Writing Quote: John Irving

SC Blog - Irving - Know the StoryKnow the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?
-John Irving

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Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

4 responses to “Writing Quote: John Irving

  1. pierrmorgan

    I tagged the like button because I appreciate the quote, but I have to say it does make me feel badly about myself. What kind of a storyteller am I? Is “beginner” allowed? How do you get to know the whole story if you don’t commit yourself to writing it down?

  2. The lifeblood of writing is the fierce opposition among techniques, opinions, theories, and practices, otherwise we’d all be writing the same stuff the same way. So thank you for bringing a very important point to the discourse.

    Notice that Irving is not talking about writing. He’s talking about storytelling – which is an animal of a different colour altogether. Storytelling is holistic, visionary, and the means for communicating from one mind to another. Writing is craft. It’s practice and it’s solitary. It’s the means of locomotion between the beginning and end of a story, but it isn’t storytelling.

    This difference is why I often say that writing well isn’t enough. Writers must aim for storytelling, for the very reason Irving suggests in his quote. This goes way back through the oral tradition when there were no books, and travelling bards went from town to town reciting epics and engaging their audiences with powerful storytelling.

    Picture yourself surrounded by your readers as they eagerly await – hopefully – the best story they’ve heard all year. You begin: “Uh. Right. Well, um – well, I was thinking about putting my protagonist into a kind of “Twilight-ish” storyline, then maybe …”

    Then there’s this magnificent bit:

    It is an ancient mariner
    And he stoppeth one of three.
    —“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
    Now wherefore stoppest thou me?

    The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
    And I am next of kin;
    The guests are met, the feast is set:
    Mayst hear the merry din.”

    He holds him with his skinny hand,
    “There was a ship,” quoth he.
    “Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
    Eftsoons his hand dropped he.

    He holds him with his glittering eye—
    The wedding-guest stood still,
    And listens like a three-years’ child:
    The mariner hath his will.
    (Coleridge – Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

    That’s so meta it’s almost unbelievable that it was written at the end of the eighteenth century. But see the difference in authority, not just in the poet’s approach, but the mariner’s command in beginning his tale. “There was a ship – ”

    Knowing the story you want to tell offers your writing that kind of authority. There’s no dithering your way into the reader’s heart. It means holding the reader by your skinny hand and glittering eye, and reducing him/her to a captivated three-year-old while you unwind your epic tale.

    Irving is saying that the vision of your fictional world must precede the writing of it, in the same way that you can’t start a business without a strategy – in other words, knowing what kind of enterprise you’ll be going into or what kind of product/service you want to offer – much less what you can bring to the game in order to make it work. Most important of all, though, is knowing how you’ll engage with your customer.

    Coleridge might not have known the exact words he was going to use to write his poem, but he knew the story he was going to tell. “This is the story of an ancient mariner, who commands the guests at a wedding to hear his tale about a terrible voyage to sea, and how his killing of an albatross summoned Death, ending the lives of all his mates and sinking the ship, and in order to atone for the sin he is compelled to wander the earth recounting his experience.”

    The danger in starting a story before you have a vision and even a strategy for telling it is that writers can easily become stuck before they’ve even had much of a chance to dig in, the story can become bogged down in messy, unnecessary details, and even if a manuscript is finished, without understanding what pushes and pulls at the story – the telling part of it – it can lack energy, forward momentum, a sense of vitality, and purpose.

    So don’t feel bad about writing without an idea of where you’re going. We all do that. That’s where we build voice and style and technique. But if you want to engage in the act of storytelling, take the time to envision what kind of story you want the reader to take part in. Strategise it, even loosely, in your head so you can set your characters on the road toward the reader’s imagination. Take charge of the reader’s will.

    Be the grey-beard loon.

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