Taking the Stage: How Storytellers Saved My Ambition to Write
As a child, my parents brought me to see storytellers.
I wasn't poor by the standards that you would probably consider poor, but I lived in whatever financial class defines families whose summer activities involve the free neighborhood pool, an occasional Jackie Chan movie from Blockbuster, and going to whatever summer events the library is holding. The storytellers were my favorite.
I say that, not remembering any of the stories in particular, nor any of the faces of the storytellers. What I do remember is being completely captured by these volunteers who brought with them no actual script or book, but rather costumes, a box of props, wide eyes, and wild gesticulations. They were a perfect merger of actor and storyteller, and they taught me a lesson as a child that I would not understand until just recently. These storytellers from decades ago saved my writing career.
My First Story, and the Wrath of 'Fight Club'
My first story came from when I played with dolls as a child.
Specifically, I played with the 12 inch classic G.I. Joes. They weren't related to the G.I. Joe comic franchise; they were representative of real military forces from around the world. I had two members of the main cast: British SAS Guy (pictured right, though not my exact doll) was usually the good guy, because he had a suppressed weapon, and James Bond movies had taught me that good guys used suppressed weapons; and Desert Storm Special Forces Guy, who was a newer model with more defined facial features that gave him shifty eyes. He was the bad guy. Sometimes, his name was even Tyler, when it came up in my impromptu dialogue.
I don't know how most people play with dolls, but I rehearsed the same story over and over, first building on it to have a beginning, middle, and end, and then refining the in-between scenes. Each playthrough made the story cleaner, and I even added a soundtrack from Blue Man Group's first album, as it had a theme that was shared across several songs and became increasingly heavier, which was perfect for cinematic buildup. A usual run of the story lasted between one and two hours.
I thought myself especially clever for my ending, which was inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Desert Storm Guy, it turns out, was the antagonist within the British SAS guy; he was a figment of my protagonist's imagination, and the final conclusive battle took place within SAS Guy's mind. If I got the soundtrack lined up correctly, the reveal was solid as a rock. I played through this story countless times, and eventually started realizing that perhaps if I wrote it down, I would be just like a real writer.
In seventh grade, I was invited by over by my best friend for one of our regular sleepovers. This time, we watched Fight Club. And sorry to spoil a 20 year old book, but if you know anything about Fight Club, it's the big reveal that the protagonist and antagonist occupy the same body.
That was the ending to my story. The story I had been playing through since I was eight. The story I had memorized down to every last detail. My bad guy's name was even Tyler, sometimes.
It was crushing. So I stopped playing through my story, and abandoned the idea of writing it down. After all, I was just a kid. What chance did I have to delve into the same deep pool as this Chuck Palahniuk guy and hope to succeed?
A Recurring Pattern
This was not a productive attitude to develop. It's one I developed deeply, so much so that it eventually crippled me as a writer.
Every idea I thought I had stumbled upon in a moment of creative novelty, I would find in some book or movie, new or old, and would consequently abandon. My criteria were broad, and once even included "talking sidekick cat", despite that being a trope of more than one famous work of fiction. My determination wasn't necessarily driven by a need to be unique; it was more that I wanted to own the stories I created, and if there were enough similarities to established fiction that someone might make a link, that story would be less mine than it had been. I would feel like I had lost control over the world I had built so laboriously.
My most crushing defeat didn't come in the form of a story, or an unoriginal idea I had discovered serendipitously. Rather, it came in the form of a man. Specifically, Neil Gaiman.
Now, pointing at a famous, highly successful author and claiming that individual "stole your future" deserves an eye roll that's hard enough to cause brain damage, but that's exactly what I felt the first time I read Neverwhere. And then Coraline. And, worst of all, American Gods. See, I had this sneaking, Truman Show-esque feeling that the visual world didn't actually contain as much information as we believed, and that perhaps there were creatures and beings that existed in the periphery of everyone's memory, things we saw and immediately forgot. Creatures that only appeared at the moment we fell asleep; we experienced it every night, and could never recall in the morning what we had seen.
Apparently, these creatures had also visited Mr. Gaiman, long before they ever visited me, and he had written several books and short stories that featured them, namely American Gods, The Anasi Boys, and Neverwhere. I loved everything that I read from him, because his imagination and my own seemed to dwell on the same things, but it infuriated me at the same time. As I looked back over the half-written stories and unwritten ones that were still marinating in my head, I realized that much of what I wrote would, to any Gaiman fan, seem at best to be an obvious homage. Even if I wasn't accused of outright stealing his ideas, my stories, in my dream of success, would have to fight out from under this guy's umbrella of realistic fantasy.
