We Don't Just Tell Stories, They Tell Us

This is not just another holiday redemption story. It was October 1843, and Charles Dickens needed money. While he was already a very famous for Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, his most recent series, Martin Chuzzlewit, was a total flop. With bills mounting and a fifth child on the way, his publisher decreased his pay. The situation was getting bleak, and Dickens wasn’t alone.

It was the Hungry Forties, a period of depression and unemployment in England. Dickens had actually spent the previous months touring schools for street children and speaking to try to save them from a life of prison, pickpockets, sweatshop labor, and early death. And he was planning to write a short book called An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but now there was no time for that.

Bearing the weight of his world on his shoulders, Dickens sat down to write new book, and fast. Even though his publisher wouldn’t support the project, he knew that if he could finish a book in two months or less, he might have a chance to self-publish and sell it as a Christmas gift. He worked long days and late nights, borrowed money to pay for the printing, and six weeks later he emerged.

A Christmas Carol was born.

It was his biggest hit. An instant bestseller that established Dickens as England's most famous living author, and the man who invented Christmas as we know it.

It’s incredible. But this story is actually not about the sales or success.

In fact, Dickens didn’t initially make that much money from A Christmas Carol. He insisted that each book be adorned with a gold lettering on the cover and spine, gilded edges on each page, full-page hand-colored illustrations, and four woodcuts by John Leech, all of which dwindled his initial profits to just £137. Bah humbug, indeed.

But A Christmas Carol was so much bigger than a bank account for him. Because writing this book reconnected Dickens with the one thing that success had taken away: his voice and purpose to serve the poor. It’s reported that Dickens “wept over it, laughed, and wept again,” and that he often walked 15-20 miles through the streets of London late at night just to reflect on this book.

This story lit a fire inside.

If you asked Dickens what he was doing in October 1843, he would have said that he was writing a Christmas book to try to make money for his family. But if you asked him after this book was done, he would have told you that he was using his words to serve the poor. And that renewed purpose fueled his late-life success. That is, Charles Dickens wrote the story that transformed Charles Dickens. And that’s actually his biggest lesson for us.

We don’t just tell stories, they tell us.

Right now there are a lot of organizations that are just like Dickens in 1843: struggling to capitalize on past success. And like Dickens, many of those organizations are actively pursuing a quick-fix to make money. But after hearing this one we can’t help but ask: What if those organizations don’t need a quick-fix, but a new story? A story to light the fire inside.

On March 15, 1870, Charles Dickens took the stage at St James’s Hall in London. He was there to read A Christmas Carol, his most-cherished work. At the end of the performance he said, “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” And, with tears streaming down his face, Dickens raised his hands to his lips to send an affectionate kiss. He died three months later, but his fire still burns today.

Happy holidays to you and yours.


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