Storytelling vs. Writing (Or, Why I Talk to Myself)

Now that I’m alone a good deal of the day, I accomplish SO MUCH more than before, but I have recently realized that the whole time I’m doing it, I’m muttering things. Out loud. Crazy person style.

You guys, I talk to myself.

I’ll be honest with you, this isn’t an entirely new thing, but it’s getting really bad.  It wouldn’t be a problem if I were just trying out dialogue while sweeping the floor or calling my computer names when it freezes up, but the thing is, I also mutter in the aisles of the grocery store and while I’m pumping gas.  I have entire conversations with myself out loud in the Goodwill.  I’m pretty sure my fellow shoppers think I’m nuts.  I’ve tried to stop, but it doesn’t work.  It’s like some kind of switch has been turned on in my brain, and I can’t figure out how to switch it back.

I blame the writing.

For ten years now (!!) I’ve had a little person around me constantly, and they’ve been my audience.  I could comment on the world around us and tell stories both fact and fiction anytime one popped into my head.  Now?  Now there’s no one to listen.  Now I spend hours writing stories down, and let me tell you something, writing and storytelling are NOT the same thing.

Storytelling is an interactive art.  I say something funny, my audience laughs (or at least smiles…or groans or rolls their eyes).  I say something scary, their eyes widen a bit.  If my story has their attention, they listen closely, maybe they lean forward a little or nod their heads.  If my story is boring, they look away, start to fiddle with things, get that vague look in their eyes.

And it’s not just them reacting to me.  I react to them.  If my funny story isn’t making people laugh, I know I have to spice it up a little.  If I’m losing their attention, I throw in something exciting quickly before they’re all the way gone.  I can adapt the story to suit the listener, and I can immediately know if I’ve done a good job.

Of course, that’s what makes storytelling scary.  If your story bombs, there’s nowhere to hide.  It’s just you, right there, feeling like a bit of an idiot.  And you do bomb.  It’s inevitable.  And even if your kids are the only audience, it can make you wish you had never tried.  But when the story is a hit, there is nothing more satisfying.  Maybe it’s just because I’m an extrovert, but the feedback, the glorious feedback, is like Thanksgiving dinner for the soul.  (What? That’s a perfectly normal metaphor.)  And the personal connection, the feeling of knowing your listener and being known in a way you weren’t before, is priceless.

Writing is an expressive art.  I get to think my words through and choose the one that best represents what I’m really trying to say.  I can shape a story.  I can stop in the middle and take time to puzzle out the perfect ending.  When I make mistakes or put something down that isn’t as strong as it should be, I can go back and change it.  I am free from the judgments of others for that time, lost in my own imagination.  When I finally have a finished product, it is mine and mine alone.  No one’s thoughts or reactions influenced it along the way.  It’s all me, for better or for worse.

Then, when a reader picks up what I’ve written and digests it, she is also free to make of it what she will.  She can interpret it how she likes, and I am not there to tell her if she is right or wrong.  She can own what she has read, find herself reflected there (for better or for worse), and react to that experience accordingly.

There is something beautiful about the freedom and ownership of writing and reading.  As a writer, I can find great joy in the pure expression of my own imagination.  It’s like being a kid playing pretend again.  Then I put something out there and let it stand all alone, let the work try to be something by itself, without any further help from me, and there it is, finished and lasting.

Of course, that’s also terrifying.  Because what if it’s pitiful?  What if it’s ugly?  What if it’s weak?  I can’t defend it.  I can’t hide it.  I can’t change it.  I’m exposed.  And anyone who wants to can take that little bit of me I’ve put out there and twist it into whatever they want.  There’s nothing I can do about it.

So here I am, after a decade of near-constant storytelling, with its ever-present affirmation and insults, spending long hours in my own head, dreaming and playing and having a great time but also feeling unconnected and less sure of myself than I’ve ever been.  Here I am, determinedly putting it all into words anyway and sending them out into the world.

No wonder I’m talking to myself.  My brain is trying to provide me with my own feedback.  Not exactly helpful, brain.  So far the only thing I’m gathering from you is that you are getting a little loopy.

Shoot.  There I go again.  Must be time to go pick up the kids from school.

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