Years ago I was telling one of my favorite stories (“The Dead Fiancee”) when a completely unexpected thing happened. At the very end of the story, the protagonist offers a character who has suddenly appeared in the story a sack of coins from the character’s sister. “What took you so long to give this to me?” the brother inquires, setting up the surprise ending. I always tell this story in character, so I looked up and to the left, as the brother is seated on the ground and the protagonist is looking down at him. But that’s not what the brother said.
“Why would my sister give anything to me?” The words erupted from my mouth, soaked in bile. I was caught in one of those terrifying and exhilarating moments when the story takes on a new life. In that moment I knew there were new, unexplored territories that only this “bit part” brother could take me to. Later, I thanked him for his invitation.
Open-hearted storytelling – stories told with the intention to invite transformation – can evoke meaningful change in all the elements of the storytelling moment. As Doug Lipman points out in his excellent book, “Improving Your Storytelling,” all three “legs” of the storytelling triangle change when a story: the audience, the storyteller, and the story itself. Now, the magnitude of those changes may be slight or large, depending upon circumstances. But change there will be.
But – is mere change enough? How do we get to transformation: that fundamental, state-changing, crossing over that doesn’t just paint the living room a new color, but transforms a house into a home?
There is exciting science behind this distinction; cyberneticists talk about a “Level 2 change” and neurologists talk about internal “cocktails” of neurotransmitters. As a storyteller, however, the fundamental criterion is clear: whoever enters into a storytelling exchange with an open heart increases the likelihood of transformational change.
Once I was telling a story about a king and his daughter reunited after years of catastrophic separation: he thought his daughter had died, and she had lost her memory. They are ultimately reunited when, drawn to tell the story that he used to tell her at bedtime, she enters a storytelling contest at which he is present. The reunion is sudden, emotional, and heartachingly beautiful.
Afterwards, a man came up to me and shared how deeply the story had moved him. “I lost my daughter 16 years ago,” he said, his eyes welling up. “Oh, I’m so terribly sorry for your loss,” I replied, “I hope…”
“No!” he exclaimed, “she’s still alive! We had a terrible fight sixteen years ago, and despite the fact that she lives down the street, I haven’t seen her or spoken to her since. I’m going there right now – thank you so much!”
Stories transform: us, our audience, and themselves. Join me in telling deeply, with an open heart, and accept the transformations that come your way.