storytellers: born, or built?

Rachel commented on yesterday’s post:

Now, I always think of these things: but what happened to the first person ever to write a fiction novel? I know it’s a bit much, but you say that you have to read a lot of a genre to write that same genre. It seems unfair. What happens if you wanna write something completely different? And wouldn’t you be scared of “stealing” ideas?

There are still a few societies in the world where the spoken word is dominant, as it was in all of Europe until the 1700s (or later, depending on the nature of any given community). In those older European communities storytelling was just as important as it is now. This is as close to a universal truth as you can get. Storytelling is the way cultural goods are passed on, how we teach children about the world and our expectations and hopes. Byatt wrote in an essay (which I can’t find right now) that people need storytelling to function, that it’s as important as shelter and food.

So in a society that has no written language, stories get passed along verbally. Parents tell children stories, merchants who come back from a long trip are surrounded by people who want to hear about what is going on in the world. Someone who is especially good at storytelling will have a following. If old Margaret is sitting by the fire knitting, adults and children will drift in and she’ll start talking. She might tell a story from the community’s mythology or a fable, she might recount the day her neighbor, a greedy sort, got his head stuck in the milk bucket. Her audience reflects back to her how she’s doing by gasping or laughing or yawning.

The children are listening. It’s an apprenticeship. They will hear dozens of stories every day, short and long. Some of them will start when I was a girl or back in the days of before the great fire or now that reminds me of McNulty’s son James on his wedding day….

Children listen and learn how to tell a story. They learn about holding back surprises, about the importance of detail, about the narrative arc. They don’t know they’re learning these things, but they are. They will tell stories to each other, practicing, and give each other feedback in quite abrupt ways. Some will grow up to be excellent storytellers and some will never master the fine points, but they will all tell stories. The few with real talent might make a reputation for themselves that goes far beyond the small community where they live.

Writing a novel is a much more complex process, but there are many similarities. There are skills involved that you can only absorb and master by reading like a writer and then writing — in that order. I can tell you about the narrative arc, but you won’t really understand that idea until you’ve read closely — as someone interested in the mechanics of the process. This is the way many skills are passed on. A carpenter looks at a window casing differently than I do, for example. A painter looks at a painting and wonders how the artist got that particular effect. On the way home she thinks about how it might have been done, and she looks forward to trying it herself.

Francine Prose (a favorite author of mine) has a great book out on this whole topic. She provides excellent arguments for the importance of close reading if you want to write. Certainly it’s a far more comprehensive treatment than this little post of mine.

So you do have to read, and you have to read a lot. There’s no shortcut around it. Some people will pick up the skills more easily; some will be innovative in ways that catch on. Is that unfair? Fair isn’t really a word that applies here, it seems to me. Some people have an intrinsic talent for storytelling, the way others are able to solve complex abstract mathematical problems. That’s the luck of the draw. What the Mathematician can do without much thought I can’t do at all, and he’d say the same thing about me.

Finally, on stealing ideas:

Every story has already been told and retold, and will be retold in the future. Some people claim that there are only seven basic plots. I had a look at that idea here.

Does this mean that all authors are stealing? Hardly. If I lift whole paragraphs from another writer, that’s stealing. If a story I read twenty years ago suddenly gives me an idea for a book of my own, that’s not stealing — but if I copy the book in the hope that no one make the connection, that is most definitely stealing. You can’t copyright a plot. If you could, there would be very few new novels published in any given year. The trick is to make the plot your own. It’s the author’s voice that makes a novel unique.