Weekend Edition – Storyteller vs. Writer plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Storyteller vs. Writer

“Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)

“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:

storyteller vs writer

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.

··• )o( •··

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?”

Why not?

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.

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What I’m [Not] Writing – The Missing Pages in My Morning Journal:

morning pgsLife 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.

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What I’m Reading: Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie

bk buddhism busy peopleBusy 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.

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

Technically this is a quote of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

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. 
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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 Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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53 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Storyteller vs. Writer plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

  1. I personally don’t think that being a story-teller is any worse than being a writer. They’re both very different, writers being more technical but they aim to do what storytellers do… Tell a story people want to listen to. I’ve followed, I’m a writer (maybe even a storyteller) myself, and if you have the time I’d love for you to check out my small blog. Atm its mainly short stories and a bit of poetry, but I’m working on a novel (Prologue is on my blog). Feel free to check it out on http://www.kasimskorner.com , keep blogging and have a good day 🙂

    • Writers and storytellers do have similarities and differences but I think that storytellers are for kid books and writers are for teen and adult books its all based on the audience.

      • It’s tricky, isn’t it? I think that kids demand storytellers. They don’t put up with anyone who is focused more on looking smart than on telling a good tale. On the other hand, the most skilled children’s writers are able to combine great writing with great stories, so that kids can have the best of both worlds. I also think there are plenty of storytellers who write for teens and adults – just look at the examples we’ve talked about in the post: Twilight, Fifty Shades, The DaVinci Code. Seems like maybe it’s less about age and more about taste.

    • I agree that neither storytellers nor writers are better than the other. The world (and all its readers) need both. 🙂

      Thanks for coming by, sharing your links, and following. Nice to “meet” you!

  2. I believe Nabokov had it right:

    There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

    To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

    The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

    Nabokov also said something else; regarding genre, he said:

    There are no Schools: there is only Talent.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Stephan. I’d never come across it for, but agree wholeheartedly that Nabokov knew what he was talking about! What an excellent distillation. I will be reading this over a few times to let it sink in.
      🙂

  3. I’ve read that even Shakespeare was considered “just a storyteller” in his time, albeit a very good one. But he was a storyteller to the masses, not the upper crust. His work only became more respected and “highbrow” as the years moved on, and as we, modern society, looked back on it.

    • I was thinking about that as I wrote this piece, Shana. It’s true that Shakespeare was not revered in his day the way he is now. Someone else mentioned Dickens as another example of a writer who is considered a great genius now, but who in his day was less than venerated. 😉

      Interesting how our perceptions change with time and experience.

    • Thank you, Michelle, and I think you probably have it right there – “two sides of the same coin.” Fun to ponder the differences, though, and how those two sides combine in different ways to create different story experiences.

      Thanks for being here. 🙂

  4. Yeah, I’ll go along with “a strong story that will sweep audience off their feet.” My first word, however, gives a strong suspicion I am more story teller than writer.

    • Interesting.
      Do you say that you’re more a storyteller because your first word is casual – slang, even? But, I wonder how many revered writers have created stories that include plenty of slang and dialect and unusual narrators. How about Catcher in the Rye, for instance?

      Yep. Interesting question …

  5. A good storyteller now might be a good writer for the upcoming generations. To readers actually, it does not matter if they are reading tales from storytellers or writers. All they want is to refresh their minds.

    • I think readers do care, but they might not realize what it is they care about. They simply choose books based on what they like, and those choices reflect a preference for the work of storytellers or of writers, or maybe that elusive creature, the storyteller writer. 😉

  6. Thank goodness 🙂 My Sundays just haven’t been the same!
    Coincidentally, we were having this very discussion at our writers group yesterday, about storytellers and writers. One of our members was giving a talk on the hero’s journey and story structure, the modern linear story that has a beginning, middle and end. She mentioned a conversation she’d had with a fellow writer who had said how traditionally storytelling originally was a circular story told orally and how the art of storytelling was dying. I just don’t think we have to be snobbish about story. There is a place for all kinds. Like you said, the slam poets are reinventing the art of oral storytelling, and fan fiction also has a really interesting role in keeping the story alive in that circular way of the people. Personally, I like well written, interesting’, meaningful stories, and I don’t care how they come 🙂
    Hey! I made it onto your list this week! Awesome, thank you ❤️. Loved the other blogs too, especially the first two.

    • Hello, hello! 🙂
      Always so happy to see you here.
      I agree that we don’t have to be snobby about it. In fact, there’s no need to be snobby about anything, but especially not about any kind of art/creativity/self-expression!
      I love the way story is working its way into more people’s lives through the evolution of different kinds of digital media. Sure, there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned book; BUT it’s fun to see how different kinds of storytelling on the web are changing the way we relate to and understand each other. Pretty darn cool.

      Happy to share your link (loved it!), and glad you like the others … alot. 😉

      See you on your blog shortly!

