The Writer and the Storyteller
by Katherine Catmull
Maybe it’s obvious to you that everyone knows how to tell stories, but it was not obvious to me.
I’m not talking about writing. I love writing, I love putting words together next to each other. All my life, if left alone in a restaurant or bar, I would pull out a notebook or any scrap of paper I could find, and write.
But writing’s not the same as making stories, not the same as the What Happens of it all.
From what I can tell, some writers draft merrily away, writing thousands of words a day (sob). Maybe for these writers it’s revision that’s agony; I can only hope. (Revising is where I come alive; revising I can get lost in for hours upon hours.)
But some of us face drafting like a small child faces a doctor with a syringe. Nothing worse could happen. I will do dishes, I will exercise, I will fall asleep at my desk, even, before I will draft.
For the first 18 months of working on my first book (which just came out this month), I thought I couldn’t write story at all. I was already in my 40s, and I’d been telling myself I couldn’t make stories since I was a teenager, which is a lot of telling. (Why, given that, I decided to write a novel, is a very good question.)
So instead I’d been shaping the narrative voice, and getting to know the characters, and creating the world. In doing that, I’d made a string of scenes I liked. But I had no idea where it was all going. I was stalled.
Then by chance I took a workshop with the playwright Steven Dietz, who spoke with cheerful annoyance of his grad students who said, “I can do characters and dialogue, but I don’t know how to do plot or story. I'm bad at that."
This was exactly what I'd been saying, of course. But Dietz's position was that everyone knows what makes a good story, that that we’ve been telling stories and judging other people’s stories every day since we could talk. He led us through some brisk simple exercises to prove it.
This was a revelation. This was stunning. He was right—I judge stories every day, whether it's a friend telling me about what happened on her vacation (internally: "SKIP the part about whether that was Aunt Susan or Aunt Eleanor, I don't KNOW THEM, get to the part with the food fight!"), or a bad TV show ("good lord this is so predictable"), or a book I'm putting down, or a book I can't put down. I know instantly whether a story is good or bad.
All I needed to know, I guess, was that I already knew, if that makes any sense. That workshop pulled me from bogged down in the first third of my book to finished draft in six months.
In the process, what I came to understand was that my writer and my storyteller are quite different creatures.
My storyteller is childish, passionate, decided, stubborn, impulsive, and anxious. She is a decent story creator, but a horrible writer. When I write out initial story thoughts, it sounds exactly like a seven year old describing a movie she’s just seen: all present tense, strung together with “ands” and indeterminate pronouns. “And so then she hears her coming up the stairs, and she hears the voice saying ‘I will kill you!’ And so then she, the bad one, she says ‘no you won’t! because I have—‘ oh she has this magic cup! I forgot to say. And she takes the cup and fills it up with that stuff she had before? and she sneaks into the room— “ etc etc. Literally, that is how my plotting comes out, I am not kidding.
My writer, in contrast (in contrast! I swear!) is nuanced (I hope), sophisticated (at least in contrast), thoughtful; she likes to open up possibilities and unfold ideas and add texture. And while sometimes my storyteller will come up with some striking imagery--the way a child sometimes can—most of the writing gets done by the writer.
But that little seven-year-old storyteller is difficult, I can’t even begin to tell you. She does not want to. Although maybe it’s better to say: whoever is running things inside my head does not want to let her be in charge.
Either way, knowing that it’s a child I’m dealing with has changed the way I come to drafting. I kinder to myself, more coaxing, trying to find a mixture of firm hand and gentle encouragement—as opposed to my old method of “You will sit down right this second and you will be creative.”
At least I know I’m not alone. Philip Pullman, one of my idols, recently wrote of his upcoming collection of retold fairy tales, “An enormous relief and pleasure . . . comes over the writer who realises that it's not necessary to invent: the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.”
But if we’re not retelling old tales, we have to draft. We have to make a story. Malinda Lo, who seems like a writer after my own heart, said this quite beautifully in her blog post, On Writing the First Draft: “I could compare writing a novel to sculpting a piece of art, and there are some similarities I’m sure, but there is one main difference. With sculpting, you can acquire the clay that you’re sculpting by buying it. With writing, you have to make the clay first.”
If you’re a writer like me and Malinda and Philip for whom drafting is neither the pleasantest not the easiest part of the process, have faith: you know how to tell the story. And be kind to that difficult, rebellious little storymaker inside you. She’s making the clay, she’s laying down the chords, she’s giving your writer the material your need to do your work.
Available now from Dutton Juvenile (Penguin)
One of BOOKLIST's 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth.
BOOKLIST (starred review): "Catmull's stunning debut unleashes a fierce imagination to build a wholly original world, rich with the familiar shimmer of folklore and drawn with the elegance of a Russian ballet. . . . As a piece of fantasy, this atmospheric adventure thrills with complex storytelling, carefully threaded with bits of foreshadowing and overflowing with poignant imagery. But lurking beneath the girls' parallel journeys and heartbreaking reconciliation is an allegorical exploration of family, where the obscure difficulties and rewards of sibling loyalty and parental devotion become painfully, startlingly clear."
KIRKUS (starred review): "A haunting fable inflected with mythological and fairy-tale motifs . . . meticulous, symbol-rich narrative with a light, storyteller's voice . . languorously beautiful."