We all love the thrill of discovering a good story, whether it’s told in words, pictures or sound. If it makes us laugh or cry or wonder, we’re drawn in. Perhaps as a species we’ve simply been hardwired for story from our earliest nights, gathered around a fire under billions of stars shining light on our dreams.
Call them stories, folktales or myths, they can be universal and at the same time offer a particular meaning for each listener or reader. Did our ancestors ascribe mystical powers to the creators of stories, to those who seemed to connect the tribe with their deities through stories? Was the shaman a guide or an interpreter or a creator? I can make a case – a story – for any of these.
Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember but the story.
— TIM O’BRIEN, novelist
In today’s world, we still assign power to the ability to write. Good or bad, positive or negative, a writer can often reveal what the reader is thinking, or wishes to believe, by tapping into the chaos of her own thoughts and emotions. By bringing order in committing them to paper or screen, the writer shares with the audience, inspiring and connecting.
As a schoolgirl, I wrote creative stories or reports and essays for classes, although I didn’t know it was something I needed to do until my first year of college. Three thousand miles away from my sheltered home environment, I discovered all the feminist literature. As fast as I could inhale, I read – Betty Friedan, Virginia Woolf, Kate Millett, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Mary Wollstonecraft – and was dazed by the power of thoughts expressed in words. Dazzled and confused.
I knew that writing like that was what I wanted to do, but didn’t know how or where to start. Then I got sidetracked and didn’t return to writing for a long time. I needed life experience to know enough to face the power intertwined with the craft, even if I still didn’t know where to begin.
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.
Where does this ability come from? How does one learn to harness the words and tie them to feeling to create a story? The answers are as basic as ABCs: teachers, experience, practice – and reading. More than any other way, I learned to write by reading. Not everyone has that opportunity and I’m grateful to have started to read at an early age.
My bookshelves hold a range of styles and genres, favorites that I’ve re-read and stacks of to-be-read books. I probably learned best, though, from two (mostly) non-fiction writers in love with words, both using writing as a way to rage against the injustices in their worldview. And I learned a bit about entrapping a reader from two more who mastered the art and craft of making a story compelling, by creating characters I’ve never forgotten.
Harlan Ellison is known for his speculative fiction and fantasy, but it’s the introductions to his books (often as long as the rest) along with his collected essays on modern life that intrigue me. Combative and cantakerous, his writing is stunning.
Robert Hughes, critic of art and culture, offers a range of publications and television presentations that echo his expertise. Combative and cantankerous (there’s a pattern here) his facility with language astonishes me no matter how often I encounter it.
Dorothy L. Sayers invented a wonderfully flawed gentleman detective, grew attached to her character and fashioned the fictional love of his life after herself. Proudly different, never hiding her intellect, she wrote stories as background for deep thoughts about life and love, and any of us who read them fell in love with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, too.
Dorothy Dunnett’s most memorable books are detailed medieval sagas that sweep across multiple volumes, fictional kingdoms based on massive research. She was a unique writer with a fiercely dedicated following because she pulls you into a centuries-old world with characters that will stay with you forever.
Perhaps I’m drawn to these writers because their dazzling intelligence is deployed on their pages and because they love language – and all four of them use a lot of words. I’m typically verbose too and, like them, enjoy the wordplay. Alliteration, metaphor, enough descriptive language to challenge the reader.
A professor in one of my English classes called me out on that. He said, “You’re smart enough to know how to use words and you’re too in love with what you come up with. Cut it back and just tell the story.” Either no one else had been brave enough, or simply hadn’t bothered, to say that before. Or perhaps I was finally ready to hear it, so the teacher appeared.