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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 2.1: The World of Story (continued)

Let me tell you a story…

Ah, the magic of those six words! The invitation to sit back, relax, and surrender ourselves to the power of story. We can all recognize the voice of a writer who is a great storyteller:

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

Marley was dead, to begin with…

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Once upon a time there lived a poor woodcutter who had three sons…

The voice of a storyteller on the page, just like the voice of an oral teller, grabs our attention, makes us want to keep listening, keep turning the pages. Can we learn to do have that kind of hold on our readers? Yes, we can. But we need first to understand a few things about what a story is.

“Story” can be a bit of a slippery concept; we know what it is—of course we do…just don’t ask us to define it. That’s in part because we use the word “story” to talk about many different things: a tale told orally; a journalist’s report; a literary genre (“the short story”); something too fantastic to be believed (“That’s just a story!”). So, before we can explore the world of story, we need to be sure what we’re talking about.

First, there’s a common misconception that stories must always be the product of invention—and the wilder the better. Not so: stories can be based on fact as well as invented material. Second, even though journalists use the word “story” to describe what they produce, most of the time their pieces are not real stories; they are reports. Third, the literary genre of the short story is a relatively recent one; and many so-called stories by contemporary writers are not really stories at all. Much recent fiction, to put this another way, is the product of writers, not storytellers.

When I talk about story in my workshops and in these lessons, I have in mind a much more elemental and universal definition of story. I am talking about stories that are told on the page. I am, to put this another way, talking about what literary critics call narrative.

Writers who see themselves as storytellers are one particular kind of writer. Not everyone who is a writer is a storyteller, but storytellers can be found in the realms of both fiction and nonfiction (including memoir)—even in poetry and (sometimes) essays.

The storyteller has been an essential part of human communities since the beginning of human culture. In oral cultures (that is, cultures without writing), storytellers kept alive memories of important events and cultural values; they passed on crucial information from one generation to the next. And while most cultures had their professional tellers, whose main job was to remember and tell the culture’s significant tales, storytelling was not restricted to professionals. Every adult could, and did, tell stories, to entertain and to teach. Storytelling, along with music, was a way to while away long nights, to lighten one’s steps on a journey, to accompany the work of daily activities. If you take a look at an anthology of myths or folk tales (such as Jane Yolen’s Folk Tales from around the World) you will find adventure tales, humorous tales, tales of revenge, tales of explanation, and much, much more.

Some people have said that the human brain is a storytelling brain. I agree with them—and so I believe that the ability to tell a story is innate in all of us. Unfortunately, unlike our so-called primitive ancestors, the people who run our educational system don’t think story is important. (They think only academic argument is important.) And so, like so many of our essential human abilities, our ability to tell a story may have gone underground. Even more important, for writers, is the tyranny established over literature by academic literary critics, who sneer at storytelling, and who have ensured that in most creative writing programs and courses storytelling is ignored in favor of modernist, intellectual, “literary” fiction.

These critics manage to ignore the fact that, until the middle of the twentieth century, most works of literature were created by storytelling writers: Thackeray, Dickens, Kipling, Conan Doyle, Maugham, to name only a few. So when we choose to root our writing in the tradition of storytelling, we are setting our feet firmly in an activity that goes back to the beginning of human culture and has been practiced by many of literature’s greatest writers.

If being part of this tradition appeals to you—or, less grandly, if you just love story—then I invite you to explore the following practice and the lessons that follow.

Take some time to reflect, on paper, about your experiences with story. Were you told stories as a kid (or do you tell/read them to your own)? What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite storytelling writers? Add anything else that occurs to you about your experiences with story.

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