Storytelling versus Literary Portraiture

I was reading The Best Spiritual Writing 2010 and there are a number of excellent pieces so far that made me think.

In "The Judgment of Memory," Joseph Bottum describes me pretty well as a modern writer who is good at taking a literary snapshot of description but not good at telling a story. My husband, on the other hand, is a lover of stories. He prides himself on this, and we have talked before about how he likes to tell stories with a beginning, middle and end (often at his own expense) whereas most of my past writing has been these literary portraits that describe but don't move.

My question, then, is how does a literary painter turn themselves into a storyteller? Does it require some kind of mind-shift? I would say that any kind of writing requires some kind of faith on the part of the writer - if not in themselves, then at least in what they are writing.

I do notice that stories seem to become like children, taking lives of their own. I have heard J.K. Rowling say something to the effect that she didn't want to kill off certain characters in her Harry Potter series, but that it was required of the story. I have heard these thoughts expressed by other storytellers as well.

J.K., I would argue, is an excellent storyteller. She does not describe individual objects in people in excruciating yet "pointless" detail that Bottum notices in other writers. She throws in a few choice details like the right amount of salt, but "throwing in" is almost the wrong phrase, because these details have a habit of becoming extraordinarily important the more the story progresses. She is like a master chef who intuitively throws in a pinch of sage and it turns out that the taste of sage is what people love most about her dish.

It occurs to me that there is a kind of exquisite beauty found in these details if they detail nonphysical truths. For example, in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," there is a mirror that reflects everything as a distorted, ugly version of itself. The mirror is broken into a thousand shards and one of them gets into a little boy's eye. Where he previously saw beauty, he now only sees ugliness.

It is rare that you find these kinds of jewels in writing on a regular basis, but good writers tend to unearth them more readily, I notice. One of my good friends is a master of observation. I think good observation turns into good writing. My husband, too, has an eye for details, and he works them painstakingly into his own stories. In fact, my main complaint about his writing is that his work often isn't messy enough, in an emotional sense.

I have often been bad with transitions, both in my journalistic and creative nonfiction writing, and with beginnings and endings. I would say this has to do with my problems telling stories, but I'm not sure it's as simple as tacking on a good beginning and an emotional ending. I think storytelling is more organic than that.

Perhaps I should be praying to the gods of storytelling fertility, but I need to be careful what I pray for. Perhaps it is not just skill, but willingness to be a storyteller that turns a person into one. Or maybe some people are born storytellers.  These are questions that could be further explored in your comments, my readers, or in subsequent posts.