Why Storytellers Study Craft and Technique.
I believe this springs from a desire for success as an end in itself, not as the byproduct of a calling. There is a desire to have written a book, but not to write one; to be a movie or television star, but not to learn lines, research a role, rehearse. The difference between these desires, the one for the result, the other for the work, springs from two opposed impulses, one of them directed towards the self, the other directed towards the other. One impulse says, “Look at me! Look at me and I will have value, just because you are looking at me!” The other impulse says “I have something of value, and I want to share it with you.” These two impulses lead aspirants to different approaches to craft. One approach is self-centered. The author asks the reader to notice the big word that was used when a small one would do, the amazing and flowery way that something was said. The actor wants the audience to see him cry, rather than make them cry; to see him express rage or loneliness, rather than awaken them to their own. In these circumstances it is the writer or actor who is seeking understanding and release, giving the audience nothing of value other than, perhaps and at best, momentary entertainment and distraction.
I deal with writing clients who have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that a fiction writer’s job, in the words of master editor Sol Stein, is “creating an emotional experience for the reader.” They write what they want to write and justify it with “That’s how it happened,” or “That’s how it came to me,” or “I like that word or phrase.” In acting class, I watch students with pent-up anger or hidden sadness express those emotions in every scene, regardless of the requirements of the script. They then tell me that they “had an impulse.” But the impulse itself is not enough. Of course the writer or the actor must tell the stories he wants to tell. But of what use is that story if it is told in a way that the audience does not want to hear? Even if mere self-expression is the goal of the artist, he fails to meet it if he cannot get the audience to give his story enough attention to carry it through to the end.
I am not saying that it is not important for us as artists to express ourselves. Of course it is. What can we bring to our art other than our own experience, our own point of view, our own desire? Yes, we have important things to convey, and if we are honest in our self-examination and our examination of the world around us, we can heal ourselves and others by communicating our own ideas and truths. But there is a synergy here. Effective art is not merely self-expression, it is communication. We cannot heal if we are not heard. We will be only a tree falling in a lonely forest, or a toddler screaming, “Look at me! Look at my scrawl.” We will not be heard, we will not be effective, if we do not express ourselves in ways that can be not only heard but also taken in and understood by the listener. And so there is another way of working, focused on the experience of the audience, on the effect that is being had on the perceiver. When we work in this way we can create catharsis, the gift that the artist should give to the audience.
It is at this point that the teacher of craft steps in. The role of the teacher of craft is to guide you towards the techniques and modes of expression that connect you to your audience, to bring the benefit of experience in what works and doesn’t work to your first wobbling steps. Your inward journey towards your truth, that is your own. But as you discover what you have to share, the teacher can give you the language and technique that will turn your individual experience into a universal story, finding the threads of commonality that will transmit a deeper meaning.
To be clear, I firmly believe that with determination and a relentless will to pursue the craft, a commitment to examine both the outer world and one’s own inner landscape with a ruthless honesty and a chilling eye for detail, anyone can mine talent from within their own depths, no matter how deeply it may be buried. I would never tell someone to give up on their dream. But the work involved . . . oh, the work. If you shy away from it you may produce something that will curry favor with the current gods of style and commerce, but in the end that brand of success will be short-lived and leave you feeling empty. If on the other hand you learn to love the process, you will find a success more lasting than commercial in the discoveries you will make, day-by-day, painful and joyous, large and small, and you will learn to craft stories that speak to the hearts of others.