The Storyteller’s Art

Have you ever listened to someone tell a story, sometimes about a serious or even dramatic subject, and found yourself bored and anxious for the person to stop talking? Their narrative just doesn’t hold you. On the other hand, do you know people who keep everyone on the edge of their seats with accounts of the most everyday events? What makes the two experiences so different? The first person has no idea of how to relate events in a way that holds our attention. The second one knows the storyteller’s art.

Is the storyteller’s art something you are either born with or not? Some people do seem to have a head start. Don’t despair if you feel you’re not a natural, though. Storytelling is an art, but also a craft and, as such, can be learned and developed like any other skill. What’s the first step? Ray Bradbury, one of the most instinctive storytellers ever, had a deceptively simple piece of advice.  You have to read.

“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

In that comment you can hear his passion for the world of stories and ideas.  That passion drove him to read, literally, everything he could get his hands on. And he wrote…and wrote…and wrote. So how do we become skillful at the art and craft of weaving stories that hold people’s attention and move them? Ray Bradbury had a thought on that.

“I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.”

So set some time aside. Carve out a little space in your day, even if it’s not as long as you would like it to be, to write. We’re not talking about thinking about writing. We mean writing.  People who want to write usually have more than one story running around in their head waiting to be told.

It’s like coffee percolating on the stove in one those old metal coffee pots. It started to boil then you could watch the coffee being forced up into the glass knob on top of the pot. And you thought about now good the coffee would taste. And you watched the pot as it percolated. And you thought about how good the coffee would taste. And you kept watching the pot. It would have been all for nothing if you hadn’t taken the pot off the stove and enjoyed a great cup of coffee!

“We are all cups, constantly and quietly being filled,” Bradbury said. “The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”  
The challenge is to find the time to tip ourselves over and let some of the good things out that have been percolating. Start with fifteen minutes. Make yourself sit down and write about what’s on your mind. Do it everyday and it will turn into half an hour before you know it. Guess what will happen to the half hour. That’s right. It will become an hour. Writing will be a habit. And once you tip the cup over, who knows what beautiful things will come out?


Summer Wine

We’ve been discussing the idea of becoming your family’s historian.  A fictionalized memoir is one way to approach the task. This form will allow you to use some of the allowances of fiction to tell the stories that are important to you.

The characters can be as closely based on the people who inhabited your world as the story needs them to be. No one lives alone, so your alter ego needs a family. Why not use your own as the basis or type for the one that lives in your story? Everything has to happen someplace. Why not the neighborhood you know best? The setting can be exactly the place you remember or one you’ve created by combining your street with an imagined lane.

All of this comes to mind today because Ray Bradbury died recently at the age of 91. His novel Dandelion Wine is one of the best examples of the art of using imagination to tell the story of growing up. Dandelion Wine is Mr. Bradbury’s recounting of the summer of a twelve year boy, Douglas Spaulding. Douglas is growing up in Green Town Illinois, a place full of beautiful moments and awful fears. Mr. Bradbury wrote about his childhood often and the novel came out of that habit. 

What better place for a writer to start? Childhood is a time of vivid and dramatic memories. We remember the sun shining more brightly, the trees being fuller, everything being bigger and the people around us were heroes or villains, nothing in between. And is there a more evocative time than summer? The days are long and lazy and you’re waking up when your dreams end instead of being jolted awake by the call of the school day. Most important, childhood is a time of wonder.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds,” Mr. Bradbury wrote. “See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

No one wrote about the wonder of living better than Ray Bradbury. He was able to keep that sense of every minute being a miracle throughout his life. That’s not easy to do. Obligations, deadlines and the most menial of tasks can drown it out. The writer, more than anyone, needs to maintain that surprise at the beauty of being conscious.

So where do you start? The elements of telling a story are always the same. We create drama by giving a protagonist a goal and putting obstacles in his/her way. The motivations that move her will have emotional dimension if you inhabit the character, so start with yourself. How would you have handled the drama you’ve created? Once your main character starts to react, your story will move along.

“Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write,” Ray Bradbury advised. “The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

That ranks with the greatest advice on writing I’ve ever read.

So don’t hesitate. Push off from the shore and start to float. As you drift, you’ll pass by the people and places that hold the most meaning for you. Write whatever you remember, whatever moves you, whatever carries you back to that time and place. There’s no question you’ll do the best writing of your life.

Happy writing.