I'm in a store, chatting amiably about nothing much with the checkout clerk. And then I feel it. That antsy, gotta get-away-feeling. That sense of "ok, I don't have anything else to say, can I leave now?"
Maybe it's my Yankee upbringing. Maybe I'm impatient, or even a little rude. Or maybe I'm just not interesting enough to keep spontaneous conversation going for that amount of time. I'm much better with a script, or a story with an ending I know by heart.
At some point in my past, I remember being dubbed "the storyteller." It might have been college, or late high school. Regardless, it was not entirely a compliment. There was a bit of eye-rolling inherent in that nickname, a bit of "oh, lord, here she goes again." If you're stuck on a road trip with me, for example, you are guaranteed to hear your share of "hey, so a few years back, when I was...". It's just a given.
So it was with great anticipation that I learned we were going to have a session at the Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged conference about storytelling. The AWBU, for those who don't know, was a gathering of about 70 women in Mountain View Arkansas last weekend. You can read more about my adventures at AWBU here.
Mary, the park interpreter at the Ozark Folk Center, told us stories for at least 30 minutes. She did two stories, one in traditional dress and the other, after a slow transformation, in modern-day fishing gear. She definitely hit her stride during the fish story, but her first story, about "collecting" the stories of women who used music to get through their lives, was the most poignant. For many of my fellow bloggers, including this one, it conjured memories of the strong women of their pasts.
For me, the storytelling started off as a typical artistic experience; I was examining and parsing Mary's technique, comparing it to the hundreds of stories I've seen presented live. Like most live experiences, it took the audience (myself included) a while to settle down and really listen. But that's not the fault of the storyteller. My mom once remarked, after going to a piano concert, that you really have to give your brain time to settle in to the focused, quiet activity of watching live performance, especially since it's so rare in our lives these days. Mary, I noticed, gave us that time, starting her tale slowly, not revealing the meat of it until we'd stopped gabbing and really tuned in.
Mary's stories had the wandering, non-linear messiness of what I'm coming to discover is the storytelling style of these parts. If the stories were people on a stroll, they would start on the main road, then stop for tea on a front porch, head back to the road, then veer off for an over-the-fence chat with a neighbor. They zig-zag across the map, veering off for a side trip here, or a tangent there, until we often can't remember where they started. But inevitably, they come back to the road and finish up, leaving us a little wiser than we were before.
|My beautiful new handmade broom. I will|
probably never sweep anything with it.
But it was Sherman, the spinning top maker, who brought it all full circle for me.
Sherman and I were walking down the same path, he in one direction, I in the other. He gave me a cordial smile, I said hello, and he asked me how the blogging conference was going. We stopped and began to chat.
I can't recall everything we talked about, but I wish I had recorded our conversation so I could share the marvelous, convoluted path we traveled. Of course, after just a few minutes, I started to get that antsy feeling. I made subtle attempts to move on, but Sherman was having none of it; he kept asking me about me, my blog, my life (somehow we got to talking about how many languages the Swiss speak, prompted by a conversation about how I studied abroad in Geneva. Don't ask me how we got there. I have no clue.). I discovered that he orders parts for his tops from Taiwan, that he has a relative (or maybe a relative-in-law) who is working for a choreographer in New York, and that his sister (or sister-in-law) has beat cancer three times, bless her heart. He told me his sales were good, and when I exclaimed, "That's great!" he replied, "Yes it is. But for every top I sell, I have to make another one."
At some point in this dialogue, as I was shifting from foot to foot and eying the next shop as my escape route, something happened. I stopped, mentally smacked myself and said "Jodi, you jerk. You have nowhere to go. There's no reason you shouldn't stay and talk to this interesting man for as long as you can. What's wrong with you? Listen, really listen, and maybe you'll learn something." It wasn't easy for me to stay tuned in, but I did it, and I'm so glad I did.
Sherman, his fellow shop owners, and Mary the park interpreter did indeed teach me something. They taught me that at some point in an interaction with a stranger, we will tip from small talk to storytelling. I don't usually get there. I usually run off and breathe a sigh of relief that I'm on my own again, or I head for a familiar face and we share our usual, safe conversation. But if we get there, we will hear something we haven't heard before, or say something we've never said before.
I also learned that it's ok to be a storyteller. It's ok if our stories wander; we'll bring them back eventually, and even if we don't, we'll have some fun along the way. If our stories are too long, many in our audience will just leave, and that's fine. Let them. The ones who stick around, who hear it all the way through, will be the interesting ones. They'll be the ones to tell us their own stories, the interesting ones, and we'll learn something from them.
I'm not saying I'm going to magically become great at small talk. But I think, thanks to this experience, I'll become more aware of when we cross that invisible line, and hopefully I'll pay more attention to what we discover out on that winding, meandering road.