To celebrate Shareable's Share or Die Storytelling Contest, and the print release of Share or Die, here's an essay celebrating the transformative power of storytelling by Megan Stielstra, author of Everyone Remain Calm and Literary Directory of the Chicago storytelling series 2nd Story.
Hundred bucks says you’ve told a story that changed someone’s life. More than likely, you weren’t even aware of it; you were just talking the way you always do, sharing crazy, beautiful, tragic or profound experiences with a first date or co-worker or partner, the stranger next to you on the bus, the thousand faceless people who read your blog, or maybe even the waitress at that brunch place you hit every Sunday. Ever stop and think how that waitress is listening—really listening?
What she heard might’ve changed her life.
For over a decade, I waited tables at a brunch restaurant in Chicago called the Bongo Room, known for its insanely amazing Chocolate Marscapone French Toast and the insanely large crowds of people waiting to eat it*. Every Sunday, these guys would come in—we’ll call them Steve, Jim, Mark, and Chip. Steve, Jim, and Mark were cool: they talked about last night at the Hunt Club, dressed in head-to-toe Ambercrombie and Fitch, and tried to buddy me up for faster service. “Hi, what’s your name?” they’d say when I got to the table; then, “Hi, Megan! We’re Steve, Jim, Mark, and Chip!” I didn’t bother saying they’d told me before, told me last week, told me eighteen thousand times so can you just get on with the pancakes and Bloody Marys ‘cause the wait for a table is over an hour, the guy at twenty-three is bitching about his benedict, I just got a nine-top on twenty-four, eight of whom want soy lattes—soy, for chrissakes!—and I don’t have time to yak it up so can you order?
But of course, they couldn’t.
“You see her?” Chip said, nodding at a girl a couple tables over. She was perfect—shiny hair, great body, big smile; imagine a television commercial for toothpaste or hairspray—and I looked back at Chip and said, “Yeah?”
“Can you find out if she’s married?” he asked, and, right away, Steve, Jim, and Mark started laughing. I should point out that Chip wasn’t like the other three. He was kinda chubby, kinda balding, kinda boring—Like, if I say tax attorney, you might imagine a guy like Chip.
“You wanna date her?” said Steve, Jim, and Mark. This was always how they treated him—sometimes he was the punchline; sometimes the punching bag—and while usually he’d turn red and laugh along with them, today he gripped the edge of the table and said, “No, I don’t want to date her. I want to marry her.”
The reaction was immediate: That girl wouldn’t be caught dead with a guy like you, That girl eats guys like you for breakfast, an appetizer for the main course, know what I’m saying? Har har, jab to the ribs—and Chip looked at me and said, “Please.”
It was the please that did it.
I went by her table, planning on doing a quick left hand check—ring or no ring?—and then back to Chip with the verdict, but it wasn’t that simple.The girl was sitting with her left arm crossed over her stomach, her left hand tucked underneath her right armpit. I watched her for nearly a half hour, and the whole time she ate, drank, and gestured with only her right hand.
“Well?” Chip asked.
“I’m working on it,” I said. Then I walked to her table and dropped a napkin on the floor, squatting down to hands and knees on the ground and looking up at her lap—no go.
“What are you doing?” asked my friend/co-worker, Molly, once I was back in the sevice station.
I told her.
“That’s so romantic!” she said, jumping up and down and clapping. “It’s like when you’re on the subway and you see someone, and you lock eyes, and it gets too intense so you have to look away , and when you look back, they’re looking away, and what I always wonder is, what would happen if you just kept looking?”
I didn’t know.
“We’ll never know,” Molly said, “because nobody ever tries!”
Before I could fully wrap my brain around that idea , I saw that Chip’s girl was standing up. She was reaching for her jacket. She was dropping her left arm down and—no, there wasn’t any ring—because there weren’t any fingers. There was a hand. And some stumps of varying sizes where fingers ought to be but weren’t.
I went to Chip’s table. “She doesn’t have fingers,” I announced.
They looked at me blankly, so I held up my left hand and folded my fingers into my palm. “No fingers,” I said again.
Steve, Jim and Mark nearly died laughing. Leave it to you to fall for a— and Guess she’s not so perfect anymore— and The one time you have balls enough to— but Chip didn’t hear any of it. He just watched as she left restaurant, and then, when the front door closed behind her, he did the last thing you’d ever expect from a punchline or a punching bag:
He got up and ran after her.
About six months later, I was walking around the restaurant refilling coffee and there, at a two-top by the front window, was Chip—who FYI looked fantastic: he’d shaved his head, muscled up a bit, dressed more cutting edge, like if I say CEO of Social Media Empire, you might imagine a guy like Chip. It was easy to see the reason behind the change, because sitting across the table from him was—wait for it—the girl. His beautiful, fingerless, perfect girl.
It took everything I had not to cheer.
They told me the whole story: how he caught up with her on the sidewalk; how he didn’t have know what to say because he’d never done anything like that before but, dammit, he tried; and how, when people ask where they met, they talk about the crazy waitress at the Bongo Room who crawled around on the floor.
Hearing that story, for me, was a gift. At the time, I was single, sort of bitter—just done with it. Have you been there?—and knowing that these two people were giving it a go—that they were trying—had a huge impact on me. Enough to start trying myself. Enough to share this story over and over with friends of mine in similar situaions. Enough to write it for a storytelling series I work with called 2nd Story, where we tell our stories aloud in the hopes that they will inspire our audience to consider their own, and how—even as we celebrate our differences—there are still multiple connections in our lives.
Here’s the power of a story: someone hands me one, like a gift (I imagine it wrapped in shiny paper with the bow, the handmade letterpress card, the whole nine yards), and in that gift, I find parts of myself that have been missing, parts of our world that I never imagined, and aspects of this life that I’m challenged to further examine. Then—and this is the important part, the money shot, if you will—I take that gift and share it. In my own writing, sure, but the kind of sharing I’m talking about here is the domino effect: how I hear/watch/read a story, and then tell everybody and their mother about it, and then they tell everybody and their mother, and somewhere in that long line of people is someone who, at this exact point in their life, needed its message more than we’ll ever know.
We do this all the time: “Oh my gosh, I just heard/watched/read the most awesome thing! It’s called The Danger of a Single Story or Tiny Beautiful Things or Colossal or anything by Roxane Gay or Risk or "The Impossible Will Take a Little While" or "Hello, Martians" or "Shadow Show" or Unnatural Spaces or The Princess and the Warrior or Symphony City or The Walking Dead or Share or Die or any one of a thousand novels/plays/essays/movies/comics/articles/blogs you read every day, and it made me think about—”
What did the last story you heard/watched/read make you think about?
Did it help you find parts of yourself that have been missing? Parts of our world that you never imagined? Aspects of this life that you’re challenged to further examine?
My God—what a gift.
And now, you wrap it up and give it away. Somebody out there really needs a good present. Maybe your friend, maybe a co-worker, maybe that random person sitting next to you on a bus.
Or maybe the crazy waitress at the that restaurant you go to every single day; the one who’s ready to crawl around on the floor if it helps you find the love of your life.
* The Bongo Room should also be known for the kindness and generosity of its owners—Derrick Robles and John Latino—whose friendship and business supported me while I put myself through school, made art, kicked off a teaching career, and generally figured out what the hell I was doing. I’d wager there are many theatre artists and literary artists and visual artists and artists who can say the same. So, on behalf of us all, I’d like to say thank you to service industry for helping us pay our rent and live our dreams; for allowing us the flexibility to audition and finish projects; for giving our audiences the space to discuss our art over yummy food; for our after parties (!); for coffee; for wine; and, most of all, the lifelong friendships.