An admiring student of mine flattered me by saying he wants to become interesting “just like me.”
At least I think he was admiring. He could have just been very adept at brown nosing, a tactic I’ll fall for every single time. Bona fide flatterer or skillful butt smoocher, it all has the same effect: A kid who was borderline failing has now vaulted to the top of the class.
It’s so effective I think I’ll describe the technique on the first page of next semester’s syllabus.
Here’s a portion of what he wrote:
“I remember after the first week of the semester a coworker asked me to use one word to describe each of my professors. I used the word "Intimidating" (IN A GOOD WAY) for you. Listening to other people tell stories and ramble has always been interesting to me. So meeting someone as good at the 'storytelling' craft as you was like meeting the 'FINAL BOSS' of observers. Very rare to meet somebody that talks smart but doesn't talk boring, and that is exactly what you do. My question: How do you do it?”
It’s really a very good question, right up there with, for God’s sake, how come I can’t convert this admirable characteristic into actual income?
I understand his yearning. Understand it perfectly. Being a good storyteller was what I wanted to become when I was his age. I remember being mesmerized by men and women telling stories of their triumphs, their failures. It’s always been there but in my case, it became acute in the Music City taverns and honky tonks.
It was there in Nashville I began to understand that whether it was good or bad, every single thing that happened in my life could become a story worth telling — as long as it was told with bedrock honesty.
I made it my life’s mission to become a compelling storyteller, a raconteur.
Raconteur is a 19th Century French word meaning “to tell.” So any moron with a mouth can be a raconteur.
But a good one will first spend many, many years engaged in the act of — another French word warning! — auditicie.
That word means “to listen.”
I didn’t become a true storyteller until I had a treasure chest of great stories I’d heard from other people. Unless you’re an astronaut or maybe a pilot who’s landed a commercial jetliner on the Hudson River, your stories about yourself are unlikely to hold anyone’s attention. They inevitably come across as boastful.
It’s like I always say about becoming interesting (it’s one of my favorite lines): “Those who want to appear more colorful get tattoos. Those who want to become more colorful get library cards.”
So you need to find out where the colorful people — good and bad — hang out.
I find many of them in divey bars. They have sketchy backgrounds, angry dispositions, an outstanding warrant or two.
I have many good friends from church who confess to being sinners and are ashamed of it. And I’m friends with guys in bars who confess to being sinners and they brag about it.
Which is the more compelling character?
And then there’s this to consider: there are two types of listeners. Actual listeners and those who give the impression they’re actually listening.
Being the latter is far preferable
An actual listener smiles and nods sympathetically, all the while preparing to offer salient advice that’s never sought. Most people simply want to talk to anyone who simply smiles and nods. They don’t want your lousy advice and may, in fact, respond with hostility once it’s offered.
The reaction leads the actual listener to feelings of uselessness and burnout and inevitably they end up back in the bar hoping to sit next to someone who’ll merely smile and nod, smile and nod.
At his or her heart every really good raconteur enjoys being human and enjoys human beings.
Struggle with those essentials?
Befriend an elderly neighbor, volunteer at a local animal shelter or join a church choir. Or you could do what I did.
Read Mark Twain.
I recommend starting with the broadly delightful travelogues, “Following The Equator,” “Life on the Mississippi” and “Innocents Abroad.”
These books exude humanity in all its glory and are told by America’s greatest storyteller.
I could go on and on. The topic is that dear to me. But I sense some of you are beginning to smile and nod, smile and nod. So that’s plenty.
As always, thanks for listening.
Or at least appearing to.
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