      • A story is just a story isn’t it? It either feeds us or it leaves us hungry. we should be having fun with it as well. There’s a 17 year old girl in our writers group and she was saying that teenagers write so much fan fiction – if they don’t like something that happens in a story, whether it be an audio or visual story, they just re-write it. I love that. There’s something very powerful there. Also…at work yesterday I was proof reading some writing pieces the year 6 children were doing – and I saw the dreaded alot! Immediately in my mind the dread monster alot appeared, but I struck him down :). Too funny 😀

  7. I enjoyed the section in which you discuss the ways in which great writers and storytellers become one and the same. I also enjoyed the comments by Stephan J. Harper concerning roles writers may take on: storyteller, teacher, enchanter. I see these terms always more as a Taoist Yin and Yang. A great writer cannot write a wonderful work of art without storytelling elements–it is simply the degree to which one surfaces over the other perhaps. When I look at my favorite writer, Eudora Welty, i see her storytelling elements surfacing the most in tales such as The Robber Bridegroom, The Ponder Heart, and “Why I Live at the P.O.” I see her as writer most fully in the stories that make up The Golden Apples. I see her as teacher in all of these. I think the best storytellers/writers always teach us something about human nature and human relationships without having to be moralistic. They open doors for reflection in our hearts and minds. Socrates claims that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Maybe the more a “story” helps us to examine our own lives and relationships, the more it combines great storytelling, teaching, and enchantment and the more likely is is to become great literature?

    • I love everything you’ve said here, and am especially grateful for your example of how one writer embodies both storyteller and writer in varying degrees depending on what she’s writing. That’s so interesting, and now I want to go read those tales!

      And one hundred times yes to stories that help us examine our own lives – as readers and as writers. Reflection and connection – these are the things I hope for whether I am working on writing a story, or reading one.

      Thanks so much for the excellent comment. 🙂

    • Maybe … but a writer can also write poems or essays or short stories or flash fiction. Agreed that many different kinds of artists can be storytellers, but in this context we are talking about a traditional storyteller – someone who uses words as their primary material, whether spoken or written.

      Still – interesting to think about the different permutations of the storyteller across all the other artistic mediums. Thanks for sharing that perspective. 🙂

      • I grouped them all together because some poems, essays, short stories and flash fiction are written in books. And in a way even the technical writers are storytellers in a sense because they tell a story of how something works or how you can solve a problem to make something work.

    • That’s right! 🙂
      As someone else pointed out about Shakespeare, these writers whom we now revere were once considered merely the proprietors of entertainment. Interesting how our perceptions change. I wonder how writers like Shakespeare and Dickens viewed themselves.

      • Haha – so true! I once read a genius short story with a time machine that brought people from the past forward in time; they brought Shakespeare and he was totally bowled over by finding how popular he was, with courses about his work, so he signed up for one and failed! When asked his motivation for writing a play, he said ‘for money’, something like that. Hilarious, I wish I could remember who wrote it and find it again.

  8. A thought-provoking piece, Jamie!!!

    I need to think about this and get back to you, but, for now, let me tell you that you fall into that elite group of writer/storytellers who have mastered the craft and ‘keep their readers on the edge of their seats.’

    Muaah – love ya
    KItto

    • You’re too kind, Kitto. Thank you. I am definitely a work in progress, but I appreciate the encouragement. 🙂

      Looking forward to your thoughts once you’ve had a chance to ponder. “See” you soon!

  9. Personally, I think I can tell a joke and a sotory, at least i tink so. I also write,. However, when it comes t story telling as in creating a story from I want to be a story teller in that sense, butt I think the way stories are translated and communicated by word and by mouth c(especially when by word of mouth wasd the origianl form of story tlling) it is difficult to have a ‘one size fits all’ criteria of who is a story teller, who is a writer and who wants to aspire to what. The audience versus readers commment is also quite interesting as audience is often ore associated in the more ‘mainstream’ sort of books becasue of the meida coverage they get, accolades or notand often a writer or story teller struggles in their craft so attracting an audience rather than a readersip can have a hypothetical benefit financially. bt agin, one size doens’t necessarily fit all.your head and then verbaising it from your head as you go along seems more of a struggle for me. Arguably I just just live in my head and quite a few topic starts I say i have mulled over for a it before I have said them.

    • I as typing really fast and the computer froze so I could go back and make the spelling corrections so I am really sorry for the appaulling state of my comments, the opportunity slipped out of my hands oh dear. sorry.

      • I happened gain, the computer just decided to send out what I wanted to correct before I was ready too, the first reply didn’t make sense. Sorry agin. this replying to myself is really stupid. hy isn’t t this laptop doing its job?

  10. As I have done reading this blog, I can explore who I am actually. I was never a good storyteller. A writer was born within me but not the storyteller. Though, I like to tell people stories even from my own hateful love life. I could give my best in front of the individual but sometimes an unnecessary stop left awkwardness.

  11. ” much to offer in the way of comfort, sanity, and humor.” That book certainly sounds like a winner – will look for it, thanks
    Insightful post. When you have a person that is by instinct a storyteller and by choice a writer – that’s a rare and remarkable combination. One may be able to develop skill as a writer, but the storytellers? They are born.

  12. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Just Be Yourself. Yeah, Right. Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write – Write to Live

  13. Pingback: Weekend Edition – 5 Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write | Live to Write – Write to Live

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