Monday, August 17, 2009

Status Seekers and Storytellers

Tonight, during our weekly trip to Barnes and Noble, I purchased a very interesting read. The book, The Fire in Fiction by. Donald Maas begins with the suggestion that there are two kind of writers: status seekers and storytellers. Very simply put, status seekers want publication. Storytellers want to tell the best stories possible.

This really got me thinking. I wasn't sure if I agreed at first, because what writer doesn't want publication? And likewise, what writer doesn't want to tell an amazing story? However, the more I analyzed it, the more I could see the difference. The more the idea rang true.

In my mind, it comes down to this. It's not about desires or motivation, because as I said above, most writers basically want the same thing. To me, it comes down to our actions and how we approach the whole writing gig.

How do we write? How do we analyze our own work? How do we edit it? Are we trying to make our stories awesome enough to be published? Or are we trying to take this idea or these characters and give them the words and plot and feeling that they deserve?

This whole notion falls very much in line with the weighty issues I've been wrestling in my own mind lately. Very interesting food for thought.


Kiersten said...

See, I still think you can be both. Because I choose which projects I focus on based on publishability. That doesn't mean I won't write others, but I won't craft and polish others.

My husband, on the other hand, writes because he wants to tell stories and genuinely enjoys it. Even though he is absurdly clever and his stories are delightful, he simply doesn't care about being published.

And I take issue with the term "status seekers" being applied to people who want publication. Maybe audience seekers, but status has an implication that isn't exactly flattering, I think.

I think the two things as you described them, "making our stories awesome enough to be published," and "taking this idea or these characters and giving them the words and plot and feeling that they deserve" absolutely go hand in hand.

So there, Mr. Maas. : )

Renee Collins said...

I think you can be both, but not at the same time.

Maybe I would alter Maas' idea by saying that it's not the "type" of writer we are, but the road we chose to walk on.

I think many writers start out on the status seeking road and end up finding their way to the storyteller road. With some it's the other way around. And probably many alternate between the two--sometimes from book to book, sometimes over long periods of time. But I do think that deep down, we are either on one road or the other.

Now, you're definitely right that audience seeker is a better term. "Status seeker" is a little harsh. Because frankly, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with being an "audience seeker." Maas' point isn't to say that audience seekers will ultimately fail. Not so. Many go on to be highly successful.

His point is that the storytellers (or those that stick with the storyteller road) will end up crafting the superior story. And that rings true for me.

JaneyV said...

I think that he chose the wrong term in Status Seeker unless of course that he was referring to those who write to achieve awards like the Booker - the heavy/ wieldy/ high concept books that literary critics love but bore the pants off the rest of us. These people are searching to be thought of as "great" and this is quite different from the author who seeks to be well thought of and well known. I have noticed that Status Seekers do not write YA. People who write YA are interested in telling awesome stories. They want to take the reader along for a ride through imagination. The really good ones are also excellent craftspeople. It's not cynical to want to be published. It's the drive of most story-tellers to want to tell their story to an audience. We do this through the medium of books. Knowing what is marketable and analysing the best way to reach your audience is just plain smart.

I read somewhere recently that publishers are being overwhelmed with expertly written manuscripts. Flawless in their execution they are still missing something and that something is good story telling. You might win critical acclaim and have all the respect of your peers because your prose is perfection and your ability to use metaphor rivals no other but you won't reach an audience unless you write a story that sucks your reader into its world and doesn't let go till the very last word.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps status seeker doesn't sit well with everyone. Maybe we think of it with what it commonly paired with: social status, economic status. But the word itself, as far as I understand it, just refers to a state of being. So, in essence, if someone values being published equally or more than continuing to craft any given story, they are seeking the status of publication. All of us seek validation in one form or another for the writing we're doing. I don't think "status seeking" is a negative judgement, or one that has to be justified. (Granted, I don't know the authors intent.)

I often feel the need to justify myself for just the opposite reason. At times I feel judged for writing slowly and not aspiring to the status of being published. I feel that I am not always considered a "real" writer if I don't plug away for hours a day and do everything in my power to get published.

Because I'm not craving publication, I fear that I'm judged as not being dedicated, or a true writer. In the end I think pointing out the differences and knowing which path we're on may just help to understand and embrace our writing for what it is. It's hard to be the best writer you can be if you're constantly feeling judged for the choices you've made regarding your writing career (or lack there of).

Jessie Oliveros said...

I agree with Janey V. That there is really not much wrong with being a so-called "status seeker." That it is not an uncommon drive to want our story that we love to be read.

However, ever the diplomat, I see Mr. Maas' side, too. If all you want is publication you are not going to have a story worth being read because if you only focus on publication you won't love your story or your characters.

I think you can be both. Didn't someone already say that?

I like that Kiersten called her husband absurdly clever.

Renee Collins said...

Janey-Very good points. I think there are definitely those writers out there who write because they want the acclaim and awards. And their stories can definitely lack that heart that makes us truly connect with a story.

However, I also think that for many publication alone is what they crave. And ultimately, if this is what drives them, what really pushes them forward, than they would qualify as status seekers to me. So, by that definition, I think many YA writers can fall into that category.

Candice-So true. There is absolutely a line of thinking out there that if you are not pursing publication gung ho, you aren't a true writer. I've even felt that, and I do write almost every day.

I think that audience seekers--and let's be clear, I'm not saying I haven't walked that path many times. And again, let me reiterate that I think being an audience seeker doesn't make someone a bad writer. Or even necessarily a shallow person. No. I think there are varied levels of audience seekers. Some are the blatant ones who want to be the next JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. But certainly many audience seekers are like that.

Anyway, I think audience seekers focus on different things and therefore see different qualities as being important for a "true writer" to have.

They prize gumption, determination, productivity, and perseverance. And not that every writer shouldn't have this (because they should,) but perhaps a storyteller will place other writerly virtues above those in order of importance.

Renee Collins said...

Jessie-Oops, cross posted. :)

Anyway, I definitely agree that there isn't anything wrong with being a status/audience seeker. It really is just different approaches.

I do stand by my opinion that you can have attributes of both, no doubt, but ultimately a writer is standing on one road or the other.

Miriam S.Forster said...

What an odd statement. To me it feels like saying "There are two kinds of carpenters, those who want to build the best house they can, and those who want people to live in them."

To me, writing is as much a learned communication skill as it is an art. And that begs the question "what is meant by best?" Most artistic, most resonant, most realistic, most accessible? Is "best" art for art's sake, or is "best" the writing that will reach the most readers?

Who decides what's best?

There's a difference between pandering and considering the reader. Pandering is putting in substandard plumbing just so you can sell the house. Considering others in your writing is like saying "It would be really cool and artistic to put a door five feet above the floor, but that would probably confuse people, so I won't."

Just my opinion...

Natalie said...

I feel very uncomfortable when other people decide to put a large group of human beings into boxes—especially when they decide there are only two boxes out there.

While this concept might have some merit, it's really only a way to get people riled up. No one is going to feel good about being labeled a status seeker especially when they work hard on their stuff.

We are writers, all of us, wherever we are and whatever our motives. As people, we are too fluid and changing to be labeled so rigidly.

Kiersten said...

Miriam, I love your carpenter analogy!

Renee Collins said...

Miriam-I agree with Kiersten, it's a good analogy. :)

And to both you and Natalie, I say that I do agree with you. It's wrong to suggest that people are either this or that. No exceptions. I don't know if that's what Maas was trying to say, but I certainly don't agree with that.

This has been a really interesting debate, guys! I've definitely been given a lot to think about.

glovin said...

I think the two things as you described them, "making our stories awesome enough to be published right now...........

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