Why writing is kind of like riding a bike.

Have you ever seen an advertisement offering bike riding lessons? Nope, me neither. Sounds a bit silly. I mean, who would pay to learn how to ride a bike, right? More importantly is it even necessary? My kids learned to ride bikes when they were four. I remember watching my middle daughter hard at work one day, picking herself up again and again. “How do I keep my balance?” she asked. “It’s just something you have to learn,” I told her. At the end of the day she had it mastered.

Back when I was nine, and just learning to ride a bike, my older sister told me what to do. She showed me how to get on, where to put my feet and hands, and how to stop. A piece of cake. At least it looked that way when she went tearing down the road as fast as those pedals would take her. Trying it myself was a totally different story. Remembering to pedal while not steering myself into a ditch was challenging enough, but the most challenging of all was keeping my balance. Mind you, I ended up with a few skinned knees before it was all over and palms bit with gravel stones. Yup, we lived on a dirt road.

But I was determined. I knew it wasn’t something that was beyond my capabilities. Everyone I knew could ride a bike. It was child’s play, after all. So I set out to learn, secure in the thought that I would. It was just a matter of time. Practise, practise, practise. It was the only way I was going to learn. My sister could show me as many times as I wanted her to, but she couldn’t do it for me. You can’t teach someone balance. It something you understand through doing.

It’s that way with writing. We can read all the books on writing we want, take a hundred and one classes, but none of those things will make us a good storyteller. We actually have to hit the keyboard and start writing. Of course we’ll be wobbly in the beginning. We’ll fall more times than we can count. We’ll get our pride hurt. But each day, as we practice, we’ll get a little better. We won’t feel so uncertain. We’ll work out all the wobbles.

While I might be able to tell you enough writing rules to get you started, becoming a storyteller is altogether different. Good writing doesn’t necessarily make a good storyteller. I happen to believe that the ability to tell an interesting story, one that engages the reader, is a bit like bike riding. No one else can teach us, it is a skill that we develop with a great deal of practise. It takes time and determination.

I’ve never taken a writing course. I’m sure many of you haven’t either. I own perhaps half a dozen writing books. I may not be able to explain how I tell a story, the same way I can’t explain how to I keep my balance on a bike, it’s just something I do. Right or wrong, I’ve learned what it takes to make a good storyteller. You’ll learn that too. Writing is easy. That’s right, you heard me. Easy. I know someone who whipped up a novel in two weeks. The first thing he’d ever written. Was the story any good? What do you think? Perhaps the worse part was the writer wasn’t interested in making any changes, or working to improve what was there. Their writing was VERY wobbly, but it could have been improved had they understood that the writer you are in the beginning is not the writer you’ll be further down the road. Good storytelling is a skill you acquire over time.

Do you agree that good storytelling is something that is acquired over time, that writing can be taught, but storytelling can not?

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10 Comments

  1. fivecats

     /  March 18, 2012

    Ran into one of your technical difficulties. Trying it again …

    A colege prep composition teacher back in high school said, “if you know how to talk well, you should be able to write well.” I don’t subscribe to that axiom, then or now. Generally, I can explain most things well. In written form, most of the time. The written explanation may be a bit too wordy, but the reader gets the point. The reports I write for my paying clients – precise and succinct, no hedging. They pay for a professional opinion, they get it.

    Storytelling, that’s a special craft in itself. You might be able to learn how to tell/write a story. And, you write be able to tell/write many stories. But, that in itself doesn’t make you into a storyteller. While I’ve written a few stories for myself and a few friends, it doesn’t make me a storyteller.

    Reply
    • There certainly is a difference so far as I’m concerned, but I do believe that our storytelling abilities can be honed. Certainly, most of us improve over time. It seems to me, that a certain ability must be there to begin with, however. It would be like saying that the more we sing the better we get, which is true to some extent, but not if you can’t sing to begin with.

      You’re right, storytelling is a craft.

      Reply
  2. It seems that reading to learn to write is about the same as reading to learn to ride a bike. Sure, one needs to learn the ins and outs of grammar, etc., that which can be taught. But I agree with you, practice is required to improve. I don’t know about the storytelling yet…that might be a cerebral software download gifted to some.

    Reply
    • So true, Patti. We can read about these things all we want, but nothing can make us a better writer until we actually get down to business and start using the information.

      Reply
  3. Laura, I would go you one better on your analogy. It is true that no one can teach us to ride a bike or how to write. But the talent of story telling is not the same. A good story teller is born in many people who never bother to write. It is the verbal connection you get from someone who relates a story to you at lunch or huddled near a fire on a cold winter’s night. The story telling part is in us … learning how to tell that story in a way that engages someone, making it coherent and easy to follow … that is the part of our craft we can and should learn.

    You can learn the notes of music and learn the cords to play the guitar,but that is a far cry from having music in your soul that you can translate into song. The muse is a gift and the story teller is but one who captures that muse and wraps the gift for us to enjoy :)

    Reply
    • You make a great point, Florence. Funny you should bring this up. I always feel that when it comes to verbalizing a story, I really suck at it, truly. I actually don’t “tell” stories and wish I could. A neighbour of mine, who lives to be a hundred, was a wonderful storyteller. I once asked her why she didn’t write things down and she said there had just been too much sadness in her life. It seems there is more than one way to tell a story and tell it well.

      “The muse is a gift and the story teller is but one who captures that muse and wraps the gift for us to enjoy.”_—Wow! That’s one heck of a quote. Love it. :)

      Reply
  4. Storytelling is something I think comes natural to most people. Whether it be a work of fiction or talking to our friends about what happened last night, we tell stories. Granted, some are better than others, but we all do it. Learning how to build a story is a little different. I don’t know that it can be taught, but rather practiced before all the parts come together and make a really great story.

    Writing can be taught in a very technical sense, but things like flow, voice, and a willingness to play with the rules comes from within. :-)

    Reply
    • From the beginning of time people told stories. Today we’re not writing on caves thank goodness. There does seem to be something inside us that urges us to communicate by telling
      stories as if it is a natural part of our make-up.

      Yes, writing is so much more than knowing all the technical components that go into it. We each bring our own uniqueness to the page and it is that freshness that readers enjoy.

      Reply
  5. Honestly, after 29 years, I’m no closer to understanding the craft than I was the day I started. Sometimes I have these moments of clarity and I think I’ve got “it”. But then time passes and I subbed a chapter, it comes back, and there in big bold print is something I missed or included when it shouldn’t have been. And I smack myself upside the head because I know better.

    I believe I’m a good storyteller and writer, but unlike most writers, it takes me longer to produce a valuable piece of literature. I’m getting to the point that I realize that’s okay.

    Great question, Laura.

    Reply
    • I’m always amazed by the writers who seem to be able to whip up a story. I”m pretty slow, too. I wish I wasn’t. I guess the important thing is to keep working away at it. Maybe in time we’ll get faster. I’m not sure if we’d ever learn everything there is to know about our craft.

      Reply

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