Storytelling: More Than Words

This post may get a bit rambly, because I’m engaging in that highly dangerous behavior where I explore a topic I haven’t drawn any final conclusions on. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as I work to understand.

Do you believe that writers are people who tell stories on a page, and that that trait is distinguishable from everything else about them? Or do you think that writing – storytelling – is inherent, built into the character and spirit and inseparable from other qualities?

Like I said, I don’t know for sure what I think about this yet, but I know what I see. I know that the world is becoming more transparent, that because of social media and tours and video chats, writing is becoming more and more not just about the words you’ve created in a moment, but about who you are and why you’ve said what you’ve said. I know that when I do read articles or interact with authors, and they are incredibly different from the people I thought they were based on their stories, it can be a little jarring or even disappointing.

Now, I’m not saying that writers have an obligation to their readers in the sense that the readers have the least bit of say in who they are or should be. Writers are people, with beliefs and lives and mistakes, and nothing changes their right to be. But I do think, as a writer myself, that I might not always be able to separate who I am from what I write, even if I want to. My goal is, naturally, to never write a word I don’t believe in and never be ashamed of anything I create, but I do craft characters and situations that come from what I know about the world, which is not the same as crafting things from what I know at a personal level from experience. My characters are not reflective of what I believe or know, because recreating myself a thousand times on the page isn’t my goal – telling a story is. But if a reader connects strongly to one of my characters, but then finds me entirely different, I wonder how that changes their experience of the story, if at all.

While I think writers have the right to be their own people, to tell the stories that matter to them and to live their lives, I do think there is a burden of public responsibility that comes with writing, much like with actors or musicians. Whether you want that responsibility or not, you will, with any luck, become something of a public figure thanks to the influence of your words in the lives of others, and with that comes a series of choices and the need to consider who you are, what you stand for, and how those things interact with the stories you tell. I think that as the world grows more intimate via technology, storytelling is becoming less a distinct activity and more a way of life. We, the storytellers, are not just the words we say, but also what we do. We, the storytellers, have the power to decide what voices are heard, what stories are told, how the cultural narrative is shaped and what this point in time, in the world and in our lives, is about. We, the storytellers, remind people that life is bigger than our own internal narratives, that differences in experience, understanding, and existence matter, and that change, adventure, mystery, and magic are both possible, and beautiful, in their time.

I think that how we live can add power to the stories we tell. If we say one thing on the page, and reflect something completely opposite in who we are, there’s something hypocritical about that. Do you have to have the same hobbies, love interests, or careers as your characters? Certainly not. That would be both crazy and impossible. But should your life – the things that matter to you and what you invest your time and energy in, things like volunteering or conservation or family or theatre or faith or art or construction – should that be reflective of the themes in your stories, and vice versa? I tend to think yes. I think in many ways that’s how we find our voice, that’s how we distinguish our stories, and our lives, from all the other ones around us. And I tend to think that, more than just a good idea, this process of aligning who we are with the stories we tell might be our greatest responsibility. When the readers come looking for us, in that moment we have a platform and a chance to say something, not just with our words, but with our lives. What does yours say?

If you have thoughts on whether writers’ lives are becoming more accessible to the public, and whether it matters if what they say on the page and in life align or not, please share! I’d love to hear what other people think about this whole thing, and maybe how you as a writer are navigating the tricky balance between being your own person and being someone who may, one day, have a presence in the public eye.

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One thought on “Storytelling: More Than Words

  1. I had to read this a few times and I’m still on the fence. I think I tend to lean the opposite way. If an author is well-known enough to be a “public figure,” then yes, I believe that they have a responsibility to use that position in a positive way. However, I think that is separate from the characters on the page. Each person will see our characters differently, based on their own experiences, beliefs, etc. It’s not our responsibility to make sure they reflect us in a positive or negative light. They just are. I have written characters that are very different from me, MCs who make choices that I would never make, and that I would never encourage others to make.

    I think you HAVE to separate the author from the story. It’s possible that a terrible person could write a completely lovable character, and vice versa. It’s why I don’t really have a desire to meet any of my favorite actors. They are not the characters they play. And authors are not the characters they write. It would be unfair to hold them to that ideal, because, honestly, they are almost always going to fall short.

    I feel like I gave two answers that may be opposed to each other. Yes, as a public figure, the author has a responsibility to use that position in the best way possible. But I don’t think that necessarily extends into the stories they tell.

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