Arts/Literature

Why do you want to be a storyteller?

“Why do you want to be a storyteller?” I asked my freshmen.

It was the second time I had asked. The first time had been on the second day of class, an eternity earlier, during the last week of August.

Then, most of them looked at me quizzically. A couple of them looked downright bored. They weren’t here to be storytellers, they told me; they were here to be journalists and public relations executives and television reporters and magazine writers.

“That’s not storytelling?” I asked.

Storytellers come from an ancient tradition—and when I say ancient, I mean really ancient. Prehistoric. Picture two cavemen, Oog and Loog, sitting around the fire at the end of the day. They didn’t have language yet, but Loog still wanted to know where Oog had come up with the delicious mastodon steak they were chewing on for dinner. Oog had to act out the story of the day’s hunt.

Theater sprang from this storytelling tradition. Believe it or not, so did journalism. After all, as Oog acted out his tale of the hunt, wasn’t he providing a recap of the day’s big event? There’s a reason we refer to pieces of news as news “stories.”

When my freshmen heard the word “stories,” though, most of them, of course, thought of fiction—made-up stories by novelists or short-story writers.

As it happens, I’ve been writing a lot of fiction lately, which is something I’ve not really done since graduate school fifteen years ago. But as a kid, I got my start as a writer writing stories. I wrote creepy tales of goblins and aliens, and I tried to give everything a Twilight Zone-like twist at the end. None of it was any good, I don’t think, but it was thrilling. Writing stories invigorated me, energized me, excited me!

And it kept me writing.

I gave up fiction for journalism and playwriting and, most recently, history writing. With history, the story has already happened, and the challenge rests in finding a new way to tell it. But good stories never grow old, no matter how long ago they took place. It just becomes a matter of finding the right words to tell them.

Telling stories is a gift—and it’s not just the gift storytellers have for spinning their tales. Telling a story is giving a gift. It’s a way of sharing ideas, information, emotions, perspectives. Good storytellers put a piece of themselves into their stories, so that’s something they share, too.

Such effort can be hard and, frequently, thankless. I think about my colleagues still working in the news business who have to crank out thousands of words a day under deadline. They have to conduct interviews and do research. They have to search for information and dig and follow dead-ends. They have to make sense from chaos—and not only make it readable but also relevant to their readers.

Newspaper reporters have one set of tools they get to use; television reporters have another set of tools; radio reporters have another set of tools. You choose your field depending on how you like to tell your stories.

People who write for the internet have yet a different set of tools—and a different set of rules. The “objective” journalism of newspapers doesn’t exist for many online news sources. That doesn’t make the stories online any less important or valid. They just follow different conventions.

The same is true with, say, advertising or public relations, where the story focuses on a product or a company or a client. It’s still all storytelling.

Playwriting may be the most interesting form of storytelling I’ve done. Writing a script is an individual act of intense privacy, yet a playwright has to collaborate with a director and a cast and crew to make those words truly come to life, and it ultimately has to happen in front of an audience. So much for the privacy of the playwright’s writing den!

From August until December, I spent the semester showing my students how all these forms of writing were, in fact, forms of storytelling. On the last day, I posed to them the same question I’d posed on day two: “Why do you want to be a storyteller?”

“[B]eing a storyteller is not limited to one specific job title,” one of them wrote. “If you know how to write—that is, write well—then you can do almost anything.”

Indeed, that focus on strong writing is one of the key foundations of our entire program (the other being ethics). The world is full of lousy writers, which is why it’s important to be one of the good ones.

Another student evoked a quote I’d given them from the novelist Laurence Stern: “What a large volume of adventures my be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.”

“The particular quote changed my perspective on life,” the student wrote, “because it makes me consider that we can have many adventures in our life if we experience things with an open mind. Life is too short to not take advantage of every opportunity offered. I want my storytelling to have that type of effect on others’ lives.”

I want their storytelling to have that kind of effect, too.

A good storyteller can make a difference by teaching us things, by showing us the world in ways we’d never dreamed, by prompting us to think and feel. For those reasons, a good storyteller will always be in demand.

And there will never be a shortage of stories—past, present, and imagined. Those stories deserve to be shared. They deserve to be told.

7 replies »

  1. Thanks for this, Chris.

    Something that I’ve found is that journalism is a lot harder than fiction. The only limits to telling a story with fiction are those you impose upon yourself. Journalism, on the other hand, has predefined characters, plot, setting, and information.

    One of the things I struggle with on a regular basis is how to make science and data interesting and relevant so I can tell a good story that keeps people reading. So often the data seems to get in the way of a good story. I hope to figure it out one of these days.

  2. In the last few decades, literary fiction and journalism have begun to merge. Fiction today is expected to be grounded in a specific place — no more Anytown, USA — and that place or places is expected to play as prominent a role as a leading character.

    Furthemore, fiction is expected to provide reams of back-up material for actions and processes taking place in the book. For instance, if a leading character is a glass blower, the author has to provide a history of glassmaking and explain the whole process. Many authors, it must be said — particularly men — revel in that stuff.

    Personally, I don’t care for it, which is one reason I don’t read much literary fiction anymore. I call it the James Micherner-ization of fiction. Readers no longer have to worry that they’re “wasting” their time listening to a story when they should be reading something “useful.”

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