But the eye and the ear are different listeners, are different audience. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art.…the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener…
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World
The Relationship between Teller and Listeners
At the heart of any told story—told out loud or on the page—is a relationship: the relationship between the storyteller and the audience.
In oral cultures, the existence of stories depends entirely on this relationship; without it, the story would not be told, could not be remembered. In cultures without writing, stories depend for their lives on the face-to-face engagement of tellers and listeners.
Until the twentieth century, almost all fiction replicated this relationship: the narrator of the story was talking TO his or her readers. But then the nature of written storytelling changed. Wallace Hildeck (a writer and teacher) points out:
"One of the strongest trends in modern fiction has been for the author to recede further and further from the surface of his work.… The general feeling seems to be that the elements of a narrative—the characters, the plot, the settings—must appear to tell the tale themselves." (Hildeck, Thirteen Types of Narrative)
In other words, in modern and contemporary literary fiction, the natural relationship between storyteller and listener vanishes. Other techniques replace this relationship; stream-of-consciousness, for instance, in which a story is told entirely through the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that flow through the mind of a character. Many literary theorists and writers sneer at traditional narrative techniques, considering them primitive, and searching always for new techniques that will leave behind those of the past.
Though such innovations may be interesting, they may also leave behind ordinary readers. In fact, as literary historian John Carey has pointed out, modernism in English literature was a deliberate attempt on the part of a number of writers (Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, among others) to make use of techniques that would make their writing too difficult for ordinary people—the newly-literate "masses"—to understand. (For more information on this phenomenon, I recommend Carey's book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.)
Innovative techniques have come to dominate contemporary literary fiction and the teaching of creative writing to such an extent that older storytelling techniques have been almost completely abandoned. But the truth is that ordinary people love to be told stories. So even writers who have command of sophisticated techniques of fiction may find value in familiarizing themselves with older techniques. I myself am convinced that the traditional and natural relationship between teller and listener is one of the sources of a story's power. So I invite you now to explore with me that basic relationship.
A Note on Process
For the rest of this lesson, we are going to be practicing putting ourselves in relationship with our readers. I want to remind you that you then get to decide how to apply this practice to your own writing.
Some writers like to bring awareness of readers to their first draft. Others prefer to keep readers out of their writing process until they have completed a first draft. Such writers like to keep their attention on getting the story down, and then consider how to tell it to their readers.
Naturally, you can take either one of these approaches (or some combination of the two).
Establishing a relationship between storyteller and audience
In the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the story begins with guests assembling for a wedding. At the door stands someone who is uninvited, a stranger. This elderly man grabs the arm of one of the wedding guests and then fixes him with his gaze. And then he tells him a tale, and, as the poem says,
The Wedding Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
Now there's an example of a storyteller who has power! The Wedding Guest "cannot choose but hear"—he must listen.
So far, in exploring the sources of a story's power, we have looked at materials and themes, the power of "what happens next," and the power of the imagined world. How can an awareness of the relationship between teller and listener give our stories power?
To investigate this question, I'd like to begin by giving an illustration of the difference between this relationship in a literary setting and the relationship in an oral culture. British poet James Fenton tells the story of a confrontation between an American poet and an African one at an international poetry festival:
"The African poet had brought musical instruments with him. He sang and accompanied himself, extemporizing on themes which he, in between times, would explain to the audience. The American was one of those who 'wrote for the page,' and over dinner one night he decided to tell the African poet how inconsiderate his kind of performance was. You don't realize, he said, how difficult you make it for the person who reads after you, when you sing your songs and play those instruments. The accusation was that he got the audience into a mood that was prejudicial against the type of poetry he himself had to offer—which he implied was the mainstream poetry (at least as far as the festival was concerned). [Fenton has previously explained that most contemporary poets write words that are specifically designed not to be read out loud—and then they read these poems aloud at poetry readings.]
"The African replied in terms which surprised me at first. You American poets, he said, and you European poets, you think that because you are poets you are very important, whereas I am an African, and I don't think I am important at all. When I go into a village and begin to tell a story, the first thing the audience will do is interrupt me. They will ask questions about the story I am telling, and if I do not work hard they will take over the story and tell it among themselves. I have to work to get the story back from them.
"What had struck me as overweening in the American poet—his view that, because his poetry had only limited appeal, other poets should rein in their own performances so as not to show him up—was, to the African, only part of the story. We all assumed that, because we were poets, the audience would listen to us in appreciative silence. A hush would fall when we approached the rostrum, and when we sat down there would be applause. But to the African these seemed arrogant assumptions. To him, every scrap of attention and appreciation had to be worked for.
"In the long run, however polite the audiences have been to our faces, the African poet is right: every scrap of attention and appreciation has to be fought for.… even the most docile of audiences will feel, in the end, that we have overdrawn on its goodwill if we do not ensure we deserve the attention we demand. What the African poet knew within seconds of standing up, we will assuredly learn in due course. We will learn whether we deserve to be heard."
The African poet in this story is really a traditional storyteller, who is used to being in immediate face-to-face relationship with his audience as he tells his story; the American poet, as Fenton explains, writes "for the page," not for listeners, then at a later time he reads out loud to other people (at a poetry reading) what he has written. These two writers establish very different relationships with their audiences.
The storyteller in an oral culture knows that a story has its existence in the telling. The listeners are necessary to its existence. This same attitude is also taken by writers who are storytellers on the page. Literary writers, on the other hand, are often engaged in producing texts, not tellings. They often write with no awareness at all of readers, concentrating only on putting words on the page, rather than considering how these words might affect other people. As a result, such writers do not get to take advantage of the power of the relationship between writer and listener.
