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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Writer or Storyteller?

What’s the difference between a writer and a storyteller?
I have friends who say, “I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller.” I know other people who say, “I’m a writer. She’s a storyteller.” Often the word “just” is thrown around also. In case, I’m deaf to the tone of voice.
For a long time, I thought the difference had to do with what types of things you wrote.
Storytellers write things that stir emotions and send a message to the world, which could be as divergent as “everything will be okay” to “fix this now!” Writers write things that stimulate the mind. Full of arguments and logic, a writer is conscious of form and precedent. A grounding in the great cannon of literature is essential. Occasionally, the writer may touch the heart, but it must be done with the ceremonial, mannered attention of an experienced Asian courtesan. And please, don’t mention it afterward. I enjoy reading all kinds of things.
Ever since high school, I’ve been a Ferris Bueller type, the kid that floated between groups. Smart or artsy. Rich kids and kids from the projects. Catholic or Jewish. Someone once said I had “invisible skin.” (I think most of us, writer-storytellers, are like this, don’t you?)
 But the coat-change between writer and storyteller may be the most perilous group-hopping, I do. Probably because I hate the division between my two closest tribes. I’ve been finding ways to subvert that difference since I first began to believe words were my calling.
One of the ways I skate around my ambivalence of this split is by writing in many forms. Short and long. Non-fiction and fiction. Mystery, historical and fantasy. It can be hard to pin me down. (Hard to make a living, when you’re all over the board, as well. That’s a topic for another post, though.) I write features for newspapers, short stories and epic-length novels. Serious or sexy. Silly and smart. I float on the current, changing forms like thoughts change, like emotions change.
Recently, I finished a new screenplay. Although, “finished” is always an odd word to apply to a screenplay. They are notoriously shifty creatures.
I’ve worked in this form before. I like it because it hones my ability to see the most essential bones of a story. To work as economically as possible. To use action and conflict, as a means of communicating every element of story: character, theme, even setting. (But oh, how I long for even one sentence of internal monologue, when I’m writing a screenplay!)
The more I write in different forms, the more I begin to believe—the division between storytelling and writing is only semantics. Two words for the same thing.
I recently had the chance to present a piece from my new work to some writer friends. I brought a few of my speech kids and we told everyone a story—the first few minutes of the screenplay.
The audience laughed, listened and went hope happy.
Writer. Storyteller.
Does it matter?


Marcelle Dubé said...

Interesting post, Julie. I think every good writer also has to be a storyteller, because that's what it's all about: the story. Where I live, a storyteller is a specific kind of artist, who comes to summer festivals and regales the audience with spoken stories. So, maybe a writer (no matter what kind of writer) has to be a storyteller, but a storyteller doesn't have to write.

J Wachowski said...

Cool! We're just beginning to have storytelling pop up as a performance event, where I live. But I think it's an amazing skill to develop. The way a good storyteller adapts for the audience right there on the fly...I've heard rumbles that may be something the internet begins to bring back to written words--the way that people will adapt a fan fic site for the audience? Kinda cool thought. Can you see it?

Shirley Wells said...

Great post, Julie. I believe that, first and foremost, I'm a storyteller. My first draft is me telling that story. The second draft is where I turn from storyteller to writer and, hopefully, put that story into a form people can read/listen to and be swept along by.
I couldn't write a screenplay, LOL. I need my fix of internal monologue. :)

J Wachowski said...

I know what you mean, Shirley! I TRY not to write them, but they sneak in there anyway. Always have to watch for the buggers on my final edit. Inevitably, I'll have slipped a coupe into the description. Directors and actors get testy if you try to "tell them how to read the line." I've learned the hard way to cut it out. :)

Rita said...

I’m with Marcelle. I define storytelling as an auditory art. I firmly believe writers begin as story tellers. I am a story teller and writer. I cannot tell a story then sit down and write it. Or write a few pages then tell the story. For me those things don’t mix. I have to put a chunk of time between the two. I can tell you the story one day then the next write it. Strange I know. But, shrug, that’s me.

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