Storyteller or Writer–do we have to choose?

Here's what happened to me when I sat down to write the Games of Mines, the first book of Ahiram.

"Let me see, how shall I start?" I thought.

"How you will start? Oh, excusez-moi!" riled an inner voice.

"What do you mean?" I asked confused and worried.

"Well, ask yourself this question, buster: are you a writer or a story-teller?"

My initial writing stint got immediately derailed by an existential angst.  Jumping to my feet, I left my notebook behind, grabbed a pound of roasted chestnuts and headed to the nearest oak tree where Me, Myself and I could have an executive meeting to set this matter to bed. The sky was so blue it would have pleased Van Gogh, and the lazy strips of clouds high above head looked like those elongated clocks Dali was so fond of.

"So, then what are you?" asked I.

"I don't know," moaned Me.  "Why do I need a label----what does it matter?"

"It matters a lot," lectured Myself, "story-tellers and writers are not the same."

 "Hey!" I chided Myself, "easy on the chestnuts, there's enough for all three of us."

In my conception of things, a story-teller is someone who is guided by his story, whereas an author controls it. A story teller is merely recording the events as they happen; an author engineers them. A story-teller will let the story flow, being content to follow it; an author directs and redirects it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

"And what's wrong with zat?" spatted Fyodor Dostoevsky as he landed somewhat harshly on a moss-covered root next to me, scaring all three of us to death. "After all, you do not write a story with circumlocutions, meanders, and inanities of the first order, my man! A story is like a battle. It needs a general, order, structure, and a well thought-out plan to win the war! Go read my Brothers Karamazov and then come back and tell me how a story should be written!"

He took off like a rocket, which was a good thing because what was I supposed to say to one of the greatest authors of literature? After all, my problem isn't with writers; it's with me.

I did sit down and write a plan for the Age of the Seer. In fact, I divided the book into chapters, each with its own detailed synopsis. I created a 7,000 years history for the book and profiles for all the main characters. I figured out the geography of the land, and spent considerable time ensuring that all the elements, facts, clothing, technology, transportation, communication, and even food did fit within the world of Ahiram. That's the writer in me. Meanwhile, the story-teller lay in wait until the organizing, structuring and synopsis were complete, so that when my fingers landed on the keyboard and I was about to write the first word, the story-teller cuffed the writer, threw him in the backseat and took over: I closed my eyes and saw imaginary curtains lift silently, and the movie of the story began to roll----or rather stutter, because my fingers couldn't keep up with the flow of images.

As the story begins, per the writer's synopsis, the story-teller sees in that imaginary movie Baher-Ghafé, Ahiram's village. It's night and a gentle breeze sways the tree tops. So far so good, but when the fictitious camera pans to the left, I see a turbaned man clad in black keeping watch over Ahiram's house.

"Who's that guy?" asks the writer, surprised.

"He's a member of the Black Robes," replies the story-teller.

"The who?"

"They're a rogue organization fighting against the Temple of Baal."

"What?" wails the writer, "I did not write that!"

"Well, what do you want me to do?" replies the story-teller. "That guy has been watching Ahiram's house for a while now. He's been there even before you and I showed up. Oh wait, he's climbing down. Two other Black Robes are waiting for him at the foot of the tree. I'll follow them, you keep an eye on Ahiram's house."

Mr. Steinbeck -- Author of  The Grapes of Wrath

Mr. Steinbeck -- Author of The Grapes of Wrath

Surprised and intrigued, the story-teller follows the unknown character, but the writer tears his hair off because of a new sub-plot that has spontaneously come into existence. If the story-teller sees a house----any house----or a street, a plant, a dog, or a donkey (yes, even a donkey) and if he gazes at them too long, there will be another sub-tale to tell or a thread to pursue.

"Well, son," said John Steinbeck stepping from behind the oak tree, "how do you suppose I wrote "The Grapes of Wrath?" sub-plots are like weeds, you let them grow tall and they'll choke your tale."

"Chestnut, Mr. Steinbeck?" I asked.

"No thank you, son; I'm good."

Here's the thing: some of these newly discovered plots and sub-plots in Ahiram turned out to be critical to the structural integrity of the whole story, and some of the characters the writer had labeled as minor ended-up becoming major characters. Sometimes, the writer thinks that this or that happens for such and such a reason, but the story teller comes out and changes all that, uncovering reasons that are deeper and far more important than what the writer had initially thought. For instance, when the writer in me planned the Age of the Seer, he did not count on a murder to take place. When that murder happened, neither the writer nor the story-teller knew who had committed the crime or why, but as the movie rolled, it turned  far more important than either of them thought.

At other times, the sheer onslaught of images, characters, actions, cities, roads, people that were not planned or foreseen can lead the story-teller to a glut of plots and sub-plots, stories and sub-stories, where everything is meaningful and carries its own tale: a rock, a pigeon standing on top of that three-story, gray building with a squarish balcony where white, drying sheets flutter in the sun and a lonely, young girl stares blankly at the streets below... Sigh! I'm doing it again!

But if everything is meaningful, then nothing is.

That's where the mortified story-teller frees the writer and asks for his help. Without the structure, and original intent of the story, without a clear direction, it is easy to loose sight of the reader, and write only for the pleasure of hearing my fingers tap on the keyboard. 

Story-Telling is the spring from which a story wells, but authorship is the gentle hand that turns the tumultuous gush of waters into an unforgettable, steady flow for the reader. 

Story-teller and writer: I am both, professional or not.