Monthly Archives: July 2010

Storyteller vs. Writer

I was asked a good question this weekend while attending a conference: Can you be a professional writer, but not a storyteller (or an “artist”)?

As my previous post suggested, I am not sure everyone is a storyteller or “artist” waiting to be inspired by the right teacher. There are definitely those instances when a great talent is nurtured and released through dialogue with a mentor. I cannot predict which people those will be, so I hope to always give students and seminar attendees an equal opportunity to find inspiration.

But, can one be a professional writer without the gifts of a storyteller?

Absolutely!

I know several journalists who are great researchers and interviewers. They are good writers because they have discovered structures for reporting. These journalists follow “templates” common in their particular fields. Sports stories, business reporting, and other specialties have common structures that can be learned. This is similar to learning to write academic papers.

Many forms of professional writing can be mastered through practice. From business proposals to grant writing, there are known guidelines. The basics of business and academic writing are teachable, if someone wants to learn.

The divide between storytellers and good writers does exist in non-fiction forms of writing. There are historians who write books that read like great novels, except they are research-based works. One of my favorite writers is Malcolm Gladwell, who writes captivating non-fiction works on psychology and human nature. Without question, being a storyteller helps communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

Writing is a skill that opens numerous opportunities. Many careers that produce writing rely on other skills and talents; writing is the way knowledge is shared in these fields.

As I have admitted previously, I’m not a literary fiction reader or writer, so I’m not privileging “art” over craft. If anything, I want people to appreciate how valuable the skills are and that anyone dedicated to improving his or writing can do so.

Craft Skills vs. Artistic Talent

This is likely to be a paired blog entry, as I am certain Susan will have something to say on the matter.

I strongly believe that almost anyone can be taught a skill — which is not the same as being taught an art. Given enough practice, most of us can master anything we are physically capable of doing. Malcolm Gladwell, science and psychology writer for the New Yorker, has found many experts agree that the “magic number” is roughly 10,000 hours of practice to be among the best at any particular skill, from playing a musical instrument to programming computers.

However, a skill is not an art. Every artist, regardless of innate talents, has to practice the craft aspects of his or her medium. Art depends on craft.

I’ve met gifted painters who can “forge” classic works. They have painted for 10,000 hours and can recreate almost any image in any major style. But, only a few of these artists can create something original, a work that stands alone. I have no idea why this is, but the world needs craft as much as original art.

Susan read a research article that concluded most people can be taught to sing. I have no reason to doubt that most of us with average hearing can be trained to adjust our voices, compensating for the differences between what we hear and what others hear when we sing. Yet, there is a difference between those who sing and those who manage to interpret songs in new ways.

This is not to dismiss craftwork, which is the expert recreation of a work. What I am suggesting is that being a great technical painter or singer is not the same as being an artist. Creating something is key to art, in my opinion. Duplication, generally, is not creative.

There is a magical line that separates creativity from skill mastery. Since few of us ever take the time to master something, and I do mean truly master, the expert musician leaves us in awe. Yet, it is the composer who stands apart from others in my mind. The composer is probably a “good” musician, with something extra. He or she might not be the absolute best musician, but is good enough to envision new possibilities. That imagination gives rise to art.

The craft of writing should not be confused with the art of writing.

When we teach writing, we can teach the craft and nurture the art. We can hope that students develop into master writers, able to compose specific genres in the classroom, workplace, or daily life that are necessary to success.

Art is beyond craft. We can and must nurture art, which means identifying the creative writers among students and giving them an environment that is both challenging and inspiring. Nurturing art includes the practice of skills, since you cannot fully articulate the creative without mastery of the skills.

Today I heard a teacher repeat the old standby, “Everyone has a story to tell.” Yes, but not everyone can tell that story in an interesting, entertaining, and artistic manner. It’s not enough to accurately write your story in technically correct grammar. There is more to being a writer than knowing grammar and mechanics. I know many writers who require editors; this implies the skill of writing is less essential to being a writer than some people might assume.

Most of us experience the difference of craft vs. art among our friends. We all have those friends who can turn a routine trip to the bank or department of motor vehicles into an uproariously funny tale. These are “storytellers” who simply know how to captivate an audience. Another friend might tell more accurate stories, reporting on events like a journalist. Another friend might speak in rigidly proper English, carefully avoiding the slightest grammar faux pas. But, most of us prefer to hear the storyteller.

I could have five students write the exact same story from a provided outline and yet the odds are one would stand apart. All five might have exceptional form. There might not be a single spelling error in any of texts. Most of my students would write “A” papers by any technical metric. Yet, someone will compose a better story.

Maybe everyone has a story, but some people need assistance, or at least guidance, to make the story interesting.

I hope every student becomes a good writer, technically. That technical mastery alone is not enough to be considered an artist. An artist studies compulsively, then mixes and merges the technical aspects of previous masters to become something new. What I hope is that we encourage students to explore, so everyone has an opportunity to discover if he or she is an artist. We must not assume to know who is or is not destined to be an artist.

- Scott