Not because I am embarrassed to tell them. I’m just not sure I know how. Someone recently asked me to tell one of them and I uncharacteristically said “No”, “uncharacteristically” because I like to tell all stories. Even when nobody asks me to. But with this one, I was afraid I just didn’t have the goods. And I am a professional storyteller, so I am supposed to.
Demonstrating that, even for longtime professionals there can be challenging pitfalls, telling a story. Amateurs are brave to even attempt to, facing the potential debacle of,
“A guy walks into a bar. No, wait! It was a supermarket. No, wait! It was an all-night convenience store. That’s important to the story.”
When it comes to telling a story, generally speaking, it’s amateurs – “Beware!” – and seasoned professionals – “Be humble.“
For me with this one, it was “Tell that story about blah-blah.”
“I am not certain I can.”
I shall attempt that first story today, and probably tell the next story badly tomorrow. No. I’ll tell the next story, probably badly, tomorrow.
See that? I am primed and ready for telling stuff badly.
Okay, here we go, telling a wonderful story I am not sure I can tell. Not to embarrass myself. But to reveal the attendant harrowing pitfalls. Even when you supposedly know how.
We’re at the Tally Ho Inn, in the Muskoka area of Northern Ontario, close to my old camp and slightly further from Algonquin Park, where we went on canoe trips. Five summers ago, I enjoyed a weekend “Nostalgia Tour” there, in the company of Dr. M, my brother Hart and his wife Nancy.
End of our visit, we are checking out at the Front Desk. Awaiting credit card approval, the conversation turns to “Celebrities summering in the area”, including Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg, Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks. It is then the Tally Ho Inn manager imparts this gem of a story.
And imparts it impeccably. Perhaps not for the first time, but still. We are talking “Master Raconteur.” Even if he saw it in Readers Digest and committed it to memory. The man “committed it” perfectly. And now… here goes my best shot at repeating it.
“Fade In” on the Canoe Lake General Store in Algonquin Park. A man sends in his wife in to buy him an ice cream while he waits outside in the car.
Entering the store, the woman lines up behind a Tall Man customer currently being served, who looks very familiar to her. Finishing his business, the Tall Man heads towards the nearby Men’s Room. The woman steps to the counter, orders the ice cream, then, gesturing to the departing Tall Man, asks the server,
“Is that Tom Selleck?”
Moments later, the woman races excitedly out to the car, shouting,
“I think Tom Selleck’s in there.”
To which her husband responds,
“Where’s my ice cream?”
Exiting the Men’s Room, the Tall Man sees the frazzled woman asking the server what happened to the ice cream. He then walks over to her and says,
“I have two things to tell you: One, I am Tom Selleck. And two, you put the ice cream in your purse.”
And that’s it.
In a way, it’s kind of a “bulletproof” story – an “out of context” celebrity and a punch line “ice cream in your purse.” But telling it now, I detect gaps and confusions, not apparent when I originally heard it.
First, it is a preposterously delicately timed narrative. The Tall Man has to have heard “Is that Tom Selleck?” and seen what happened to the ice cream before entering the Men’s Room and witnessed the woman’s frazzled confusion when he came out.
There is also an issue concerning the smoothness of the storytelling. Did the server, when asked “Is that Tom Selleck?” reply, “I don’t know” or “Could be” or even “Who’s Tom Selleck?” Or is there a natural “Jump Cut” between “Is that Tom Selleck?” and the woman racing out to the car?
And what happened when she came back? Was the server unaware of her previous actions? Or was his explanation “cut short” when the Tall Man abruptly interceded? And is any of that truly necessary for the successful telling of that story?
Recounting it today, I am still wrestling with the content.
For maximum impact, a well-told anecdote must be built “brick-by-brick”, no essential “brick” left out, no “brick” you don’t need. Any extraneities, ambiguities or logical questions? Your story falls as flat as a deflated balloon.
Leaving the lame storyteller with “deflated balloon egg” on their faces.
That’s why I steadfastly demurred when asked to deliver that story. It’s like the mythical White Buffalo.
I have glimpsed it from a distance.
But I am unable to rein it in.
Tomorrow, another story I probably shouldn’t attempt.
That one, I have never successfully told right.
Maybe it’s not possible to do so.
But it is such a good story,
I can’t help giving it a try.