Can You Tell Me A Story?

There is a problem, I can teach you the nuts and bolts of creative writing, I can teach you the importance of voice, creating characters, conflict and tension but I don’t think I can teach you how to tell a story. If you can’t lie convincingly or day dream, the likely chance of you making up a story on the spot may be pretty slim.  Drawing a blank when asked to tell a story may mean that writing may not be your bag. I’m not saying give up, go away or even jump off the end of a pier. If writing makes you happy, if you can do nothing else with your life, carry on writing but if you have never been published after years of writing and submitting, you may have to accept you may never be published. If you can live with that, carry on writing. It’s a fear that all writers do have, and writers do fall out of fashion, they may be the toast of the publishing world one year and the next not even the receptionist at their publisher remembers who they are. They may even think you’re dead. I have been dead three times in my writing life. If you write to be published, you have missed the joy of storytelling, you have missed the point. For every ten stories I think of, I know a handful that I may write, out of that handful there will be one that gets published. I remember giving a talk to two hundred writing students a few years ago, and I told them statistically only ten of them would become writers and only two of them would be published. They’re harsh statistics but sadly they are true, it could have been any two of them out of those two hundred but two hundred of them weren’t going to be discovered tomorrow and be the next big thing. Even the next big thing is old hat by the time you’ve finished reading this post. That is why telling a story is important.  Everyone of those two hundred students thought they could tell a story, they probably could but one hundred and ninety of them told stories that we’ve all experienced, lived through or worse still, start to yawn about half a page in. Good stories are stories we may recognise but we have never lived, and will never live, none of us are James Bond, Patrick Bateman or even Humbert Humbert, we are barely Marilla Cuthbert. Then let’s stop persisting in telling stories that have protagonist’s who eat, shit and sleep. Unless they eat until they explode, shit in the gas tank of a police car and sleep for a million years to wake up to a new species living on their planet (and even that has been done to death). There is nothing wrong with looking to your life for inspiration, just try and make the character’s life more exciting, more daring, more in danger, make them lose their world only to get it back or lose it altogether. This is comedy. This is tragedy. Getting mugged and then procrastinating about it for two thousand words isn’t tragedy, it’s just tragic. Think ordinary people in an extraordinary world or believe in extraordinary people in an ordinary world, and you will be some of the way to telling a good story. You may think inspiration is allusive, that it shines down on you from the Gods, that the muse puts down her knitting and smacks you on the head and you think, ‘Hey, that’s it, a vampire knitter story for grannies, no one’s exploited the Old Adults market’ or you may think story inspiration comes from a sex shop in Barnsley called Private Boobs. If you do then you’re a fuckmuppet. Go away now, find a tree, wait for the next full moon, dance naked beneath it in front of flabbergasted dog walkers, outraged astronomers frantically cleaning their lenses and confused twitchers wondering where the sun and birds have gone and see how inspirational the prison sentence is. Neil Gaiman nails the stupid belief that inspiration is divine in the film below.

I was born a storyteller, or as my Mum, sister and Dad would tell you, ‘He was melodramatic/soft in head’. I never just banged my knee, no my knee was attacked by a myriad of things over the years, my evil sister was definitely part of an international conspiracy that involved sisters all over the world to destroy the knees of little boys by tying them to lampposts. My Mum’s response was often, ‘Don’t tell lies, Andrew’. My Dad’s was to look at my Mum with ‘that look’ that I have got used to over the years. I love ‘that look’, ‘that look’ translates into: What the hell is he on? Where the hell does he get these ideas? And, my real, real favourite: That explains things. I suspect as you read this you are thinking, ‘Yes, I know “that look”‘. Let’s face facts, writers are not exactly easy to live with, talk to or in many cases have children with. There’s a good chance children of writers will have an over active imagination, be giddy, and be in an environment where there are books and none of ‘that look’. I suspect my Mum is to blame, when confronted with an abundance of dog shit on our local field, she didn’t just write a stern letter to the local paper, she wrote a stern poem.

I am not saying writers are born, but I think storytellers are, we can all learn the nuts and bolts of writing but storytelling is something else, it’s pity, fear and catharsis, and most of us never experience those in our lives. From an early age I wanted to tell stories, my sister did too, my Mum encouraged her to write comic books (we even think her idea was stolen for a children’s programme after she sent it into a television channel, it’s a running folklore in my family). My sister inspired me to write too, rather than keep blurting it out at the dinner table when we were desperately, surreptitiously, feeding brussel sprouts to the dog. I wrote adventure stories in which spies fought Nazis, sausage like people went on strange and weird adventures in worlds beneath the skirting board and everything, everything in the world around me was alive and up to no good. Since then I have hunted whales in the streets of Paris, been a detective being murdered by a monkey, and a strange man crucifying frozen chickens outside the Arndale. No one in the world would ever want a story about me, I am not interesting, my imagination is but sadly I am as dull as you. I like a cup of tea and like telling cold callers to piss off. We are as species phenomenally dull in our day to day lives, there is nothing wrong with that, that is the way of things but no one has ever written a story about a trip to a supermarket – scratch that, many people have written that story and they often find themselves having an epiphany by the broccoli. Jesus, those stories are fucking dull. No one has had an epiphany beside a brassica. Tell me a story that sticks with me, a story that sticks with me long after I have forgotten the writer and most of the character’s names, a story that haunts my dreams. All writing starts with story. Our collective history starts with story. We all need and love to listen to them but only a few can write them well.

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