially censored just about everything for ideological reasons, it never seemed to occur to them that, uncensored, the films had the power to spark real change in the people who watched them — change that would lead to action. Big mistake.
As Zamfir says, “During a dictatorship which had controlled everything, they lost control of something that seemed insignificant, the videotape. The videotapes set the whole communist system off balance. . . During the 1989 revolution everybody was in the streets because they all knew there was a better life out there. How? From films.”
As Nistor so eloquently says, “People need stories, no?”
We do. All of us. Stories aren’t simply for “entertainment,” mindless or otherwise. Stories are entertaining so that we’ll pay attention to them. It’s not a choice. When a story has us under its spell, it’s hacked our brain, and is mainlining meaning directly into our belief system, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. That is the purpose of story, and all stories do it, regardless the genre. And when the story ends, we emerge changed. And sometimes we then go out and change the world.
And that, my friends, is why we write.
What about you? Don’t be shy. How do you want to change the world?