Storytellers vs. Writers

10 Aug

Not too long ago, I was at a party discussing Stephen King over beers (as I am oft wont to do) with some pretty astute people. While I sang his praises, my companions in the conversation were more hesitant, which I must be pretty used to by now, seeing as anyone who brings up Mr. King in a graduate creative writing program does it either with a tone of disgust or apology. One friend, who is both careful and economical with his words, said something that stuck with me. When asked, “Well, do you really think of King as a good writer?” He hesitated, and answered “He’s not a bad writer, but he’s a really good storyteller.” I responded to this the only way I could: I smiled, nodded sagely, took a long draw on my beer, and asked what everyone thought of Dark Knight Rises.

Quite suddenly, my friend’s comment had filled me with a quiet, sneaking terror. In my experience, the next existential crisis for many writers is perpetually just around the bend. This was mine: Am I a good writer? Could I be? Or am I doomed to always be merely a storyteller?

When I hear storyteller, I think campfire-style oral tradition, with hand gestures and dramatic arcs. The type of stories that deliver immediate gratification—horror, jokes, feel-good morality tales, stuff like that. Anyone that has known me for any amount of time has probably heard some of my favorite “true” stories—ones with wise and humorous advice from retired poetry professors; sharing Ouzo with gay, middle-aged gynecological device salesmen; the reason why I really hate Denver; and so on. I’ve got all my party-stories down, and it’s not uncommon that my friends hear one or two more than once—from time to time I start a story and one of my friends nods impatiently and finishes it for me. Until now, I hadn’t made a connection from my anecdotes to my actual work.

The distinction my friend was drawing wasn’t between oral and written traditions of course, but it echoed in my head in ways other distinctions haven’t—literary vs. genre, mass market vs. staff-pick shelf, Sundance vs. blockbuster, etc. Those seem arbitrary, and when writers and readers evoke them, it seems to be for one of two reasons: a) to distance themselves from a book they enjoy that isn’t “canon,” and b) to associate themselves with a certain type—academic, geeky, or cheeky.

That said, there is obviously a fundamental difference in levels of prose—so fundamental that at times it seems like a difference in kind, not merely of degree. And it is, I think, a difference of prose, not subject matter. A friend once recommended a book to me by claiming “It’s one heaving bosom away from a romance novel.” But it is the bosoms or the trite descriptor “heaving” that make it ‘romance’? I think it’s most certainly the latter. (By the way, Kait—I read Outlander. How many heaving bosoms does it take, exactly?)

There are times when I read a sentence so perfectly and beautifully rendered that I read it over and over, trying to taste it, roll it this way and that and see how it’s built so I could make one like it one day. Like a complicated melody, made by instruments I know, in ways I never considered.

Like this one (a good friend’s favorite): …as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusia girls used or shall I wear red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

          Ulysses, James Joyce

 Or this, very different, one: “And then my vision fell upon seven tall candles upon a table. At first they wore an aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels that would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fiber in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angelic forms became meaningless specters, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.”

        “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Edgar Allan Poe

What degree of mastery would one have to attain to write something like that? Beautiful, even out of context.

There are times when I read a sentence that is broken in some fundamental but inexplicable way. And I
read it over and over, trying to categorize the mistake so I can avoid it completely one day.

Like this one: “Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.”

        Deception Point, Dan Brown

 What the fuck does that mean? Please, for the love of god, don’t make me picture this.

Then there are times when I read, and I see no words. There is no lapse between image created and image in my mind. The intermediary of words on paper disappears, and I’m experiencing something other and outside–like magic. These passages (They cease to be sentences–I no longer pay heed to soft or hard stops and see only the next image, moment, feeling.) come fewer and farther between than they used too–than before I made words the subject of my most intense study. A magician becomes fooled less and less the more tricks he knows, I suppose.

 But here’s one: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the  gunslinger followed.”
            The Gunslinger, Stephen King

And this: “I realized that the canal I’d seen must run directly beneath this peculiar sunken downtown, and I was standing on top of it. I could feel hidden water in my feet, thrumming the sidewalk. It was a vaguely unpleasant feeling, as if this little piece of the world had gone soft.”
        11/22/63, Stephen King

Not all of King’s sentences create that level of telepathy in me, and some are absolutely clunky and few of them are truly beautiful, but very few stand in the way of themselves. I think—I hope—that my prose doesn’t get into its own way. Because, if I’m honest, my story is more important to me than my words. And maybe—just maybe—I can make a beautiful sentence now and again.

Someday, if some smartie nerds stand around with cheap beer and debate over what shelf my books should be on, whether or not my book is ‘one blood splatter away from a thriller,’ or whether or not I’m a ‘good writer’ or just ‘a good storyteller,’ well, that would be pretty freaking sweet.


4 Responses to “Storytellers vs. Writers”

  1. 911visa August 10, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Amazing article thanks for sharing.

  2. Sharon Thrash August 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    “There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”
    ― Stephen King

  3. Beka August 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    “The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” -Stephen King, “The Body”

    Emily, I make no apologies.

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