Can Storytelling Be Taught?

Jordan Dane

I posted some quotes below from bestselling authors on the craft of writing and the writer’s life. Some are funny, most are thought provoking, but the one at the top of the list from Willa Cather struck me as a topic for conversation here at TKZ.

From Cather’s quote, it would appear she believed that most of an author’s innate ability to write comes from how their lives were shaped in the first 15 years. We can read craft books, attend lectures, and follow as much advice as we have time to absorb on how to write books, construct stories, create characters, and world build, but there is also a part of who we are that makes up the total author.

For me, I grew up in a large family and our parents taught us how to laugh and we used our imaginations to tell stories and have adventures outside, not with video games. We even had skits we did for summer projects on our own. We did audio recordings of scripts I wrote as TV show parodies, complete with fake commercials. We chose video recordings (like a filmmaker) for class projects. We were all about theatrics and drama, for fun. 

I wrote a lot of things and had always been drawn to the written word. My grandfather had been a big influence on me. He came to this country from Mexico after fleeing the revolution in his country. He wrote for the Hispanic newspaper, La Prensa, in San Antonio and he eventually managed the Alameda Theatre that brought in vaudeville acts and Mexican movie stars to the stage. As a young child I rode a pony across the stage of that theatre as part of an act. 

Mostly I remember listening to my grandfather’s many stories. Some were real and others, not so much. What he didn’t know, he made up with a flourish. All of these influences became ways for me to tell a story and stretch my imagination.

I can see what influenced me as a writer in those early years, but I’d love to hear from you about your lives and formative experiences.

1.) What in your earlier years influenced you to become a writer?

2.) Do you agree with Willa Cather that most of a writer’s basic skills are experienced before 15 years of age?

3.) What do you think influences authors most in those first 15 years?

Quote For Discussion:
“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Willa Cather

Quotes On Craft & The Writer’s Life:

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”
Elmore Leonard

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
E. L. Doctorow

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
William Faulkner

“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”
Harlan Ellison

HUMOROUS (I hope):

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it to be God.”
Sidney Sheldon

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
Mark Twain

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”
Truman Capote

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”
Stephen King

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
Robert A. Heinlein

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams

26 thoughts on “Can Storytelling Be Taught?

  1. Just a small cavil, Jordan. I don’t believe Cather is talking about the innate ability to write, but rather the emotional experience of life. I think she means that even as you grow older and wiser, you are mostly reflecting upon or expanding your understanding of that early, raw material. And, indeed, one’s ability to understand any emotion via character is primarily a matter of tapping into yourself.

    That said, it certainly seems that most writers share common shaping experiences, like love of reading (or being read to) and the encouragement of imagination and play. Perhaps we can call that the “norm,” while noting exceptions. I have a bestselling friend, for example, who was not a reader at all when a boy. But that is quite rare.

    • Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my summary or take, but I meant that life experiences form the rich fodder for fiction that authors draw from & they choose words to express them into stories.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jim.

  2. My dad was my biggest influence. Normally you wouldn’t think of a mechanical engineer as a raconteur, but he was a great story teller, and was also a great appreciater of people who told a story well. He taught each of his eight kids how to read (phonetically!) before we started kindergarten. Weekly trips to the library were part of the schedule, and most nights he would tell us bedtime stories he made up.
    I always fancied myself a pretty good story teller, but I was shocked a few years before dad died when, listening to him tell about something that happened that every tool in my bag of tricks came from him – every gesture, every cadence, every pause.
    I disagree with Cather, except in the sense that a writer has to stay green, has to be open to learning and growing all through life, and maybe that is something you learn by the time you’re 15. Anyone who thinks they know it all can never learn, but if you stay green, you keep growing.

    • It always amazes me how people who make a living predominantly using the logical side of the brain, are also amazing creative types. Your dad would’ve been a great guy to meet. I love his library visits & bedtime stories. Thanks for sharing your experiences, John.

  3. Flannery O’Connor had a somewhat similar take to Cather’s, saying “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” (Mystery and Manners)

  4. My favorite is by Stephen King, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

  5. Great post, Jordan.

    I wish I could think of myself as a writer, but I don’t. Maybe someday. (My early years were all about photography. I even had a darkroom in the basement from age 12 to 16, and developed and printed my own black-and-white photos.)

