Story-teller vs Writer

Do you call yourself a story-teller or a writer? How do you tell? And what would be the difference?

It’s at once a subtle and an important difference. The art of telling stories predates civilisation. Stories have been told as part of religious and social instruction since the dawn of man. From such work we have myth and legends, rituals and memories. Story telling is a uniquely human activity and narrative structure is something we instinctly crave.

Writing, though, is much newer. Mankind has only been putting symbols into words for reading for a few thousand years. And for much of that time, most of the populace could not, in fact read. And it has only been the last few hundred years that writing has truly taken off as a wide-spread past-time. But writing doesn’t always tell a story. And story-telling doesn’t always need writing. Writing can and is used to describe how to use a television, but there’s no story there. And story-telling with little or no writing has also been done for years: that’s what happens in a theatre or cinema.

But say you’re a “writer” and most people assume you’re telling stories in writing.

I put this question to my Twitter feed. It was pointed out that C. S. Lews was a story-teller. His Narnia books are unashamedly stories. The world-building is a bit of an after-thought. He is known to have said on several occasions that he began The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe with a simple image: it was the image that turned into Lucy meeting the faun, Mr Tumnus in the show-covered forest under the lamppost. My stories start with an image and things develop from there. This is story-telling.

By contrast, J. R. R. Tolkien was pointed out as a writer. He was a professor of language and literature, after all, and spent many many years building the immense world of Middle-Earth. But I’m not entirely sure. He wrote so much more than the familiar work we know him for, and he built a vast history for Middle Earth out of what he read and learnt from Old English and Scandinavian mythology. And he made his histroy full of stories. Many people read The Lord Of The Rings and see a story struggling to stay afloat in an old world, richly described. But it’s only like that because Tolkien filled it with stories. The popular work is, in fact, the final scene in the final act in a very long story. I think Tolkien was a story-teller, but a quite different one to Lewis.

It is not easy to pigeonhole an author and I wouldn’t really want to. I have declared elsewhere that I am a story-teller and in that context, the writing is a means to an end. So, do you tell stories, or just write words?

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