Storyteller vs. Writer
“Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)
I’m terrible at telling jokes.
I’m so bad at it, that I have pretty much sworn off even trying. The pressure makes my stomach turn. I’m always afraid that I’m going to fumble the set-up or flub the punchline, and there are few things more sad and pathetic than a joke-gone-wrong. I picture failed jokes as deflated balloons, rumpled and saggy, looking up at me from the pavement with sad, slightly reproachful eyes.
Perhaps in part because of this personal shortcoming, I’ve always especially admired people who can tell a joke or a story well. You know the people I mean – the people who can capture and hold the interest of an entire table full of diners or room full of houseguests, the people who seem able to turn the most mundane happening into a tale of epic hilarity or deep insight. Yeah, those people. Those people impress the hell out of me.
A recent encounter with such a person got me thinking about the secrets of great storytellers. Whether the material is a sixty-second joke or a fifteen-minute anecdote, great storytellers know how to craft and perform a story in a way that keeps people interested and entertained. They understand the dynamics of narrative, pacing, and tension. They know how to set up a reveal, how to pick the details that make a difference, and how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. They understand that a story is a promise, and they know how to come through with the payoff.
Thinking about all this, I started to wonder whether there’s a difference between a “storyteller” and a “writer.”
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A quick scan of the “storyteller vs. writer” search results on Google made it clear that, by general consensus, there is definitely a difference. Sadly for the storytellers of the world, they seem to come up a little short by comparison with their more elite writer counterparts:
According to the “experts” (aka anyone who decided to post about this apparent rivalry), storytellers are a vastly inferior breed compared to writers. Writers are portrayed as serious, erudite creatures capable of more cerebral pursuits, such as using the words erudite and cerebral. They make important contributions to the craft and elevate our minds out of the gutters of pop culture. Storytellers, on the other hand, are depicted as a garrulous bunch of untalented hacks, barely a step above monkeys with typewriters. They revel in the gutters of pop culture.
Writers are deemed responsible for the “classics,” anything your high school English teacher made you read, and anything Oprah recommended for her illustrious book club. The authors behind blockbuster books like the Twilight series, Game of Thrones, and even The DaVinci Code are labeled “storytellers.” I have a feeling that, though none of the essays I read came right out and said it, almost any genre book – mystery, romance, fantasy, so-called chick lit, etc. – would be unceremoniously shuffled into the storyteller category.
This overwhelming prejudice against storytelling as an art form left me feeling conflicted. As a “writer” (though I hesitate to use the word, given the enormous weight of its apparent meaning), I strive to master the literary craft in all its varied nuance. From classic story structure to beautiful prose, from genius metaphors to deft characterization, I am fascinated and inspired by all things writerly. But, I also love a story that grabs me as a reader, a story that pulls me along so that I’m turning pages as fast as I can to find out what happens next. So, I have to wonder, which camp do I fall into, and – more importantly – which camp do I want to be in?
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Would J.K. Rowling be called a writer or a storyteller? I’d put my money on storyteller any day of the week, and I wouldn’t mean it as a put down. Though Rowling may not have ascended to any peaks of literary greatness, she told a great story that captured the imagination of an entire generation (and then some!). Her books touched millions and millions of lives, inspiring and encouraging kids (and, yes, adults, too) all around the world, teaching them about friendship, courage, and loyalty. She may not have earned the accolades of elite literary critics, but does that really matter? I think not.
And that is the central flaw in the storyteller vs. writer debate. Storytellers and writers care about very different things. They have very different goals, and should not, therefore, be judged by the same criteria. As far as I can tell, writers are more focused on creating art while storytellers are more focused on connecting with their audience. Writers worry more about style and about pushing the boundaries of the craft. Storytellers are more interested in evoking a response from the audience.
I intentionally use the word “audience” instead of “readers” in relation to storytellers. While writers may claim a venerable heritage that reaches back to Shakespeare, Homer, and other legendary poets and authors, storytellers have their own impressive lineage. The ancient Greeks were renowned storytellers in the oral tradition, as were many other indigenous races around the world from the tribes of Africa to the peasants of early European settlements to the Native Americans who carried their stories with them across the Great Plains, generation after generation.
