Articles by, about, or with Rafe Martin

“Storytelling and Writing,” by Rafe Martin

This article appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Museletter, the renowned journal of the art of storytelling, published by LANES—The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.

Storytelling and writing children’s literature go together as allies, best friends, even spouses. But they are not the same.

Telling depends on “presence,” “vibes,” that indefinable something built of silence, the body’s flow, voice-tones and rhythms, as well as on words and word-choice as they extend into the thrust and flow of narrative.

But writing? No voice, no tone, no gesture, no silence, no presence; just squiggles on a page. Which is where many wonderful storytellers experience terror. None of the old supports that move listeners sustain us with readers. It’s still storytelling, but suddenly it’s like foreign territory. What will help us cross the stream on a moonless night when the bridge is broken? That’s a paraphrase of a Zen verse I like very much. You’ll find it in commentary to koan # 44 in The Mumonkan, one of the central training texts of Zen tradition. To turn it to our use, it sums up that moment of transition into the unknown very well. How do you step into a new realm when all your old systems are gone?

I’d like to try to touch on a few possibilities here:

First, with writing, the task may not be as bad as it first appears. Words and what they create are still at the core. Then again, it may be worse. To write you have to like sentences, to see each one as a story in miniature. And to get each sentence to live can be a long, arduous, repetitive, daunting task. You work and work, hoping all the while that the damned thing won’t turn out to be so many pieces sewn together, a Frankenstein. And that is with every sentence!

Telling stories doesn’t require polishing sentences. They never have to get finalized. We don’t even need grammar, really, only syntax. We can stay loose, put English on the ball with a bit of voice voodoo, give it an emotional twist, staying alert to our listeners’ faces, eyes. Getting them to get what we’re saying and respond. It’s the story that matters, dummy! not sentences. Our job is to get it across.

It won’t work with a blank page. No. The page wants perfectly finished sentences. It stares back, horribly unwinking. It opens its maw and hungrily demands, Feed me! Sensing it might swallow you if you don’t comply quickly, you start tossing it sentences like a zookeeper tossing raw meat to a lion. Unnerving!

Also, in telling stories one can develop habits of going for the emotion in the tale. We, and our stories, live and die by the audience’s laughter (in the right places) and tears. Because of this, told stories can get set or “fixed” in an emotional way. Storytellers feed an audience’s unconscious need both for pattern and the breaking of pattern. These days, given our overly tumultuous culture and times, audiences often unconsciously hunger not to be roused or challenged, but reified, reassured, confirmed. Speaking to that need, told tales can get stuck in sentiment.

But written tales, ones that will be read alone, in silence, are meant to be re-read. So, while they will obviously need to touch our laughter and tears, they also need sound structure, sturdy enough to withstand repeated perusal. It cannot just be an emotional experience, not just that good, old, immediate “zap” of the told tale making us laugh, cry, or shriek with fright. Rather the shape itself has to be strong enough to sustain re-reading through which the hidden, at first overlooked details, and rich, subconscious layering and patterning out of which the narrative emerges, can reveal itself. There’s the slow, fine-aged wine-like pleasure of the good read! Novels also will especially need complex characters that voice cannot easily sustain, as well as vivid action, interior revelation, vast locales, and complex, back-and-forth dialogue.

The written story does not need us, or our voices, or our bodies. It demands different skills and tools than that of solo performance. Storytelling’s intimacy derives from the presence of the (usually) solo teller and the simple tools of voice and gesture. Listening is an intimate yet, communal, act. Conversely, while reading is (usually) a solo experience, that solitary reader faces many characters, diverse lives, places, situations, and actions. The two experiences are mirror images of each other.

Unlike a told tale, written work will unfold at the reader’s own chosen pace. And if the tale does not immediately draw the reader in and on, the book will be put down. Live audiences are more patient. The audience forms a social bond. They have come to hear. You almost have to dissuade them from listening rather than trying to get them to come and stay aboard.

In children’s literature the language must be direct, immediately accessible, and the images vivid and clear. Above all, the writer writing for children must be willing to speak to the imagination without equivocating. Children’s literature is not “kiddie.” It is storytelling that speaks directly to the imagination, the primary faculty of childhood and of all creative life. In the long run this view will prove itself again and again. However, these days, with large chain stores destroying independent booksellers, the cute and clever work, and the easily sold "celebrity title" of a Madonna or Jay Leno, have nearly wiped out that the traditional realm of the storyteller. Children’s book publishing is not for the faint of heart, and has become not only less intimate and terribly commercial but, as one waggish insider not so jokingly put it, “a bunny eat bunny world.”

Picture books are close to poetry on one hand, and film on the other. Think of the illustrator as your body and voice-tone. You only tell in words what is needed to move the narrative forward. The illustrator SHOWS all else. A good picture book is NOT words plus pictures, but pictures and words that need each other, that cannot stand alone, and whose interaction creates a third note, a harmonic which is the story itself in the mind of the reader-viewer. Which in a nutshell is why you can’t just take what you say in telling a story and write it down and have a picture book. You’ll have too many words. The hardest thing in writing a picture book is to take back your words and let the illustrator in, let the illustrator show what you don’t say. Acting dumb is the hardest thing in the world for tellers and for writers. Saying less is harder than saying more. But in this case it may be more “telling.”

When I write picture books I never write them the way I tell them. I have to think of the story as a book. And in creating the manuscript I may add notes for the editor and illustrator saying what needs to be shown if I am going to use so few words. I might even create a dummy to show the relationship of language to the images to come, indicating which will be two page spreads, which single page and so on. It means thinking the story in another language, “in book.”

Which is why writing is a constant process of re-thinking and re-writing. More times than you want to count or admit. I began my novel Birdwing five years ago. Arthur A. Levine, the publisher of Harry Potter has bought it and will publish it this summer, 2005. I have dedicated the last five years to thinking, writing, re-writing and constantly re-inhabiting this one story. It has changed tremendously. Characters have died and new ones emerged. Locales have shifted, chapters have vanished and ones I never dreamed of appeared. In this living way it has become a simpler, stronger tale. It has become something else, too - a book. Something that stands alone, whose skeleton is formed of sentences, paragraphs and chapters, not gesture, tone, and breath, and which speaks for itself without needing my presence at all. It is not a told tale, but has become something else-itself. As have I. For writing re-writes us, even as we re-write the story. And writing what our culture much too vaguely calls “children’s literature” can be a way for us to reconnect with our own deepest and most universal dreams.

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