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”) (Read September 2009; review posted here from my blog)