Two things; Growing up I hated the act of writing. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I loved the act of telling a story. Some say they are one and the same. They are not. I present to you my reasoning:
In order to write a story, you must have a story to tell and the means to tell it (type writer, computer, paper, tissue, yellow sticky notes, etc …). In order to tell a story all you need is the story, a mouth and oxygen. A captive audience helps in both instances, but you don’t need to be able to write in order to tell a story, even a bad one.
As a kid, I hated the act of writing. It wasn’t so much I hated writing, as a whole, but the fact that at least four times a school year I had to do term papers (like all other kids at my school and probably in countless schools around the state and country). Being forced to write on subjects I didn’t care about soured me on the whole writing ‘thing.’
Only once, in seventh grade, did I actually enjoy writing papers. That was in Mr. Hayes’s English class. Mr. Hayes wasn’t all that old at the time, maybe my age now (mid-forties). Thinking on it now, he reminds me of Rowan Atkinson from the British comedy, Mr. Bean, that aired in the nineties and ran for all of fifteen episodes. He was short and wore brown pants quite often and button down shirts. The one outfit I remember distinctly was the brown pants and the light yellow button down. He wore black rimmed glasses and his dark black hair was thinning.
He may have been a precursor to Mr. Bean as I know him, but he was a good teacher, and the only one who even remotely got me to enjoy the mandatory writing assignments we had to do. Let me see if I can explain this:
Each week he passed out cue cards. They were nothing more than half a sheet of laminated paper with story prompts on them. He would start at the head of each row of students, count out the cards and hand it to the first person on the row. That person would take a card and then pass them to the next person, who would do the same thing. He did this with each row until everyone in the room had a cue card. All the prompts on the cards were different. (If you ended up with a prompt you had already done, then you just raised your hand and he would give you a different one.)
The goal on each Monday was to write a story that was no less than two paragraphs short and no more than a page long. At the end of class, we turned our papers in with only the date and the prompt number on it. That is right, we didn’t put our names on it (at least not until we received the stories back on Friday). The next day Mr. Hayes passed out the stories and the students read them out loud in class. If you got your own story, you still read it. On Friday, he passed the papers back out, but before he did that, he polled the students to see who they thought wrote each story. That was fun and funny, in and of itself, especially given the reaction of the students. Then he called out the numbers of each paper and the authors raised their hands and received their paper back.
We did this the entire year. And I enjoyed it. At the end of the year, we were allowed to take our papers home. Like I said, it was the only time while I was in school that I enjoyed the act of writing. I still have those stories. Well, most of them.
Other than that, I hated writing. I loathed the thought of writing term papers and researching encyclopedias and books with, at best, vague information. With the exception of Mr. Hayes’s seventh grade English class, I did no creative writing the rest of my school career. Not like I did that year.
On the polar opposite side of hate, I enjoyed telling stories. The act of verbalizing a story to someone or a bunch of people thrilled me. I could see their faces and I knew immediately if they were into the story or not. I could be animated, wave my hands like a maniac, run around the room, make noises and faces and sit down and squat and gyrate my hips if I wanted to. I could be quite the clown. The only thing that confined me from telling a good story is the lack of knowledge about some things, but I didn’t tend to tell stories that I had not either experienced or seen first hand.
If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you have probably seen me mention my grandfather and his made story telling skills. He captivated people with his voice, with the inflection in it, with the way he smiled and the gestures he made. He was always in control and every time he told a story, I was on the edge of my seat, rapt with interest. I watched how he moved, his facial expressions, everything about him. Then I tried to tell stories like him.
I have failed miserably.
No one can tell a story the way he did. Well, maybe Morgan Freeman, but that’s it. No one else.
Here, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road: before I ever began writing, I could tell a story. I had a good teacher. My grandfather passed away before I really took to writing. He never got to see me get a story published. He never got to hold one of my books in his hands.
I said all of that because I believe in order to be a good writer you have to be a good storyteller first. I tell you all of that because I believe there is no right or wrong way to write. Sure, there is a way to write, but the act of writing a story is the same as creating a painting or sculpting a statue or any other creative endeavor: for the most part it is personal and solitary, and each person has their ideas on what works and what doesn’t work.
As I mentioned a second ago, telling a story is personal, even if the story itself is not. A writer gives you part of him or herself when they put something out there. It is terrifying. It can be an ego crush. But it can also be exhilarating. Getting a story published is like a drug, and the high is high and the come down from it is difficult. It is addicting. And there is nothing like it.
I’ve done a lot of thinking lately, and the conclusion I have come to is simple and not even remotely close to an epiphany. In order to be a good—no, a great!—writer, you must enjoy what you are doing. When I was a kid, I hated writing. I did not enjoy it at all. So, I did it as little as possible.
When I got older, I started enjoying it. I can’t explain why that happened, but it did. And that is a wonderful thing. I think it is much like the way my grandfather enjoyed telling stories. I think that is why he was so good at it.
If I would have had a chance to ask him what I needed to do to be a good writer, he would probably say, tell a good story. That, Faithful Readers, is what it is all about. And that is why I work so hard to tell you great stories—I have big shoes to fill. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.