Telling a story is an art.
An art I have never seemed to master. Not in so many spoken words, anyway.
It's been this way since I was a kid.
“Can I say something?” I'd ask at the dinner table, and then follow up with a long period of silence.
Predictably, conversations would continue without me.
I'd sit there, fuming. “No one ever listens to me.”
Grumble, grumble, grump.
“You need to jump in,” my mother would say, annoyed. “You have to start talking. You can't wait for an engraved invitation.”
“But then you say I'm interrupting,” I challenged, completely confused.
“You have to wait until people stop talking before you jump in. Then, you have to keep their attention by saying something interesting.”
That's some tough love for a child of five.
Sadly, I don't think I have ever arrived at the right conversational balance.
I still can't seem to hold my own when it comes to small talk.
Take, for instance, the chat I had with another mother, recently:
She had marveled at the colorful confections I proffered for the community theater bake sale table. They were perfect, she said, for a children's play centered around Dr. Seuss.
I beamed. My iced vanilla cupcakes topped with red striped marshmallow hats were a hit.
She wondered how it was that I came to think up such a confectionary novelty.
And then I made the mistake so many of us make when faced with a smidgeon of attention.
I explained the process … in excruciating detail.
I first told of my internet research, and the trials and errors of completing the very first batch. I told of lopsided hats, grocery store chats and an accounting of marshmallows fed to the dog. I used my hands and minced several words pertaining to the final construction.
And though I could see her eyes glaze over somewhere between “Pinterest search” and “prototypes,” I couldn't stop talking.
By the time she was able to wriggle away to attend some imaginary task, I knew she was never coming back.
I didn't feel bad about it, though. I've been in her place. Quietly rearranging my closet as someone tells me their life story, complete with weather forecast, after I had smiled in their direction and remarked about having a nice day.
My son has been showing some of the same proclivities in his storytelling pursuits.
One night, at dinner, as we were discussing plans for the summer, he broke down in tears.
“No one ever listens to me,” he lamented after repeating “You know what?” about a gazillion times.
Grumble, grumble, grump.
I try to stop my mother's words from forming in my throat, but couldn't hold the words in check: “You need to jump in. You have to start talking. You can't wait for an engraved invitation.”
He just looked at me with tears streaming down his face. Evidently the equivalent of an engraved invitation is necessary:
“Go ahead. We're waiting.”
He sniffled and brightened.
“Did you know sharks really like meat and they're often mistaken. If they see a surfboard, they might think it's a fish, but when they take a bite they eat the human instead. It's real. You can look it up.”
He didn't wait for a response, he just went back to spearing his steak with his fork, happy to have gotten that morsel of information off his chest.
In the stunned silence that followed it occurred to me that perhaps effective storytelling has more to do with paring an invitation with a non-sequitur than it has to do with art.
Well, that and brevity.