10 May 2008

Natural Storytelling

“Where do you get your ideas?”
For most writers, the question offers an almost irresistible invitation to snark. “At the five dollar aisle in Walmart.” “I have them delivered.” “Alien implants.”
But you know what’s weird? People who aren’t writers really don’t know. For most of them, what we do is as mysterious and complicated as rocket science.
Earlier this week I received a call from an old friend who wanted to talk about writing. Although she doesn’t write for a living, in many ways this friend qualifies an accomplished writer. She wrote well-received theses for her undergraduate and advanced degrees. She’s written advertising copy and articles. Now she’d like to write a novel or a short story. “How do you do it?” she asked.
At first I couldn’t wrap my head around the question. Which it?
All of it. Where did I get the physical descriptions for my characters? Where do the plots come from? How did I fill up the pages?
To be fair, every writer I know asks themselves that last question. A lot. The white heat of inspiration--where the words flow from your fingers almost faster than you can type because the story is complete and so beautiful it’s burning through your brain like a laser--is the rarest of exceptions, not the rule.
Most stories are built bit by bit. Some writers build a story like a wall, one layer after another in a logical, linear progression. Sometimes, the story comes together like a quilt. The writer sets down the scenes in no particular order and assembles them later. It doesn’t matter how you put the pieces together as long as they fit together to form a whole.
I tried to illustrate this by explaining how I put together “Hero Material”, the short story I sold last month. “But that’s fantasy,” she objected. “I don’t want to write about magic.”
I told her it didn’t matter. The big stuff remains constant. You figure out who or what you want to write about. You decide who your characters are when their story begins and where you think you want them to end up. Next, you write the scenes needed to get them there. Then you revise and edit everything until it flows like a movie in a reader’s head.
Sometimes the process requires a lot of research. Sometimes you make it all up. Sometimes you outline the story before you write it. Sometimes you fly by the seat of your pants. The genre is in the details and the story’s balance of action, tension, emotion and deductive reasoning.
My friend listened and thanked me politely. I got the distinct feeling she didn’t believe a word I said. At best, she thought I was leaving something out of the recipe. The process couldn’t be simultaneously so straightforward, so messy, so universal and yet so individual. It didn’t make sense.
Well, maybe not to her. Not only did it make sense to me, it always made sense to me. I may have only recently learned how to write saleable fictions, but I’ve always known how to create a story. I needed to be taught every other aspect of writing, but the process of putting the story down? That seems to have been coded in my DNA. It was there when I was eight, when I wrote my first complete play about the theft of Thor’s hammer, and it’s been there for every story since.
Which is somewhat surprising, because eight was also the age when I first encountered the concept of the “natural storyteller”. I found it total downer too. At face value, a natural storyteller had to be somebody like my dad, who could tell a joke or a story just right. He never muffed a punch line or blew the big finish. People would gladly listen to him for hours, because he could make “nothing in particular” sound like the best yarn they’d ever heard.
If my dad was the measure of a storyteller, I was flat out of luck. I could never tell a joke properly the first time through. And just because I was constantly telling myself stories didn’t mean they were any good. I had to work long and hard to create believable characters, description, action, crisp pacing and beginnings--oh, beginnings are so hard! Obviously, I was not and never would be a “natural”.
Talking to my friend, however, I found myself questioning my long-held assumptions about what constitutes a “natural storyteller”. Maybe it isn’t about getting it right the first time, every time.
Maybe it’s just a matter of filling all those pages from beginning to end, then opening a new document and doing it again.


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