By Yonatan Gordon
Since the topic came up recently, I thought to include my responses here for the benefit of all. While this article references non-fiction, the difference between the two relates to fiction as well
(Although as explained elsewhere, the power of fiction is in the ability to awake from the fictional elements of the story into the non-fictional elements such as the moral lessons to be learned, etc…).
Narrative (Third Person):
The highest medium when telling a story is the level of narrative. To quote from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s Inner.org:
“The Kabbalistic tradition also resorts to allegorical narrative when attempting to communicate its profound truths–as such form of exposition often proves more illuminating than abstract theosophical discourse. The story of Creation and of man’s first hours in Eden provides Kabbalah with a key narrative structure for presenting the cosmic background to man’s existence.”
This is why, as Rabbi Ginsburgh explains, that stories often begin with “Once upon a time.” “Once” being a reference to the One, to God, that is above time. Such is the power of a narrative.
Within regard to the way in which narratives inspire reader engagement and interest, to quote again:
“The physical form of the scroll itself reinforces this sense of revelation by contributing to the reader’s experience of the text as a gradually unfolding message or insight. This effect is heightened even further by the use of the sippur (“narrative medium”) as the literary format for communicating the message of the scroll. In the sippur there is a constant tension deriving from the selective revelation of certain plot-elements and not others. The gradual clarification of all the hidden aspects within a story brings with it a cathartic resolution of that tension and a much deeper connection to the literary themes evoked in the process. No other account in all of Scripture takes such full advantage of the narrative medium as the story of Esther.”
The gradual revelation of the truth quoted here is as I mentioned above. In order to gain reader interest, the first step is to place the events within the framework of a narrative. Then gradually over time, introduce the reader to certain elements of the plot without overloading their senses, or making them feel like you are trying to lead them to the destination too soon.
As with the Purim story, the ending should always be a happy one. While it starts with “Once upon a time” it should end with “happily ever after…”
Autobiographical (First Person):
This is the experience of telling (and retelling) the ongoing autobiography of the positive efforts and strides we make in our lives, in order that the reader should be inspired to do the same, to quote:
“Rebbe Dovid of Lelov, who once said, “Now we learn the tractate of Baba Kama, but in the World to Come there will be an additional tractate called Rebbe Dovid of Lelov.” Apart from what we can learn about proper conduct from the stories of tzadikim, the life-story of every tzadik is actually Torah (just as most of the Torah is the story of people that actually lived).”
While the concept of telling in the first person is for a tzaddik (righteous person), if this inspires the writer to increase in their own service of God, then it may also be appropriate to speak in the first person, according to the teaching that in the future, we will all be called a nation of tzadikim (righteous people).
The thought to have in mind then while writing in the first person is that you are trying to bring more of the future into present-day reality. To actualize that future state of being a “nation of tzadikim” into the present.*
As discussed further in the Rabbi Dovid Lelov article quoted above, the advantage of writing in the first person is in order to assist the reader in associating with the protagonist of the story (which if the author is growing in their own service of God, this is a very good thing for the reader to also do). The main thing is not to think that the level of telling in the first person I beyond us. As Rabbi Ginsburgh said last Wednesday, the level of what he called “I am telling [the unfolding story]” (ani maggid) is for everyone, and by writing or speaking in this way, we are also innovating ourselves to be more tzadik-like.
* A person should still be very careful that his “I” is not a statement of ego. (In Hebrew, through a permutation of the three letters א-נ-י, the writer’s “I” (אֲנִי) should be representative of “nothing/selflessness” (אַיִן).
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