Wednesday, September 19, 2007


by Hannah

What makes a writer? We all know others who have ideas, who've made up a character sure to be the next Harry Potter or Jason Bourne, if they could only find time to get it down. What shapes us, makes us think that we, of all people, can take an idea and tease it into something larger?

In John Irving's A Widow for One Year, Ruth is a writer. Her father is a writer of children's books, more of an illustrator some would argue, but a well-known writer nonetheless. Ruth, in turn, has become "that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author."

This is not directly because her father is a writer; he is a terrible role model. It is because of the stories. Ruth is told stories as a small child about photographs that surround her throughout the house, then disappear. At first she tries to remember the story that goes with each, and as those stories fade, she creates new ones. She is haunted, as well, by a sound:

"... the only sound that would ever succeed in comforting her -- at the same time that it made her melancholic... It was the sound of a typewriter -- the sound of storytelling. In her life as a novelist, Ruth would never be converted to the computer; she would write either in longhand or with a typewriter that made the most old-fashioned noise of all the typewriters she could find."

(How many of you are smiling because you, too, own a typewriter?)

Where do our stories come from? Who knows? Why do we become storytellers? Because of the power of stories.

My brother and I grew up with storytellers. The uncle who made up bedtime yarns using words we tossed at him. The great-aunt who wrote stories and translated haunting fairy tales. The neighbor who wrote the YA series I devoured. Parents who read to us, and who altered the facts now and then to -- intentionally or not -- make us see the world from different perspectives, to think that anything was possible. (Did you know a rooster in Germany crows in German, differently than one in the U.S.?) Stories were all around us, a part of the fabric of everyday life. They made anything possible, but more important, real people made them possible, part of the fabric of everyday life.

I don't know where it starts inside each of us. I do know that being a storyteller is something we need to treasure, no matter how many books we write end up on the shelves. Just by being storytellers, we can inspire, make people wonder and believe. Make children laugh, and think. How lucky are we?


Larramie said...

Seriously, Hannah, do roosters in Germany crow in German or is that a part of your storytelling? Either way...enchanting.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

In stories like the Musicians of Bremen, they say "kikorikee," not "cockadoodledoo." There were many details like that, all my life. I have photos of dogs wearing glasses, too...


Lisa said...

I attended a workshop this weekend called "The Lies of Memoir, The Truth of Fiction" with Tobias Wolff and he talked quite a bit about storytelling and how different every recollection and story will be, depending on who is telling the story and where that person is in his or her life. His views on story and memoir were really informative and he was a fantastic speaker. One thing that stuck with me was with regard to maybe his most well known work, the memoir, "This Boy's Life". He said that in the writing of the story, not only was it important for him to tell the story from his perspective, but it was important that it be his perspective as -- a twelve year old, or whatever age he was. That meant also that he could not be as forgiving of others -- within the context of the memoir -- as he would be if telling the same story from the perspective of the adult Tobias Wolff.

John Robison said...

Where do our stories come from? For me, they come from my experiences and my conversations with others and my observations of the world around me.

The key then is what you do about it.

Are you a storyteller to your family, telling the mate and kid the news of the day?

Do you go to the next step and make up stories for the kid?

And then, do you go all the way, write a book, get it published, become a storyteller to the world?

What happens when you do that? Do you change? Are you the same storyteller as before?

Anonymous said...

Without sounding immodest, I guess I was born with the desire to write. I wrote my first sci fi story at the age of 9, with intentions to have it published. It never did and now when I take a look at it, I have a great laugh. Even my kids love it.
It is now, decades later that I have started to write a novel to have it published, seriously.
Where do the stories come from, John gave the answer.

Michelle Zink said...

In a way, I think being a storyteller is in the DNA.

By this I mean that we hear or experience or see things, and we imagine what's next. We imagine the story unfolding beyond the point at which it does for everyone else.

For millions and millions of people the world over, those experiences just end where they end. Or they end as an occasional thought or maybe a painting or a song.

This makes me feel touched by something different, something special, that makes me see the story in things. My kids have it, too, and in our house we call it the "writing gene".

Lucky? Yes!!!

Great post!

Crystal King said...

I've had that book sitting in a "to be read" pile for nearly a year. Now I'm itching to read it!