August 10, 2012

Telling A Story that No One Hears?

Stephen Grellet - from this (yikes!)...
        Today I'm going to tell you a story.  This is a true story, but one of my favorites anyway.  It's about a French nobleman, born in 1773.  When he was seventeen he joined the bodyguard of Louis XVI.  As you can imagine, this did not make him popular when the French Revolution came.  He was sentenced to death, but escaped and fled to the United States.  All that, and the most intriguing part of his story hasn't even started yet!  In the US he became a Quaker and began a life of work trying to ameliorate all kinds of social problems.  He was especially concerned about slavery, bad conditions in prisons and hospitals, treatment of Native American Indians, and the poor.  He travelled widely all over the USA, Canada, and Europe preaching.  He took the name Stephen Grellet, as a plain version of the long, aristocratic name of his birth.
        Once, while Grellet was travelling in the woods of Pennsylvania which were at that time wilderness, he passed through a camp of lumbermen.  These men were notorious for their lawlessness and dishonesty, yet when Grellet reached home, he felt that he should return and preach to them.  All the way back he rode, three days through the wild forest from the nearest town, moved to share with these rough and rude lumberjacks the message that he knew from his own experience: how completely God's love could change a person's life.  But when he reached the lumber camp, he found it deserted.  The men had moved on, deeper into the forest.  So there he was, with a story to tell and no one to hear it, after all his conscientious, joyful effort to do what he was supposed to do to the best of his ability.
        Let me stop there for a moment and mention that when I think about writing my stories and having no one read them, the analogy that always comes to me is talking on the telephone after the other person has already hung up.  It's just so pathetic.  Isn't it better when no one's listening just to salvage your dignity as best you can by gently shutting up and putting down the telephone?  But remember the Parable of the Sower?  Remember that you can't make a seed grow, but you can certainly be sure that if you don't plant it, it won't grow.
... to this.  (Much better!)
        So, back to Stephen Grellet, standing all alone in a deserted lumber camp deep in the wilderness, with a story to tell.  He did what no self-respecting man would do.  He stood in the middle of the clearing and, like a doofus, preached to the empty space, or perhaps to the trees and the squirrels.  And when he had finished telling his story, he turned around and rode back home again, having done all he could do.
        It takes a lot of certainty to do that, a lot of confidence that you know what you're supposed to be doing.  That's a confidence that I seldom, if ever, have.  How can you tell the difference between a setback you need to push through and a sign that you're on the wrong path altogether?  Nevertheless, I'm beginning to feel that I should go ahead and tell my stories, even when it seems that no one is reading them.  Because the story about Grellet doesn't end there.
        Six years later, Grellet was in England, bringing his message to prisons, hospitals, and slums in London.  One evening, as he was crossing London Bridge, he was seized by a strange man who began shouting, "I've found you at last!"  It turned out that he was one of the lumberjacks from the camp.  On the day Grellet preached to the empty camp, that one man had returned to fetch some tools, and he had heard the whole message.  It inspired him so much that he repeated it to all the other lumbermen, so that many of them were inspired, too, and the whole camp changed its atmosphere.
        I used the message of this story in my book Ruin of Ancient Powers, where one of the big themes I was exploring was doing your job even when it doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything.  And the moral is clear: keep planting those seeds, keep telling those stories, because you never know whom you'll touch, and you never know what might grow.

        (By the way, although you've probably never heard of Stephen Grellet before, you probably have heard a quotation attributed to him: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good things, therefore, that I can do, any kindness that I can show a fellow being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”)

[Pictures: Fashion plate, copper engraving hand painted, from Magasin des Modes Nouvelles, June 1789 (Image from EK Duncan);
Detail of a portrait of Stephen Grellet, copper engraving, no information on artist or date, alas. (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]


  1. How amazing that a nobleman working for the decadent French royal family should then devote himself selflessly to good causes. A good reminder to try not to prejudge!

  2. It is wonderful, isn't it. Humans have so much more complexity and capacity for good than we give each other credit for.

  3. This is a GREAT post. I love it. And it hits home my belief that we write for ourselves. Not necessarily our readers, or the market, or anything else. We write our stories for ourselves. If someone else happens to read them, like them, become inspired by them, wonderful. But they also serve a purpose just for us....a creative outlet that is important for our own well-being and happiness.

  4. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing Grellet's story!

  5. And to think that his story in the woods is still in currency some 200 years later.

  6. There is no record of what Grellet actually said out there in the woods, but the story of the story survives -- and I know I shall be more than happy if any stories I tell are still bringing people joy two hundred years from now!