By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 9, 2015
From time to time over the years I’ve worked with partners. The experience has taught me about the kind of writer I am, and the kind I’m not.
Am I a wordsmith? Or am I a storysmith?
A great partnership is a wordsmith and a storysmith.
Even better is to be both yourself.
What’s a wordsmith? (Another term I’d use for this is writer-writer.)
A writer-writer was born with a verbal gift. She can talk. She can sling bullshit. She’s glib. She’s articulate. She can turn a phrase.
If you’re a writer-writer, you’ve got an ear for dialogue. You can write crackling scenes and machine-gun exchanges between characters.
Writer-writers are bursting with ideas for books, movies, scenes, sequences, characters. They’re fountains of inventiveness and creativity.
The problem with writer-writers (and this was definitely true for me) is they can’t tell their good ideas from their bad ones.
It’s easy for a writer-writer to lose her way.
That’s when she needs help from a storysmith. (Another term would be hyphenate-writer, as in producer-writer, director-writer, even showman-writer, the David O. Selznick-writer.)
The wordsmith is great with rhythms of speech, dialogue, description, vivid interesting prose. She’s brimming with story ideas and character concepts, usually far too many for her own good. The storysmith or showman-writer, the David O. Selznick-writer, on the other hand, possesses no (or very little) flair for prose or dialogue, can’t write a scene, couldn’t compose his way out of a paper bag. But he understands the dynamics of story. He has brilliant and original ideas for plot twists, dramatic breakthroughs, and show-stopping scenes. He has a feel for spectacle. He grasps infallibly the story’s theme and, just as important, he has a gift for putting himself empathically inside the reader or audience’s heads. He senses instinctively the places in the story where the readers are getting bored, where the narrative is confusing to them, where we as writers have overplayed or underplayed our hand. He understands where we can get away with a logic flaw and when we can’t, when the story isn’t working and how to fix it.
My first partnership in Hollywood was with a renowned producer-writer/showman-writer. (I’ll call him Stanley for purposes of this blog post.)
Stanley had a genius-level feel for story. He didn’t analyze. He didn’t dissect. He just knew. I was by far the junior member of the team. I was replaceable. Any one of dozens of journeymen writer-writers could have contributed what I contributed. (And in fact once the partnership broke up, succeeding writer-writers did exactly that.)
The way we worked, Stanley and I, was that I threw idea after idea at him. I had no conception of which ones were the good ones. Stanley did. I could tell from his face when I’d heaved a bad idea at him. “Ah,” he’d say when a good one showed up.
He’d stop us at the good idea. Then we’d work on that.
But Stanley was not only a fielder of ground balls. He also had GREAT ideas himself. (If I told you a couple of them from movies, you’d agree, trust me.)
Stanley could not write a scene. If you sat him down at a keyboard, he was paralyzed. He couldn’t write dialogue. He couldn’t create characters. He knew them when he saw them or heard them. But he couldn’t sit down and put them on the page.
Working with Stanley made me see all my weaknesses. I thought, “I’ve got to learn to recognize a good idea the way Stanley does. I can’t just sling thirty of them against the wall like spaghetti and be unable to tell which ones stick and which don’t.”
And I thought, “I’d got to find my own madness and genius and access them like Stanley does. I’ve got to get to great ideas. Not good ones. GREAT ones.” Otherwise I’ll always be just a wordsmith, a journeyman, a writer-writer.
Most writers, in my experience, are writer-writers. That’s their strength and that’s their weakness.
One of the great effects that Shawn’s THE STORY GRID is having, I hope, is to open wordsmiths’ eyes to the need to be storysmiths as well. But that skill, witness Stanley, is more than keen analysis and brilliant dissection.
It’s access to one’s own genius and instincts on the broadest and deepest possible level. If you’ve got this gift, God bless you. If you don’t, the best thing to do in my opinion is to put yourself around writers and artists who do have it, then just watch them and imitate them and be inspired by them.
I will never be the producer-writer that Stanley is naturally. He’s a genius. He’s got the gift. But when people ask me what I learned from working with Stanley, it’s simply that: to think big, to trust your instincts, to be wild and crazy and grab for ideas that seem lunatic on first glance but that are flush with genius once you look at them closely.
I don’t think a storysmith can ever learn to be a wordsmith. But a wordsmith can become a storysmith.
If I knew, I’d bottle it and sell it. In the broadest terms, it seems to be a process of internal expansion, of casting aside all preconceived notions of what’s good or what’s true (or even what works) and digging deeper to find one’s own specific crazy genius and then learning to trust it. It’s like befriending that little lunatic elf that lives in the center of your chest, or that mad troll who hangs out under that bridge inside your heart, and then convincing that brilliant but easily spooked little character, instance by instance, that it’s okay to show himself, that he can stick his head up and come out into the daylight; you won’t hurt him or make fun of him, that you want to hear what he has to say and that you value it.