Wednesday, May 15, 2013

writers vs. storytellers

Yesterday, while on the bus, I happened to be sitting beside a woman with an e-reader, and in typical fashion, taking advantage of my creepy reflective aviators, I read several pages of her book with her. It seemed to be a drama revolving around politics, and some of it went something like this:

"Rachel was definitely nervous now."

"He ran across the street really quickly."

"They both gasped at the same time and you could even see that his palms were getting sweaty."

This reminded me of a recent book I read which included lines like:

"There were fancy dishes on the table and you could take anything you wanted."


"She remembered her sister back home and became sadder."

The turbo-dork inside me shuddered with each of these lines.  I mean, Rachel was definitely nervous now? How do we know that? Was she unsure of her nervousness before? Was she only sweating ever so mildly prior to this moment of clarity? And then he ran across the street...quickly? Do you mean he jogged? Did he sprint? Why would you settle on the most basic of adverbs to describe his running when you could explain what triggered his pace in one word, instead? Then they both gasped at the same time, and suddenly a third person (YOU) appeared with the ability to see the condition of his palms. This happens all the time, apparently. 

And as for the aforementioned book I read recently, I was told it was "a really, really good read", and after reading it, I was:

Here's the thing: both of the authors are "best-selling authors". Both books are likely flying off the shelves, or are at least worthy of being recommended to e-readers. One of the books even has a movie made after it.  But oh my God, the books are so badly written.  So why are they so popular? I think it's all in the storytelling.  A good storyteller captures his audience with a sequence of exciting, gripping events, all presented with fluidity of narrative motion and a sort of fast-paced thought-process that makes you feel like you're basically watching a movie made of words. A good storyteller can tell you what happened NOW, and what happened NEXT, and how that ended.  A good storyteller doesn't have time to focus on the little aesthetic details, unless they relate directly to the story and help move things along. A storyteller, however, is not (always) a writer.

A writer is someone for whom the words are a craft, not a means to a transmission of an event.  A writer molds the words, keeping in mind their texture, shape, smell, and all those other pretentious things bearded people discuss at coffee houses. A writer is an observer, an analyzer, and the person for whom it's all in the details. For writers, stories are kept in vaults until all the right words are found, and the Rubik's cube aligns to precisely capture every idea in its absolute purest, yet most saturated form.  Each word waits to be tailored like a suit, each sentence is revised until it's able to say its absolute capacity with just one little breath, and each chapter of a writer's book contains the writer's uttermost potential (hopefully). 

Some books are meant to be fast reads, and that's because they transmit very simple action-like messages that make us feel not only like we've watched a paper-movie, but also make us feel accomplished for, well, reading a book.  I'd attribute a lot of the success of these best sellers to that exactly: the opportunity for me to say I read a book, without actually having had to absorb the words too much as long as I got that in Chapter One Betty found a sword, and in Chapters Two to Eleven, she killed a man and then grew a set of wings and died. I got the story, I've moved on, I've crossed the book off my checklist. Next.
Fast food, fast books.

Although, there are some really great novels out there that fall into the 'fast read' category, so I don't want to be a hater about anything that isn't Dostoevsky.  I don't mean to say that this type of novel is unnecessary or "bad", but rather that I personally believe there is a real distinction between writing to tell a story and writing because you're a writer.

And, actually, I sometimes prefer the 'fast read' to a 'better-crafted' book, simply because I have a really hard time focusing on a story, though I could really use a beach read, for example.  I have a stack of books by my bed that I've been waiting to read for years, two of which are:

The first one I've been putting off reading because it's just too.damn.hard to comprehend, and I keep losing my train of thought while I'm reading it because it's super hardcore French, and the second one has been an exercise in meditation because I've been getting off track imagining every paragraph that describes a certain situation.  So there, the secret's out: I don't read a lot, mainly because I devote a lot of attention to the books that I read, and can't often find enough time to sit down and have a good ol' focus sesh.

And as for what type of person I think I am: I think of myself as someone who always sort of drunkenly weaves in between these two types. I try to make every word I write feel special, but you just never know what'll turn out.  It's kinda like a potato.

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