Monday, August 30, 2010

On Being a Good Storyteller – Luck and Perseverance? Instinct? Gift? Or Skill?

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?


  1. This question has plagued me at times... And here's what I think. I think great storytelling is an intrinsic talent, like a good singing voice, but you must hone that talent through practice and that you should (must?) have a passion for it. (Hmmm... There's a question. Can a person with an intrisic talent for storytelling tell a GREAT story without having a personal passion for writing? But I digress... lol)

    And... I also think writing a compelling story is a craft that can be learned, again through practice (and with the application of personal passion, perseverance, and some good luck).

    Oh, and reading. Definitely. Reading, and reading A LOT, enhances the inner ear for a good story.

  2. Reading, of course. To get a sense of language and structure.
    Yes, passion! I forgot passion!
    Thanks, for that insight, Lena.
    And in answer to your question, I don't think you can tell a great story without it. The teller infuses his or herself into the story. Soul becomes voice becomes words.

  3. Nice post. And a great question. I see a lot of students' manuscripts and those writers who have 'the gift' are obvious. I think one has to have an intrinsic ability to put the best words together in the best order, as Coleridge said. Is that a gift? Not necessarily. I think one has to have an ear for language, rhythm, rhyme, etc., like a dancer has to have an instinct for timing. I think it makes it easier. But I also think one can learn craft and hone their work into a strong story. So yes, you can be a good storyteller without having the gift. Great storyteller? Maybe not.

    As for passion, absolutely. I've seen writers with the gift, but with no passion to use it. I can't tell you how sad it is to see that.

    As for luck, we all need that. :)

  4. Andrea, you bring up a good point regarding having "an ear for language." Occasionally I'll read a passage and it's like listening to a beautifully constructed symphony. A well-written passage isn't just the most accurate words strung together to convey a message, but the best words that also instill tone and voice, rhythm and rhyme. They must transmit harmony and consonance when desired, but also assonance and disharmony when appropriate.

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