Habits and Techniques of Writers: Storytelling
Appreciation of the art of storytelling.
This may not be a characteristic of all writers, but I think that it is probably true of most, whether they write fiction or nonfiction.
Certainly the best nonfiction writers are experts at using anecdote and other elements of storytelling to say what they want to say. There’s a good reason for that: people love stories (and they have ever since they were hardly even people at all yet, hunched by campfires, clothed in animal skins).
They listen more carefully, they enjoy listening, and they understand and remember things better when writers use stories to capture their attention and feed their imagination, to illustrate the concepts they’re expressing.
In many ways our culture is not a very friendly one for storytellers. “You’ve already told me that,” my kids used to say when I would begin to launch into one of my favorite family stories or—as one of my sons has correctly pointed out—sometimes merely anecdotes. I had to actively teach them that having heard something once before is no reason not to hear it again, especially when it comes to a good story. Good stories bear telling and retelling, often, a fact that was understood by most people in most cultures throughout human history until relatively recently, but seems to be slipping away for us.
For storytelling is not about conveying information. Storytelling is about the joy of entering a world created by the storyteller, a world that can be entered as many times as the story is told well. It is about conveying nuances of character, repeating delightful turns of phrase, recounting surprising turns of events in such a way that they can feel almost surprising all over again, each and every time you hear them. Storytelling is about coming once again to your favorite part and experiencing the pleasure of having it make you smile, or laugh, or sigh, or nod, all over again, in recognition of the deep truths that lie within the tale.
It doesn’t take very much to tell a good story. All you need is an engaged and engaging storyteller, a receptive listener, and a belief that appreciating life in all its splendor, as well as in all of its quirky details, is worth the investment of a little time. A little time spent listening.
Similarly, I believe that every person’s life story is worth telling. I believe that you don’t have to have had an unusual life, or to be particularly accomplished in any way in order to have a story worth telling. You just have to know how to open your heart and tell your listeners—or readers—who you are. What you think is funny. What you like, admire, detest or despise, about the people you know. How the world seems to you. What it has been like to be watching the human parade through your eyes.
That’s really all it takes.
I call it “writing from the heart.” And believing in the value of writing from the heart works wonders. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. In the spring of 2011, the first Writing from the Heart (in the Heart of Maryland) will be offered.