Sunday, February 1, 2009

Writers vs Storytellers

Having recently moved to Washington, DC, certainly one of the more literate cities, I have taken advantage of the plethora of literary organizations in the area and joined a number of reading and writing groups. This wasn’t an option when I lived in the tranquilly remote northeast kingdom of Vermont, the industrious city of Detroit, or even in the technological Raleigh-Durham area of NC. By contrast, DC feels like one giant college campus—given the number of colleges in the immediate area that might have something to do with it. So many sport a backpack over a shoulder and a book in their hands. Everyone is reading something. They read on the Metro, at the bus stops, at lunch counters, in parks. There’s also a lot of aspiring writers.

I discovered several writing workshops. Places where people submit bits of their work—often for the first time—to the eyes of a diverse group of equally brave amateurs. Since obtaining the Holy Grail of the budding novelist—getting published—I have also been asked to read a good number of manuscripts, or excerpts of stories of total strangers seeking feedback. The quality ranges, but a pattern is emerging. For the most part, there appears to be two kinds of aspiring authors—writers and storytellers.

Writers are those who study the craft and diligently develop their skills. There are far more writers in the writing workshops for this reason. They are the ones who are quick to point out when a submitted piece is “telling” rather than “showing,” when the POV changes incorrectly, the improper use of a comma or semi-colon, or the fact that the page is merely too dense and needs more paragraph breaks. These are the folks that read books on writing, who attend seminars and take classes in creative writing. They are the masters of skill and craft.

Storytellers, by contrast, often can’t even spell. They don’t take courses in writing, or read books on the subject and as a result have never heard of the “show” and “tell” principle and have no idea what POV is. They can’t tell you what the difference is between a metaphor and a simile, and they aren’t even interested in finding out. But they create wonderful stories. Wildly imaginative, captivating, enthralling stories. Storytellers often lack skill, rarely have the tenacity to keep with any project, but they drip talent. Plots, characters and setting are clay they mold with effortless ease.

The problem is, that taken separately, neither is sufficient to produce results, and rare are the two found residing in a single person. I have read perfectly constructed prose that lay like a beautiful stretch of road in a field—leading nowhere, and I have struggled through great stories buried under hideous construction, like one of those movies where the beautiful starlit is made to look ugly with bad hair, glasses and sack-like clothes. You can almost see the jewel that might lie there, if only.

Being a writer has more immediate benefits in that, a certain degree of competence with the written word can manage to get you published. I have read a few books that were written by pure writers. They are the ones with amazing, poetic prose and no plot or characterization at all. They are dull, and often pointless; the kind of book you want to say you have read, rather than the kind you want to read.

Storytellers, I think, have the advantage. They can always learn to be writers. Writing is merely a set of skills that can be taught and acquired with practice, but the ability to invent, to create, to imagine is a talent that cannot be bought or developed. A natural resource bubbling within the boundary lines of a human mind, requiring only the necessary equipment to mine, refine, and transport to market.

You might imagine that a team of a writer and storyteller would be great, the Ira and George Gershwin of literature, but it doesn’t work that way. It is not enough to conceive of a plot and characters and hand it over. The storyteller must write, for details spark new life. Like splitting atoms, often the greatest power lies in the minutia. Tiny, irrelevant comments designed to add a dash of color frequently open unexpected doors to huge possibilities and for this reason; the storyteller must be there to unlock it. The writer will type right by, happy with the dash they added. The storyteller has the ability to throw the door wide and perceive a new landscape.

As such, it is a wondrous, yet very rare thing, to find these two residing in a single person. I strongly suspect this is what publishers look for in submissions—well that and a marketable book. Let’s face it, if Jack Torrance’s haunted book of the single repeated phrase was guaranteed to sell a million copies, it would find a home instantly.

The real problem is that storytellers, the true gem, are often overlooked and invisible when standing side-by-side with a writer. The writer’s work always appears far more polished, more professional. The storyteller perceive themselves as hopeless and usually see the writer as the superior talent—the master of the craft—never realizing their own immeasurable worth, their potential to soar. It doesn’t help that writers tend to see themselves as the talent, building bulwarks against “pretenders.” This posturing frequently results in a self-gratifying pretentiousness, a proclivity to pat one’s own back, and the backs of those who agree. The result is critically lauded “masterpieces” of self-important novels that leave the average reader feeling disappointed after the hype and wondering why it was so touted by so many. Usually the lay response to such works begins, “it was very well written, but…”

Meanwhile, the storytellers are turned away, cast off, and ignored. Instead, they often content themselves with marvelously vivid and exciting daydreams shown in the privacy of their own minds. They are the ones on buses and subways, staring off without focus who abruptly smile, or laugh for no apparent reason—the natural wizards, born with the magical power to create worlds—the gods among us.


  1. Very nice entry. I was trying to explain the difference to my friend's parents when I stumbled on this entry. By happenstance, I also noticed the note about Tee Morris on the site--nice to find a fellow podiobook author.

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