Murray Nossel - Conversations with Artists

What is storytelling?

"Storytelling is a way of organizing human experience through some kind of representation.  Whether it's the representation of words or sounds or pictures - it's some kind of attempt of ours to represent our experience, to depict our experience somehow.  To share our experience.  For those of us who are artists, who are moved by the beauty and the ugliness and the whateverness of what we see around us - there's a desire to represent it to show it, to reflect it, to translate it to some other kind of medium."

What makes storytelling an art form?

"Care.  The care that you take over the way you tell the story.  How pure an instrument of storytelling can you be.  We all know about how storytelling can be used to persuade and to manipulate and how storytelling can be used to bend the essence of things.  I'm interested in storytelling as a way to shine a light on the essence of things.  It's an aesthetic matter.  It's like what's the difference between photography as an art and photography as just photography. There's a quality of how the storyteller uses themselves as an instrument of the storytelling.

Not all art is storytelling, and not all storytelling is art.  What I'm interested in is storytelling as an art form -- and a very democratic art form.  It's something that everybody can do.  No matter what your age, or your intellectual ability, or your education, or your race -- it makes no difference.  Every human being has access to our birthright.  It's our birthright to be storytellers."

Did you choose your passion or did it choose you?

"I would have to say that I can't see it only as a manifestation of my own life.  I feel like I am carrying some kind of legacy inside my body.  I came from a family in which stories were not told - they were suppressed.  It was regarded as a virtue to keep your mouth shut and not speak.  In fact my grandmother said:  'these things are better left unsaid.'  And yet I grew up in a country surrounded by cultures that were steeped in oral storytelling.  That's the way information was passed down from one generation to the next.  Africa, that's the continent.  South Africa - that's the country.  So here I am, this boy who's got an injunction not to tell stories.  Not to open his mouth and yet I come from a culture that's all about sharing and communicating.  So how the hell did I end up in South Africa?  Who knows. But something about it moved me profoundly.  And then I went to work in mental hospitals as a clinical psychology student and I saw patients who had been institutionalized and silenced for years and years.  No one was interested in what they were saying - apart from the fact that they wanted to diagnose them.  They would ask the patients certain questions and then tell them to shut up. To get them to shut up they'd medicate them to the gills.  When these patients in the mental hospitals started to tell me their stories I thought I was listening to poetry - and art in the making.  It was at that point that I realized storytelling was music to me."

Who is your favorite storyteller on a personal level?

"My grandmother was an amazing storyteller.  And she had a very ordinary humdrum life.  She worked as a sales assistant in a large department store in Johannesburg.  English was not her first language.  Russian was her first language.  She came from Russia, steeped in culture and opera, and came to Johannesburg where she kept herself alive by constantly firing her imagination.  She was just a great storyteller.  My mother used to say:  'divide everything Granny says by 1000.'  And I thought - 'who cares! I don't care if it's true or not!'  I just loved her stores and I loved how she told them and who she became when she was telling stories."

Was this the same grandmother who told you not to tell stories?

"No, this was the other grandmother.  Polar opposites!"

What's the first story that fundamentally changed your life?

"I absolutely adore cars and I loved hearing stories about my father's cars.  All the different ones he had had.  He would tell me about them over and over.   His first one and then how he got his second one and then his third one.  That was very exciting to me."

Why do you think you love cars so much?

"I love cars so much because I think they are beautiful - they are aesthetic objects to me and I love to look at them.  Also because my father and I had a very stormy and violent relationship and cars were the only thing we could talk about that was emotionally not dangerous and which we both enjoyed very much.  It was a really core, deep connection that I had with my father."

Tell us about your book.

"I'm very happy because that question about my passion - it chose me, and I feel that many, many teachings have come to me.  Through my life experiences, through the people that I've met, through the literal teachers I've had.   So many of the patients that I've had have been my teachers -- whether it was sex workers in South Africa or drug users in the Ukraine.  These people have all come to me as teachers and to have an opportunity to share these teachings in a book that I'm writing is very important to me.  It's like saying these teachings will all go out into the world in a bigger way than just me teaching by word-of-mouth."

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time and whisper in your own ear?

"I'd say don't worry.  It's all going to turn out o.k.  And you're fine just the way you are  Whatever you need is right in front of you.  And there's no other way to be other than who you are."

Murray Nossel is Founding Partner and Director of Narativ, Inc., a storytelling consultancy.  Narativ transforms the way people communicate through a unique listening and storytelling method.  Narativ  specializes in the design, management and implementation of training programs and media that facilitate storytelling.  Go to to learn more.