There are all kinds of reasons to write a book, and all kinds of people at some point, contemplate writing a book, actually sit down and write a book, or even vigorously pursue publishing a book. No doubt, then, there’s some artificiality in all attempts to say what “writers” are or are not, since those who see themselves as writers are assuredly, a diverse population of people. However, at the risk of oversimplification, there is a basic distinction that I began to make some years ago in the process of fielding various questions about my books and writing that I’d like to briefly explain here.
This distinction is what I would call the difference between a writer and a storyteller. A writer, as I think the name implies, is a person whose passion is largely directed toward the writing itself. I’ve had students who were true “writers” in this regard. Every sentence was painstakingly agonized over, if not every word, and the result was a finished product that was sheer delight to read. I’m sure you’ve met this kind of writer in your reading travels, where you suspect that it wouldn’t much matter what they wrote about, because it would be enjoyable to read no matter what.
I think that a lot of these true “writers,” as I’ve described them here, end up writing for newspapers or periodicals, or perhaps as essay or short story writers. For writers with this kind of make-up, novels are probably very laborious, because to agonize over every word of a novel is a lot of agony.
Storytellers, by contrast, put the emphasis not so much on the words in the sentence but on the story the sentences come together to tell. That is, the agony is over plot and character, conflict and resolution. Which scene to insert next? How to best structure the timeline? How much foreshadowing is sufficient & how much is too much? And so on, and so forth.
Storytellers can’t afford to agonize over every word, because the process of writing the story isn’t the payoff. The payoff is finishing the story so the story can be viewed as a whole, complete, ready to be submitted to the reading public. Furthermore, storytellers need to finish the stories they’re writing because there are more stories springing up inside them that need to be let out.
Now, thankfully, this is, as I acknowledged at the outset, an artificial distinction. Really good writers often have a fine sense of story, and good storytellers pay enough attention to the craft of writing that the words don’t frequently get in the way of the enjoyment of the story. Sometimes, even, a fine sentence or two might be turned out along the way despite the storyteller’s larger concerns.
In this framework, I must concede that I am a storyteller. I do love words. Really, I do. I have that much of the true writer within me. Poetry taught me to love the right word in the right place, and any aptness I might have for writing well owes a great deal to the study of poetry. But, at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. My love of story is even older and deeper within me than my love of words. Summer days from my childhood, curled up with book in hand, float back to me over the years, reminding me of the joy of finding myself lost in whatever book I had available, even the not so great books. To have contributed some stories to the world’s store of them, that others might get lost and tarry a while within, is a real privilege.
So, while most call me a writer – which is fine, I know what they mean – inside, I know that really, I’m a storyteller.