Our monthly Story-Nights have given us the opportunity to compare and contrast the reading of a written story with one told. We offer equal opportunity to individuals to do either, or both, and to me at least the difference is very marked. It has strengthened my belief in story-telling as a medium for truly enlightened sharing of ourselves.
Good story-readers are few and far between, and good readers of their own story even more rare. When the BBC offers a Book At Bedtime they have generally chosen to deliver the reading an actor who has great clarity of enunciation, good voice-modulation, and an innate readiness to inhabit the world of the words. The actor will also be able to cope with the various literary devices employed by the writer and imbue them, sometimes miraculously, with an immediacy and fluency which the writing was not intended to manifest. All this is the result of training, study and experience.
Good storytellers are more common and anyone can be a good storyteller with practice and attention to their audience. It is a given of storytelling that the creative/expressive act is only possible – only happens – in the presence of an audience. That is not to say that storytellers don’t write their stories first, and even sometimes memorize them meticulously – many do both. It is just that the story is only realized in the telling. It only has life as a moment of communing with others.
This contrasts with the written story which has achieved its form and substance on a page. It may be read there and, indeed may be best when read there. Writing allows the author to deploy artifices which often work best on the page. And writing for reading is a one-to-one, writer-to-individual-reader relationship. So often, in my experience, that joke, irony, sly insinuation, or detached tone which make a story on the page variously piquant and characterful go adrift when the reader attempts complicity with a crowd. They were not meant to be read aloud. The same kinds of inflection are available to the storyteller but are conveyed through eye-contact, facial expression, pauses, body-language – performance devices not literary devices. There is a great difference, I believe between a literary flourish and the rhetoric and emphasis of telling.
The story-reader so often – unless they have been practicing Jackanory-style and know their text thoroughly – looks down at their page; the voice is the main, and sometimes only, medium of communication, and that voice is so often directed towards the floor. Is it a matter of honour that writers’ stories be delivered by themselves? If so, it is frequently a false honour, doing the writing a disservice, and depriving the audience of a truly live, and living, experience. We have, on the night, been offering to find readers for the written stories, or a course on how to present your own writing. This is because we want our Story-Night audiences to have the most vivid experience and the strongest sense of occasion.
We had the pleasure at our most recent night of contributions from some student story-tellers whose university course includes a module on story-telling. They were good, and well able to breast the wave of the occasional mistake of memory, and above all very present. I noticed a slight tendency for them to enact – to run about and mime in the service of their telling – where the words on their own, feelingly used, would have done that work, but better something to follow with your eyes as well as your ears (and your mind’s imagination) than to lose a literary effect through careless reading. The students were developing their technique and some of them may go on to tell stories professionally, but they were there, on the night, to engage with people, and they did.
I have noticed one other divergence between writing/reading and telling – the nature of the human events which are related. I had wondered for some time why many of the written stories were so full of cruelty and graphic violence and malice. That’s not to say that many stories chosen by tellers, from the great ocean of stories available to us all, do not include violence or pain or downright evil. The written stories however have seemed to fetishize that cruelty, as though it was a shared indulgence to describe it. And whereas a told story will most often bring their protagonist(s) through the experiences with unrelenting sympathy and humanity to a resolution which satisfies all concerned, including the audience, the written and read stories often seemed to leave us all, well, in the shit.
I’ve discussed this perception with others and we concluded that it was the nature of story-writing to be a mixture of confessional and deep fantasy, the experiences coalescing on the page into images of personalized power. When they are read out loud to an audience they are suddenly exposed as personal. It is as though a private phone-conversation about something quite intimate were suddenly broadcast to a crowded room. Story-tellers on the other hand have declared their readiness to be heard. They have prepared themselves to connect and will use only what is needed for that to happen. They know that they must work every word in the moment.
I declare that there are exceptions to the judgements I’ve expressed above. A small but distinguished number of readers have written words which trip off their tongue with all the authenticity of their personal voice, and they still manage to make-eye-contact with their audience. The stories are humane, convivial and coloured with shared humour. Conversely some story-tellers do not hear themselves as they tell and overplay or underplay their material. We all, in the end, have things to learn about our craft. As a committed story-teller I have come down on the side of telling but I am always ready to be impressed by a good reading. All I would request of story-readers is that they consider handing over their stories to others to read, so that they can hear them in a detached way, and learn from that.
Meanwhile the contrasts and comparisons are available for all to consider. Most stories pass through the medium of the page on the way to someone’s imagination, but I guess we would all want the page to be as negligible as possible in our public sharings so that our unique expressivity can shine out.