Thursday, April 5, 2012

Storytelling for Non-Writers

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I've often heard writers sneering about how everyone thinks they can write. While I can understand that it devalues the craft of writing to say that anyone can do it, I can't agree with elitists who say that it takes talent and/or a degree and/or certain workshops. Any of that can help, but all it takes to be a writer is to write. It's those who can spot flaws in stories they've encountered who have the most potential, I think. They're the ones who will be driven to improve and hone and find out what works.

Even if one doesn't want to be a writer, though, one still has plenty of uses for storytelling. In your everyday life, you use storytelling conventions every time you relate something that happened to you. Telling a funny story means that you have to pick and choose what parts of the anecdote will increase the humor, and to leave out the parts which make it sound too serious. When you're telling about something that's less entertaining, you have to adjust it to give your listener a reason to stay until the end. You insert elements that personalize the story, or you increase the sense of mystery, making it more important that they find out what happened.

It's the human need for stories that makes the written word resonate. We connect to stories because they're a part of us.

What made me think of this was that a colleague mentioned she'd been having trouble sleeping. She's not the first person to mention this, but she is the first one to ask my advice. My best technique, when I'm having insomnia issues, is to use something I've heard called "virtual dreaming," which is a stupid name, but I don't have an alternative.

In virtual dreaming, you tell yourself a story as you're trying to fall asleep. It should be relatively inane, not so exciting that you want to stay awake to figure out what happens next. It can be nonsensical, random, and unfiltered. What's important is that you're not making lists in your head, kicking yourself for saying something stupid to the boss, or thinking about the million and one things that keep a person awake at night. Instead, you're awake and dreaming, in a conscious way, which tricks the mind into thinking it's already asleep, and you relax off into slumber.

The technique doesn't work for everyone, and I was thinking, as I told my colleague about it, that maybe it works better for me because I have so much practice at telling stories. Then I remembered that it wasn't a writer who first outlined it as a real technique doctors recommend. (I'd already been doing this for years, without knowing it was a thing.)  The story doesn't have to be good. It just has to be distracting. And the ability to distract or to be distracted is a universal human trait.

Anyone can tell a story. A writer is the person who thinks about how to make that story more entertaining and accessible for a wider audience.

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