I want to be a writer, and I want to tell stories.
It takes a little arrogance to tell a story. To be a storyteller is to do what philosophers try and fail to do, only on a smaller scale, granting the author objective, omnipotent understanding of how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together irrespective of personal bias and limitation, and according the rules of the universe she creates. To be a storyteller is to be a demigod, creating a universe in which all is knowable to the author, even if it isn’t shared through the characters or even the narrator. To assume that people will want to enter into your world, a world born of your own mind or filtered through it is bold, to say the least, and even to engage in that created world on your own (assuming no prospective readers) feels a bit narcissistic, as if the world inside your mind deserves such attention. Even stories of true things, told or retold, show us as much about the storyteller as they do the story. No matter what the story is, it will come out of an author with residue belonging to the person doing the telling indelibly attached to it. It’s unshakeable.
In his essay on Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien explains that no two stories are exactly the same, even if they contain incredibly similar elements. It is impossible to truly copy a story, for though two versions of what seems like the same story may share common roots and even content, the shapes of those stories will be like leaves on the same tree – similar, connected, yet ultimately unique. You can’t help but be original, no matter if you try to or not. The unique filter of you will leave its mark on the stories you tell.
And that terrifies me.
A story you write exposes you – I mean to say, it doesn’t just show your story off to the world, it shows who you are at your core, the subtle inarticulable things that make you unique that can only be shown aesthetically in unquantifiable ways. The turn of phrase. The rules you choose to break. Word choice. Narrative structure. Things which, if you’re any good, remain hidden to an audience even as they can’t help but absorb the unshakeable “you”ness that remains attached.
It’s also a powerful thing, if you’re successful at all. To tell a story is to guide a person’s consciousness to specific experiences and feelings (even if it’s just your own). It’s to command attention away from what is physically happening around us. You can often tell if a story is good or bad by judging how well it pulled you in when you were receptive. You can’t blame a story if you’re a distracted reader, of course, but if it is the story itself that is distracting you, or reminding you that what is in front of you is just a story, then the story has failed.
There are exceptions to this when calling attention to the act of listening or watching or reading is intentionally done – as when actors break the fourth wall, or when artists break convention – but then, in these cases the point is usually larger than the story itself, venturing into the “real” reality and out of the realm of “story” entirely. I think when that happens, the writing or telling is a vehicle for some other kind of communication between authors or artists and their audiences, rather than story telling per se. It’s bold in its own way, and also important, but it isn’t really the focus here.
The goal in story telling is to envelop either the self or some other person into a controlled consciousness. To break this by failing to keep safe the boundaries of the story is to fail outright. It is uncomfortable to experience as an audience member. We want to be swept away. There’s responsibility here that is inescapable. In addition to the arrogance that is required to chase this sort of power, there is also a responsibility to guide your narrative in a way that is gratifying; to tell a story is to say: “I have created this world and it is wonderful – give me your time, and in return I will fill your head with something more worthwhile than what is presently around you.”
With that being said, and with my terror firmly in place, I still want to write stories, to create miniature worlds out of words, and hopefully, pull readers into those worlds and drown out their other thoughts. I hope I can do this, and I hope I can make it worth a reader’s time. And most of all, I hope to be able to write in a way that is respectful of the gift that a reader gives – the gift of present attention – and in a way that shows gratitude for such a gift, and treats it with care.
I have a lot to learn as a writer, but that, at least, is my goal.