There’s an old saw that posits, “Stick a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters for a million years and they’ll type every book in the Library of Congress.” Every book, huh? Does that include every single revision of every book? Because I’ve written about a million revisions of each of my own stories. Multiply that by the 130 million books already published and you’ve got 10e6 x 130*10e6 or about 130 trillion possible books and their revisions. (Of course, if you disregard all the ones Sarah Palin hasn't banned - they can't be that good if she thinks they're okay - then the number of good books is probably closer to 100 trillion.)
It’s got me thinking about what it takes to be a good storyteller, if maybe it’s just chance and persistence, that if you work long enough at it, a good story will eventually be produced. Because, yeah, sometimes I do feel like little more than a monkey, picking away for hours at my unworthy manuscripts. Obsessing over one particular word or phrase. Correcting misspellings. Inserting commas and colons and removing misappropriated apostrophes. And that’s not even talking about any major structural edits.
Persistence? Okay, I got that. Patience, too.
Luck... well, if it’s like flipping a coin, then there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
Okay, but what if you don’t have a million monkeys and a million typewriters and a million years to write a good book. What then? The answer to that question haunts me.
Many others before me have talked about our natural proclivity to tell stories. It’s part of our social DNA and is woven into our evolutionary fabric as human beings. But does that mean anyone can be a good storyteller? And if so, what’s keeping each one of us from doing so? Societal blinders? Self-censorship? The third grade teacher who told you lacked the skills to write a decent obituary? I don’t feel like an instinctive writer. In fact, if I had to pay for every letter I typed and retyped, I’d be in as much debt as Bill Gates is worth.
Maybe it’s a gift. Maybe you either got it or you don’t got it. Honestly, though? I don’t even want to go there. I don’t like thinking that there’s nothing I can do to control whether I can write a good story. Outside of renting a few million monkeys and typewriters, that is. No, I can accept that for some people, writing comes naturally, but I refuse to believe the rest of us are just flapping our gums in the wind.
So that leaves skill as the last resort of the determined storyteller. Well, I can deal with that. Skill is just something you acquire by dedicating yourself to becoming better at something. I once asked an old buddy of mine who had this amazing ability to run a pool table— that’s how he made his living— what it took to be a good pool player, and he told me, “Skill, simple as that.”
“Yeah, but what exactly is this thing, skill?” I asked.
“Dude, skill is nothing more than luck, perseverance and instinct. Oh, and you have to have been born with it.”
Great. Anyone know where I can rack up a million monkeys?
What do you think? What does it take to be a good storyteller?