Today, many wonderful storytellers have put a contemporary twist on the oral tradition. Slam poets are intense and visceral storytellers. The people who share their stories via The Moth stage and the TED series bring their experiences to life in ways that connect deeply with their audience and listeners of the related podcasts. Come to that, comedians are skilled storytellers, regaling us with funny stories that may seem, at first glance, to be unrelated, but which are often all pieces of a beautifully organized system that revolves around a central theme. Take Mike Birbiglia’s touching and laugh-out-loud funny show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. I watched this on a whim one night, and came away wanting to immediately watch it again so I could pull it apart and see how he did what he did – wrapping up a sweet story about love and redemption in a series of silly stories (silly, but well told). Seriously impressive. More impressive, in my humble opinion, than many of the much-lauded literary works I’ve read.
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I suppose it’s only human nature that even after my ever-so-brief exploration of the storyteller vs. writer question that my mind would leap to, “Why can’t I be both?”
I haven’t found an official Board of Storyteller/Writer Judgment to confer with on this matter, but I did come across a 2014 “World’s Greatest Storytellers” survey by Raconteur which ranks authors from Homer to Rowling. Interestingly, the six authors that survey respondents voted as the top six storytellers of all time included a fairly even mix of people who would be on opposite sides of the storyteller/writer line. I think there are probably quite a few authors out there who have already achieved the feat of combining great writing with great storytelling. Neil Gaiman is one name that comes to mind. Salman Rushdie is another. Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Margaret Atwood also seem to fit the bill. Though some may disagree, I also think that Ursula Le Guin deserves respect from fans of both story and literature.
I suppose the question to ask yourself (if you’re concerned about which camp you fall into) is, “What are my goals?” Where do your interests fall on the spectrum from pure entertainment to highbrow literature? What do you like to read, and what does that say about where your loyalties really lie? If you think you want to be the next Charles Dickens, but you mostly enjoy reading pulp fiction thrillers, your goals may not be aligned with your true passion.
And maybe you don’t even have to choose, at least not consciously. Maybe your path, whether towards being a storyteller or a writer, will emerge naturally based your on spontaneous tendencies as a creator. And maybe you’ll be able to find your own way of combining excellent craft with strong story in a way that sweeps your reader audience off their feet. Yeah. That sounds good. Let’s go with that.
What I’m [Not] Writing – The Missing Pages in My Morning Journal:
Life and a slew of deadlines have kept me from doing much writing outside of my client work and my bi-weekly column for the local paper. In fact, I just scanned my Google Calendar, and it’s been ten long weeks since I’ve regularly done my usual morning pages journaling. I had no idea it had been so long. I’m kind of bummed out now.
On the bright side, discovering this gap in my practice explains a lot. As I’ve alluded to in recent weekend edition posts, life has been a little extra stressful lately. Though good things are happening, for a while there I was feeling a bit unmoored, overwhelmed, and scattered. Those feelings make a lot more sense now that I realize I haven’t been taking those precious twenty minutes at the start of my day to indulge in writing three free-form pages. Simple as it sounds, Julia Cameron’s foundational writing practice makes a huge and important difference for me, not only creatively, but also in terms of my mindset, outlook, and general sense of well being.
Starting Monday, I’m getting back up on that horse.
What I’m Reading: Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie
Busy as I’ve been, I haven’t had much time for leisure reading, but I have been enjoying the audio book version of David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I’m a little more than halfway through the listen, and am really enjoying Michie’s down-to-earth approach as narrated by Nicholas Bell, a voice artist whose British accent brings a certain oh-that’s-all-right-then quality to the text.
Though I have never formally studied Buddhism, I do have a few other books in my collection, including my beloved and much thumbed through Pocket Pema Chodron. Michie’s book is written very much for the curious and uninitiated. It provides an overview of Buddhist teachings in the context of the author’s real-life experience as he embarked on his own journey of discovery and study.
Whether you are interested in Buddhism, or just looking for a respite from the overwhelm and chaos of life in the twenty-first century, this book has much to offer in the way of comfort, sanity, and humor.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
Finally, a quote for the week:
Technically this is a quote of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in the movie Saving Mr. Banks.
As always, thanks for being here and sharing a little piece of your weekend with me. Here’s to the storytellers and the writers – we need them both, each and every one of them.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.