Two Tribes of Storytellers

Next week, I’m away in Birmingham at the lovely Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center for their Borders and Crossings/Seuils et Traverses conference on travel writing. I’m not exactly a travel writer myself, although much of my writing—both in fiction and in philosophy—has a preoccupation with crossings, passages, movement and travel; and so I’m hugely looking forward to a week in such wonderful surroundings talking about how, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, stories are travels and travels are stories. I’m hoping that the week will be, in spirit at least, half-conference, half-retreat. It is something—after a busy few months—that I could well do with.

I’ll be giving a paper at the conference called “Imagination as Spirit-Travel: Advice for Writers and Travellers from Sixth Century China” (or something like that—I don’t have my abstract to hand), and I’ll be drawing on the Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 to talk about this strange connection between travelling, imagining and writing. Writing, I always think, is a matter of exploring the world, a matter of how you navigate between strangeness and familiarity. It doesn’t matter whether what you explore is close at hand, or whether it is distant: what is crucial is this curiosity, this edge of inquisitiveness, and this passage between what seems familiar and what seems unfamiliar.

One of my favourite essays that talks about this (an essay that, sadly, I won’t have time to talk about in my paper, which I why I’m writing about it here) is Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller, where he talks about two tribes of storytellers: those who go wandering, and those who prefer to stay put. I’m more in the former tribe, I think; but I know many people more in the latter tribe. And there’s a bit of a prejudice in favour of the latter in creative writing circles. “Write about what you know,” is the usual cliché. I’m not sure that this is good advice, for reasons I’ll return to.

For me, whatever tribe you belong to, it seems that the most interesting work often emerges out of the place where both of these things happen. We are always (even if we don’t leave our sitting room) making new departures; and we are always (even if we are paddling down the Amazon in a canoe) bringing along with us much that stays more or less the same.

Benjamin writes that the archaic type of the wandering storyteller is embodied in the figure of the “trading seamen”, and that of the storyteller who stays put is  embodied in the figure of the “resident tiller of the soil”. He goes on to say:

With these tribes, however, as stated above, it is only a matter of basic types. The actual extension of the realm of storytelling in its full historical breadth is inconceivable without the most intimate interpenetration of these two archaic types. Such an interpenetration was achieved particularly by the Middle Ages in their trade structure. The resident master craftsman and the traveling journeymen worked together in the same rooms; and every master had been a traveling journeyman before he settled down in his home town or somewhere else. If peasants and seamen were past masters of storytelling, the artisan class was its university. In it was combined the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place.

I love this passage, even if it is a decidedly Romantic view of the past, one that feels rather closer to myth than history. The notion of the workshop where itinerant journeymen and resident craftspeople mingle is a lovely one. It suggests not only that both tendencies are needed, but also that the thing that brings together these two tendencies—the tendency to wander and the tendency to stay put—is craft. Craft means working and reworking. It means long hours and patience. It can even mean facing boredom. Benjamin knows this. Boredom, he says in the same essay, is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. It is through the patient application of craft that the raw materials of our writing turn into something substantial. Inventing stuff is relatively easy. Look, I’ve just invented a dinosaur driving a tractor, whilst wearing a Trilby and smoking a Cuban cigar! But the work of the imagination requires more than this. We can pop out eggs all over the place. But to actually incubate the things takes hours of sitting on the nest.

So Benjamin suggests that there are three aspects to storytelling: experience from elsewhere, experience that is close to home and familiar, and craft; and it is craft that integrates our mass of experiences, draws them together, finds the hidden connections and tensions between them, and allows us to fashion them into writing that is worth reading.

There are different craft challenges, I think, depending on which tribe you belong to. The most serious problem faced by storytellers (like me) who like to wander elsewhere is the problem of becoming seduced by surface exoticism. We can assume that because something is unfamiliar, it is interesting. We don’t look deeper into the human significance of what we are seeing, but treat it as a spectacle. When writing about elsewhere, it is not enough to rely on unfamiliarity alone. It’s also a matter of burrowing beneath the surface until you stumble across the homely in the unhomely, the familiar in the unfamiliar, the mundanity that lurks behind the strange. I remember, before I started writing seriously, I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia—exciting, exotic, distant, malarial—and it struck me one day, as I sat alone with a beer on the jetty at the back of the island’s only hotel (OK, there were two hotels, but the other one was actually a brothel), that behind all this surface exoticism that had so interested me it was just a bunch people doing stuff on a small, remote and not very happy island. People like you or me, getting on with their lives, in difficult circumstances.

When it comes to staying put, however, we have a rather different set of problems. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it certainly can breed inattention. You go on holiday and everything seems vibrant and new and fresh. But back at home, everything seems a bit dull, a but humdrum. It is worth remembering, however, that everywhere is exotic from some point of view. Exotic is a relative term. From where I’m sitting, the Mongolian Steppe might seem to be just the coolest, the most exotic, the most exciting place on earth. But for somebody who has spent their life on the Steppe, there might be nothing more exotic than the East Midlands of the UK where I happen to live. And the East Midlands is exotic. Last week I was in a second-hand bookshop eavesdropping on a conversation with one of Britain’s only professional knife-throwers. Now that’s exotic. But the danger for writers who like to stay put is that of becoming habituated, the danger of the attention being dulled, the danger of falling back on assumptions instead of keeping the attention honed. Assumptions are hard to root out, because they are almost invisible to us. This is obvious when you ask people to draw: they don’t draw what they can see, they draw what they think they can see. To learn how to see the world, we have to unlearn our assumptions about the world, or we risk becoming lazy observers.

This is why I don’t agree with the old “write what you know” schtick. It privileges one tribe over the other; and I’m with Walter here in my view that it is in the craft that mediates between the two tribes that the most intriguing stuff happens. The labour of writing about your home-town and rendering it unfamiliar, and the labour of writing about somebody else’s home-town and rendering it familiar, are equal in extent; and they demand an equally robust application of imagination. And so, whatever tendencies one has as a writer—whether resident tiller of the soil, or trading seaman—in honing one’s craft in the great workshop that is the community of those who write, my advice would not be “write what you know.” Instead it would be this: “get to know about what you are writing about.” And that applies whether what you are writing about distant or whether it is nearby, whether you prefer to set out on distant sea-voyages, or whether you like stay put.


Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons: Pabuji par by Jaravcand Josi of Bhilwara Tropenmuseum – Pabuji-Verteldoek licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.


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