Tuesday, August 18, 2009


One time my mom and I got gobsmacked together. It was a long time ago, back before the word gobsmacked came into the popular vocabulary. We were waiting for dinner in a revolving restaurant in Honolulu, having a glass of wine while we waited. One glass of wine, you say. What difference can one glass of wine make? Well, for some it might not be much, but one glass of wine on an empty stomach was a lot of alcohol for Mom and me. We decided to visit the Ladies’ Room. All was well until we came out. And that is when we were gobsmacked. For the washroom had stayed in place, or, at least, had turned with the earth, while the restaurant tables—accelerated by an unseen motor--had moved. Heading back to our table we found that our table had disappeared. Somebody else’s table had taken its place. There we stood, Gobsmacked; utterly surprised; astonished; a little bit disoriented; a little bit speechless. the experience lingered on, not so much in fact as in feeling. It lingered long after the waitress rescued us--revolving restaurant waitresses get used to the rescue routine.
I think of it today, as I celebrate the news that my hope workshop proposal has been accepted for presentation next summer at the National Storytelling Network conference in Los Angeles. I find myself reflecting on one significant difference between a fabulous workshop and a fabulous story. A fabulous workshop educates you. It inspires you. It activates your curiosity. A fabulous story does all this and one thing more. A fabulous story leaves you gobsmacked. Is there a storyteller on earth who does not hope to create that experience for a listener?
Gobsmacked! It doesn’t happen often, but it’s been done to me a few times by a few different storytellers—Elizabeth Ellis, Donna lively, Carmen Agra Deedy. It’s left me knowing things I didn’t even hope to learn and being glad I learned them. What other word could so appropriately describe my reaction the first time I heard Tim Tingle tell a story about the Choctaw people on the trail of tears? It happened five years ago at a National Storytelling Network conference in Bellingham, and I’ve been thinking and talking about the Choctaw people ever since. Tim’s name was unfamiliar to me, but I signed up for his workshop on collecting stories. I sat down in a stuffy classroom, gave this stranger the majority of my attention and then suddenly—the workshop was over and I was gobsmacked—not so much by the workshop itself, which was educational and inspiring, but by the story inside it. Without any intention on my part to admit them, the Choctaw people had taken up a space in my heart. I exited slowly, a little bit disoriented, a little bit speechless.
You know you’ve been gobsmacked when, for a fraction of a fraction of a second, your world speeds up, or maybe it slows down. Your attention is somehow refocused. Next thing you know, your world has fallen out of line with everybody else’s world, leaving you in a different place—somewhere you didn’t expect to be. If I would be granted only one explanation to justify all the time and money I have spent pursuing master storytellers it would be this: Once you’ve been gobsmacked by a story, you tend to search for a recurrence of that experience, the way people return to casino tables, lured by the memory of their winning times while their losing times fade to the background.
Master storytellers can gobsmack you, not every time, maybe not even most of the time, but they can do it, and the feeling is fabulous when they do. They can make you laugh at things that shouldn’t be funny and dissolve you in tears when you hadn’t thought to bring a tissue. They can make you believe you’ve been to places you know you never visited. They can trick you into caring about historical events, attach you irrevocably to people whose fate you had never once pondered.
If you go to a conference or festival where master storytellers gather, there is a reasonable chance of being gobsmacked. So much goes on at such events that I usually make a few notes. I note stories that interest me—there are many, and stories I might consider telling—sometimes there is a story or two. But if a story should happen to gobsmack me, well that’s another matter. For the after affects of my engagement with that story, the reverberations from that moment of surprising disorientation will be with me for a long long time, starting a voyage of discovery I had never intended to take.
Storytellers tend to put on workshops at conferences, and sometimes even at festivals. It’s a thing they are expected to do, a forum for teaching their craft to others. So they develop workshops on collecting stories, or organizing storytelling events, or inspiring hope through story—if that is where their expertise lies. But if there’s ever been a workshop on how to gobsmack your listeners, I’ve not yet seen the advertising. Gobsmacking is most likely to occur when a skilled teller applies vivid language to interesting content. It describes a process during which the heart steps in front of the mind and takes over the listening. It happens to somebody in a crowded room, though probably not to everybody. Mostly, I think, it happens by magic.
And so, as I peer a whole year into the future, to a day when a roomful of people who have never heard my name will show up for a workshop called “Hopeful Telling from Inside Out: Audaciously Spreading Hope Through Story” I gather my tried-and-true hope materials. I know they will not let me down. Then I reach forward in a tentative gesture of hope, permitting myself to briefly wonder how one should prepare to tell a gobsmacker. Is it something you prepare for, or do you have to count on the magic?

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