Literary writers often fail to establish a natural relationship with readers in large part because they have been taught to write in school and have done most of their writing in school. In academic writing a strange and totally unnatural relationship exists between writer and reader—a relationship in which the reader has all the power. When we write in school, our reader is the teacher or professor. A teacher or professor gets to demand writing from us, whether we want to write or not, and he or she responds to our writing by judging it and giving it a grade. Teachers and professors do indeed have real power over us when we are students; and so, as we write one paper after another, we are effectively trained to internalize this particular relationship between writer and reader in which the reader has all the power. And internalizing this relationship cripples us as writers.
Let me try to make this clearer. Writing for teachers trains us to write for readers, rather than to them. And so we internalize a judging reader, who sits somewhere behind our shoulder, and makes critical comments on our work, and, without knowing it, we write for that reader, to please or impress him.
Unconsciously we imagine that all readers are like teachers, waiting to sit in judgment on our writing and on us.
But the truth is that outside the academy, outside of school, and outside the realm of criticism (which is essentially an extension of the academy), readers are not poised to judge our writing; they just want to enjoy it.
Outside the academic-literary realm, it is not the readers who have the power; it's the writer. The skilled writer has the power to grab and keep the reader's attention, to enthrall him with a story. The only power the reader has—a considerable one, to be sure—is to stop reading.
There's another way in which writing in school gives us harmful training. In school, our readers—teachers, or other participants in a workshop—have-- to read our writing. Reading student writing is one of the things teachers and professors have to do; it's part of their job. And participants in a writing workshop have to read the work of others in the group because that's one of the requirements of the course.
But outside of school, no one is required to read your writing. There are thousands upon thousands of books available to read, not to mention other ways of spending one's time. A reader has to choose to read what we write. As James Fenton says, we have to deserve our readers' attention.
How do we do that? By becoming highly skilled at our craft.
Once we can situate ourselves comfortably in the relationship between storyteller and listener, then we can apply ourselves, not to worrying about whether our writing is "good" according to some abstract standards, or to being concerned with how it will be judged; instead we can spend our time and energy developing our own power—that is, developing the skills we need to cast a spell over our readers' minds that will keep them turning the pages.
One of the skills we need is establishing a natural relationship with our audience so we can tell a story directly to them, as oral storytellers have always done:
"All sorts of things happen in this world and all sorts of things are told about in fairy tales, so lend an ear, and a tale you'll hear.
Once upon a time there lived a man and his wife.…"
--Alyonushka: Russian Folk Tales, translated by Irina Zheleznova
"There was once an old peasant, and he must have had more brains under his hair than ever I had, for he was a merchant, and used to take things every year to sell at the big fair of Nijni Novgorod. Well, I could never do that. I could never be anything better than an old forester.…
"God knows best, and He makes some merchants and some foresters, and some good and some bad, all in His own way. Anyhow this one was a merchant, and he had three daughters.…"
—Arthur Ransome, "The Silver Saucer and the Transparent Apple," in Old Peter's Russian Tales
"In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale and he ate fishes.…"
—Rudyard Kipling, "How the Whale Got his Throat," in Just So Stories
"I don't know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence, for it you know Canada at all you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it."
—Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
"I suppose that very few people know how Mrs. Albert Forrester came to write The Achilles Statue; and since it has been acclaimed as one of the great novels of our time I cannot but think that a brief account of the circumstances that gave it birth must be of interest to all serious students of literature…"
—Somerset Maugham, "The Creative Impulse"
"Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…"
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In these examples, which could be multiplied many times, the essential I--you relationship between teller and listener is made explicit. We need not use the pronouns "I" and 'you" if we don't want to. But we do need to have an awareness that we are telling our story to someone.
Storytellers in oral cultures have an immediate awareness of their listeners: they can tell whether people are engaged by the story or are getting bored. That's because (of course) their listeners are right there with them. Storytellers who write stories (rather than tell them out loud) don't have people listening to them as they write. But we can imagine our readers. Even though we are writing alone, we can, in our minds, put ourselves into a storyteller's relationship with listeners.
Here's one way to practice doing this:
Practice: Writing to a Safe Audience 1
Pick a subject to write about—it doesn't have to be anything important. Now imagine someone who is a safe audience for you. This can be a real person, or an imaginary one; it can even, if you wish, be an object or an animal. The key is to imagine someone to whom you can write freely, without fear that what you put on the page will be judged in any way; someone who wants to hear what you have to say and doesn't care if you repeat yourself or stumble over what you want to say.
Now, get ready to freewrite about your subject, without worry about organization or spelling or any other mechanical concerns. Before you begin, put your safe audience, in your imagination, on the other side of the page (or your computer screen).
Now talk to your safe audience, through the page, trying to keep your pen (or your fingers) moving for at least ten minutes.
Afterwards take a few minutes to reflect, on paper: what happened when you did this?
Practice: Writing to a Safe Audience 2
Pick a story you want to tell, ideally one you are familiar with. If you wish, take some notes to collect the material you will use in your story.
Now look through the details and information you have selected as necessary for your story. If you like, you can number them to give you a rough idea of the order in which you'll present them.
Imagine a safe listener. (Make sure it is someone you feel comfortable with.) Get the picture of your audience—whoever or whatever it is—fixed in your mind.
If you like, begin with this sentence: Let me tell you a story.
Now write that story as if you were talking directly to your audience. Try to really feel the connection between you and your listener(s). Keep imagining him or her or them right in front of you. If you need to pause to collect your thoughts or to bring back the picture of your listener, that's fine.
What was it like to do this? What did you notice in yourself as you wrote? What did you notice in the words on the page?
When you do this practice again, is there anything you would do differently?