Storytelling in any mode is an interactive effort requiring an audience as much as a storyteller. That is a truth of which, as writers, it is easy to lose track as we sit behind our screens and record our words in static black and white, but I have recently had reason to reflect upon this interactive nature from my reading first of Diné Bahaneʼ, in which Zolbrod takes pains to emphasize that the written word is merely a way to record a story in a way that is less dynamic than the oral tradition from which that medium arose, and subsequently while reading The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, which discusses how written books were a supplement for, not a replacement of, the oral storytelling traditions and entertainments of nobility and peasants alike. When we consider the organic and evolving nature of language, it becomes clear that the medium in which we as writers work is at once both a static means of information storage, and a dynamic, independent artform allowing the author to engage in a unique interaction with each reader.
Consider first Zolbrod’s discussion of the resistance he encountered and concerns he experienced in attempting to create a written record of the Navajo creation story. While all oral traditions do not include the belief that the associated culture may disappear once its associated stories are forced into stilted, unchanging words on a page, the basic observation that a story written will be fundamentally different from one that is recited aloud. In oral traditions, stories evolve more, the tellers will adapt them with each recitation and actively interact with their audience. When a story is written down, the language will never change, the storyteller cannot adapt to their audience, and in this way books, the written tale, are an inferior medium through which to tell our stories.
Until relatively recently, even those who read books to themselves did not read them silently in their heads as we do today; they would have read them aloud to themselves, for it was generally understood that the words recorded in books were intended for auditory imbibing. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England describes books being used as scripts for a performance, read aloud as entertainment to a group, not unlike a latter-day radio play, or even a live audiobook performance. In this way, the story is still coming to life, interpreted by the performer and animated from its scribbled stasis on the page to a living form that vibrates on the air. Our silent, corner-conducive, private, mental reading today is nothing like the communal storytelling traditions from which it is derived. Language evolves, and told stories can evolve with it, but not the words in stasis inside a book.
Except that anyone who sits down to write a story believing that will never write something that anyone else will want to read. Text might seem a cold, distant medium, a mere storage of information, but the written word can be an artform in itself, one which need be no less an interactive experience than the oldest forms of storytelling. Indeed, written storytelling enables the most intimate of dialogues between the author and the reader, a dialogue which is unique each time the book is opened. The words might not change in any technical or physical sense, but the reader’s experience of the words changes. Where we are in our lives, our other experiences, our contexts, our concerns and worries and dreams and hopes, all affect how we interact with a text each time we read it.
These letters and words we use might be just a collection of arbitrary symbols standing for sounds to which we have assigned meanings in order to communicate, stand-ins for the fluid and living languages that we speak and hear, but that makes them neither less substantial nor less meaningful. The spoken forms and rhythms of words evolved into written poetry and prose that act on the page independent from their verbal origins. In this way, writing is no less performative than any oral tradition, or plays, or any other medium that might be considered more ‘alive.’
Keep in mind this dialogue concept is not just a theoretical exercise; it has practical implications for writing. It affects voice, viewpoint choices, prose decisions, metrical consideration: in short, it has a holistic impact on the writing of stories. When you sit down to write, it is worth remembering your audience with whom you are conversing. You are telling a story, performing it as surely as an oral storyteller in any tradition. The difference is that, with the written word, that story is performed on demand, differently each time, personally for the reader. It’s a powerful ability we authors have, which I have heard compared (facetiously) to telepathy and mind control.
Strip away the abstract, philosophical language, and fancy titles like “Reflections on the Performative Nature of Language,” and the result is a post that can be reduced to a simple reminder that writing, like any other employment of language, is an interactive medium. It might not seem like it, writing by ourselves behind our screens, but a story written without an audience cannot really be a story, because stories exist to be shared – they come to life in the minds of those who interact with them. That is part of why I started IGC Publishing, to share my stories, and it is fundamental to the authorial art as surely as it is to Navajo storytellers, or the Sumerians passing along their Gilgamesh stories, or the first language-users who told their grandchildren not to eat a poisonous plant because their own childhood friend died from it. That is something worth keeping in mind when next you sit down to participate in a story.