Tuesday 15 September 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer

Although Ruth Sawyer’s quaint “The Way of the Storyteller” is more a book about verbal storytelling than it is about written storytelling, there is still much wisdom to be found in its pages.

Sawyer’s passion for stories shines through the pages and her rich experiences in interpreting the written word provide some useful guidance for authors. She explores the ancient roots of storytelling and shows how today’s stories are inseparable from the patterns of the past.

Sawyer talks of four invariables in story telling:

The Building of Background
The Power of the Creative Imagination
A Gift for Selection

Experience is what gives a story teller the ability to make the difficulties of her art seem simple; experience comes with writing and writing and writing until the techniques of the art are so ingrained they become invisible.

The building of background is what enriches a story; the opportunity to gather a wide and varied background lies anywhere one looks.

When an artist brings his creative imagination to bear on his material and – from something abstract, from something without form or meaning – transforms it into a real work of inspiration for others to enjoy, this then is the power of the creative imagination.

Sawyer talks of a storyteller knowing which stories to select before entertaining her listeners. There must be an acceptance that some stories are not yours to tell, but belong to another who can tell them better. This gift of selection, too, can apply to writers: what suits one writer’s voice may not suit another. And the gift lies in knowing which story suits your own writer’s voice.

Written in 1942, revised in 1962, what I found most poignant about Sawyer’s recounting of the art of storytelling was her concern that novels – stories told in written form – have become marketable commodities and, as such, have become commonplace. On completing this book one cannot help but wonder if the current woes besetting the publishing industry have their roots in the fact that, for both author and publisher, profit is now placed above the ancient art of storytelling. If the novel is good enough, it will naturally sell as many copies as any author or publisher could ever want.

The one thing I've taken away from this book is that - to be a true teller of stories worthy of all the story tellers who have come before us, from Homer to JK Rowling - the story itself is what matters most. What happens within its boundaries must be inevitable: every story must have an inner integrity and, to have a chance of being read and enjoyed many times over, it must leave the reader completely satisfied by a tale well-written.

Books are man’s rational protest against the irrational, man’s pitiful protest against the implacable, man’s ideal against the word’s real,… man’s revelation of the God within him…if the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back – in a book.”

John Cowper Powys “The Enjoyment of Literature” as quoted by Ruth Sawyer in "The Way of The Storyteller”


lotusgirl said...

I love that quote at the end. It's an interesting way of looking at it. I'm going to have to check this book out. It sounds like an interesting read. In writing it always goes back to the story.

Ann Victor said...

LOTUSGIRL: Sawyer had many delightful quotes in her book, it was difficult to just choose one. Another of my favourites was :

"What the heart knows today, the mind understands tomorrow"

Tess said...

So true - but so difficult. It is that pressure of writing the perfect balance that causes me the occasional stress-out-session. Deep breath, Tess. Be empowered. You can do this...that's what I'm telling myself :)

Ann Victor said...

TESS: Of course you can do it, Tess! :) Just concentrate on that deep breath (and, coincidentally, the book I'm about to start reading is called "Writing Begins With the Breath"!!!)

Robyn Campbell said...

Some stories are not yours to tell. This echoes in my mind after reading your post. This is true about writing too. I have had stories in my head Ann, that simply were not mine to write.

Wonderful review, super post. I will buy the book. I feel I can learn a lot from reading it. Thanks! :)

Ann Victor said...

ROBYN: I think, in addition to some stories not being ours to tell, there are also stories which we, as authors, may not yet be ready to write. We may be ready later, but if we try to write a story that we are not yet experienced and/or ready enough to write, we may waste a great idea.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Ann,

Great review! Every bit of it was so true. There is such an art to story telling that mere grammar cannot convey. Love the practice, practice, practice until structure and craft become invisible.

Thanks for sharing!

Ann Victor said...

Hi Nancy, you've made a good point. When one concentrates on perfecting technique only, one does tend to forget that writing is an art of the soul as well. The best stories are those that find the perfect balance between technique (the rational, logical mind) and art (the irrational, creative soul).

Robyn Campbell said...

Me stopped by to say, "stand tall, me hearty. :)

Judith Mercado said...

I just left the following comment as a followup to your comment on my blog: In a Stephen King "moment," on the evening of the day I wrote my post about him, I turned on my television and what movie was playing? The Green Mile. Hmmm. I'm going to get Atwood's book. She's a favorite of mine, too.