So at the time it seemed incredibly reasonable for me to believe that this man had beaten me to the literary success I had hoped to achieve. And he also married my favorite singer, so that was just salt in the wound. If left unchecked, this Gaiman guy was going to scour every corner of his imagination for material and write prolifically about what he found there, and I, apparently being nothing but a weak imitation of him, would have no chance to compete.
This pervasive need to "write originally," along with some other things, caused me stop writing a couple of years ago, around the time I resigned my role here as Community Manager and stopped writing columns. I didn't stop writing because Neil Gaiman existed, but his existence made it harder, in my worldview, to justify the time it took to produce a quality work of written fiction.
I viewed my favorite authors as the greatest obstacles to my success. Instead of my inspiration, they were my competition.
If that sounds stupid, it's because it is. But it's also crippling, and I'm betting each and every writer out there harbors a bitter jealousy towards someone successful who shares their literary spirit animal. And given that there are very few artistic works one can create that consume more time and effort than a novel, the shadows of successful authors can feel extremely heavy. It took me a year of writing to complete my first book; how could I motivate myself to write stories that would have to sit on the same shelves as ones written by this man?
That feeling is called Unworthiness, born to Self Doubt and Low Esteem. It's insidious, and I have no doubt some of our greatest potential artists have been consumed by this feeling. Our world is a less beautiful place because the feeling of Unworthiness exists. And I had let it swallow me like a warm blanket, wrapping and containing any potential I had in favor of the dumb comfort of stagnation.
I remembered that, as a child, my parents brought me to see storytellers.
And it was reflecting on those times that I realized the truth; I had heard these stories a million times, and I loved hearing them anyway. You can't get less original than telling a fable from Aesop or a tale from Greek Mythology, and yet, these stories have been passed down centuries, sometimes by word of mouth. Nearly every religion is built on stories that have been told and retold ad nauseum. From this, I gained a simple understanding that contradicted my entire pessimistic worldview about writing: people are perfectly fine hearing the same stories over again, as long as you tell them in an interesting way.
The storytellers from my childhood had figured out how to do that. They could take Mother Goose and somehow make it fun to hear, despite every child in the room knowing the stories by heart. What did they bring to the art that I believed I was missing?
Well, they were actors. This answer led to my philosophy of the Storyteller Character.
This isn't a new idea in literary academia, nor is it particularly far away from the concept of an authorial voice. But what it meant to me was that in every retelling of a story, even one done word-for-word, there is a unique character in each version: the character that represents the author.
Sometimes that character will have a lot to say, such as Lemony Snicket, who is very much an observable presence in his series. Sometimes the character will be hidden so well that you won't even know he or she is there. But that character is always there. And that character will always, always influence how that story is told. This unique character, and the contributions that this unique character makes to his or her story, is why people are tolerant, and sometimes even encouraging, in the retelling, rebranding, and reorganization of well-known stories.
How does this help?
Self doubt, low esteem, and this all-or-nothing approach to originality comes from a single fatal flaw in my development as an author. I, Nathan Scalia, the human being, do not see myself as a particularly interesting person. I have not yet been in any gunfights, nor have many of the things I write about ever happened to me. And my fear, then, is that people will read these stories of action or fantasy or horror by me, and know that I'm just faking it. All fiction authors are liars, but we can get away with it if the story is convincing.
It leads back to the Storyteller Character. My Storyteller Character was just me, Nathan Scalia. A guy who works for the school district, who lives alone with a cat, who might be reading an interesting book but otherwise seems rather unremarkable. My Storyteller would arrive without a costume, without props, without silly voices, and simply tell the story through rote memorization as the kids clandestinely reached for their phones and fidget spinners.
Nathan Scalia, the existing human, was not the person I wanted telling my stories.
My Storyteller Character needed to change. And to do that, I turned to psychology. Yes, back to science we go.
How do you create a Storyteller Character?
I needed to take a lesson from those random library volunteers at my childhood library. They were not just telling us a story. They were actors, and their character was telling us the story. They used props and makeup and other acting devices to make sure that their character told the story in an interesting and relevant way. Just as they prepared for their role in speaking the stories, I needed a character to adopt every time I sat behind my keyboard.