    I love these two quotes above:

    “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
    William Faulkner

    “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
    Ernest Hemingway

    Advice like this from two such talented writers is eye-opening and encouraging!

    Thanks for sharing these quotes and the interesting info on your grandfather! Sounds like a fascinating guy!

  6. I am not sure if any one thing influenced my story telling more than anything else, but I do know that for as long as I can remember my imagination has been on overdrive (I thought the Ralph Philips cartoons were somehow stolen from my own life). As a kid of 5 or 6 I would lay in bed and listen to my parents watching televisions like Columbo or The Six Million Dollar Man and since I had to stay in bed and couldn’t watch it I’d make up my own episodes in my head. I made up a lot of stories when I was little. Most of my family had no interest in fictional stories so I was often accused of “telling lies”, and being scolded (or worse) for having my head in the clouds. Those same folks don’t get mad at me these days for telling lies, because I’ve relabeled them as novels and make money with them.

  7. My parents were a definite influence, from their love of books and history, to their belief in education as well as ‘free thinking’. I was encouraged to read, write and debate which meant I was definite pain in the rear as a teenager but ultimately I think Cather was right, it also formed me as the ‘writer to be’.

    • The free thinking thing is so important with kids, Clare. You are lucky.

      (PS. I was a terrible rebel as a teen. Hard to believe my folks didn’t boot me out.)

  8. I do believe writing craft can taught, but the drive has to be there. I started writing young, I don’t remember when, and it was just something I had to do. I think that’s true of many career writers.

  9. My first 15 years weren’t pretty. My dad was an alcoholic and regularly took his guilt aggression out on me with a 3-inch leather belt (found out years later that this belt was the same one used on him by the Japanese warden when he was a WW2POW-creepy).
    We were poor and most of our clothes were church donations. I learned to sew because of this so that I could have “nice” clothes.
    Our TV never worked unless there was a broadcast of a NASA rocket launching. We listened to radio (a bible station that stayed on 24/7). I guess it was my parents way of claiming forgiveness for their transgressions. My child brain learned to associate the duality of religion and how easily words and meanings can be manipulated in order to instill “faith”.
    I learned to read early on, finding escape in books and writing. We had shelves of the classics: Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns, the encyclopedia (my favorite), Reader’s Digest, Dickens.
    As for influences and Willa Cather’s theory, I think all writers pull from their past whether rosy or tarnished. My early exposure to a diverse range of writing styles opened me to the nuances of the English language. The dark side of childhood forced me to pull inward and observe quietly all those “other” people who led “normal” lives around me. So, yeah, a writer’s eye, a love of language, and the ability to sit quiet for lengths of time did start all those years ago. Go figure.

    • My childhood wasn’t as challenging as yours, but I found truth in your experiences & could relate to a strained relationship with my absent father. The way you dealt with your upbringing is amazing. Children grow up fast when challenged & must find ways to cope. You sound like a stronger person for it. Good comes with the bad if you can see it. Thanks for sharing, Jeannie.

  10. That’s absolutely great with the fake commercials. I remember producing circus acts before I was ten. I would have this big tent show in my backyard. The neighborhood kids would come on stage and act something out.

    I was always into telling stories. I made picture books when I was five. Even though I had reading problems, I was always fascinated with books. Listening to radio mystery programs was amazing.

    I do think Willa was onto something with what she said. I think one learns how to tell a story at a young age. However, that’s mostly talking a story. Writing stories is something else again.

    Jim in MT

  11. I love the excitement of kids telling stories, Jim. I can definitely learn something from the way they tell a story & convey the essence of what excites them. Thanks!

  12. Tapping into that time, those years into biological adulthood ( in the old days! ) – when what we are had just begun 🙂

  13. Jordan–
    My memory for specific events has never been very good, and is much worse, now that I’m old. But I know this: my parents were educated, and both of them read, and read to me. We shared meals and talked while at the table. Language was more than a means of communicating information; it was in- separable from identity. Early on, I began noticing how people varied in their use of words, and over time words became the principal means by which I gained a sense of control. I share James Scott Bell’s view of the Willa Cather quote: the formative early years set us on a path, and my own experience confirms this.

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