The way I approached creating this Storyteller Character was to act like I was talking with a therapist. If you haven't tried doing that yet, you should. Everyone should see a good therapist, and this is why:
A good therapist will listen to you define the kind of person you want to be (your state of self-actualization), and then will provide strategies for you to get there. Analogously, your Storyteller should be the kind of Storyteller you want to be, and from there, you should develop your strategies for how to adopt that psychological costume (persona) when the time comes to write.
Who would be able to pull off telling my story? What does this Storyteller look like? Sound like? Move like? Unashamed, exposed to the world, who was the Storyteller in my stories? Was the Storyteller even male or female? Did I know?
Perhaps I'm a vanilla, ho-hum sort of individual, but I'm writing a quaint little horror story. Would I feel more comfortable writing that story as myself, or as a Storyteller who I could easily picture living in a little haunted house on a hill? If I'm writing fantasy, do I find myself any more comfortable doing so as an ancient wizard huddled over a crowd of children? Could I write love stories more effectively as myself, or as someone who has conquered more hearts than Tom Jones himself?
Be honest with yourself in the creation of your Storyteller. Let your shame go, expose your weird kinks, and figure out how much costume you'll need before you'd feel comfortable telling this story.
As I began to create this character, I started realizing why I was petrified of being compared to any successful author.
Those authors had figured out their Storytellers, and their Storytellers were interesting. I had not, and so my Storyteller was not interesting.
Look at the Neil Gaiman's Storyteller character. If you've read enough of his work, you can picture him as you read the words. Perhaps he physically looks like Neil Gaiman, but you also do what you do with any fictional character; you create a backstory, a history, a list of habits and friends and enemies. Every author I've really gotten into, including Gaiman, Doyle, Carroll, and Asimov have very defined Storytellers in my head. In fact, if asked to, I could write a story about these Storytellers.
I seem to be telling people not to be themselves.
Which is only half true. In my own experiences, writing (and, if you get famous, even acting as) the Storyteller is a bit like faking an accent.
1) The closer your fake accent is to your own, the easier it is to fake, especially for extended periods of time. The closer your Storyteller is to who you really are (which includes who you would like to be in ideal circumstances), the easier it will be to slip into that character. You aren't aiming to be a completely different person than you are, you're looking to become the kind of person that could render your story as true to your vision as possible. Since human you came up with the story in the first place, your Storyteller is going to be closely related to your actual self, though perhaps with some extra eccentricities and oddities.
2) You'll get better at your accent with practice, and with hearing the accent. Likewise, your Storyteller, like any character, is going to be underdeveloped at first, as are all new characters, and it's going to take practice and listening to similar Storytellers to develop your own character.
3) The accent is supposed to help make you a more interesting person, so you can pull off whatever conversation you're having with some exotic authority. Likewise, fiction stories should be told interestingly, and the more exotic the story, the more exotic the Storyteller needs to be.
The point isn't to abandon who you are in the pursuit of literary success. The point is to create an "idealized author you," a Storyteller, who is exactly the person you think is most qualified in background and character to tell the story you want to tell. That way, even if your story sounds similar or shares themes from other famous authors, none of those authors have your Storyteller telling the story. And again, as humans have demonstrably shown a reliable tendency to watch and rewatch the same stories over and over, even as reboots or rewatches of the exact same film, you always have something to contribute to the literary world
Is this related to the author's literary voice?
Very much, yes, but the advice to "develop my voice" didn't really help me. I needed something more than that.
When authors talk about developing your voice, the process is usually referred to through passive practice. Voice is "cultivated" or "discovered." In reality, just like any actor will tell you, their voice is an extension of their character. If your literary voice is a literal representation of who and what you are, and you achieve success without ever having to step into a role outside of your real life, then congratulations. The rest of us are jealous of you. But for the most part, the voice is just one part of the character you're playing as Storyteller, and if you don't feel comfortable with your character, your voice will suffer as a result.
I don't know if this advice will help everyone. It reads like a self-help article, and that's because it is. It's designed to combat a very specific problem, one that I myself was facing, and one that I have to imagine is responsible for the death of many creative dreams. I know this idea helped me start writing again, to start pushing things for publication, and to feel excited at the thought of creation. And that's a big step in the right direction for me.
I'll see you in the Writer's Workshop.
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