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Letting the Story Choose Me

by Doug Lipman

When I knew only a few stories to tell, I planned my programs carefully in advance. I would prepare a list of stories, then follow it carefully during a performance.

But by the time I knew about forty or fifty stories, I started to be bothered by what I called "stray images." I'd arrive at a performance with my painstakingly crafted list. As I watched the audience arrive, I would sometimes find myself imagining scenes from stories I knew that were not on my list. These images came to me spontaneously. Since they weren't from stories I planned to tell, I'd suppress them. What an annoyance they were!

Then, one day, I was to perform for the staff of a private, secular school in the Washington, D.C. area. As I watched the staff arrive and interact, an image came to me from a Hasidic story I had not planned to tell. Feeling especially confident or experimental that day, I decided to make room for the story in my program.

After the performance, two or three people sought me out to say, "You don't know what we've been through as a staff, but that one story was exactly what we needed to hear. Thank you."

After that, I began to trust the "stray images." Almost everytime I told a story that had beckoned to be told, someone would come up to me afterwards and say something like, "Thank you for that story. It seemed as if it was meant for me."

One Friday I arrived at a synagogue in another state. I was nervous because I was beginning an entire weekend in residence. Who was I to tell Jewish stories to a synagogue?

I spent Friday afternoon talking to the rabbi and his wife about the needs of the congregation for the weekend. I mapped out what stories I might tell, including a seven-minute Hasidic story for services that evening.

When I stood up during services to tell my story, I took a moment to prepare myself, as I always do. I imagined the "triumph" of the story, reminding myself of its emotional flavor. Then I imagined the opening scene of the story. I saw it exceptionally clearly: an old woman was walking toward the Baal Shem Tov, begging once again to be granted a son. The Baal Shem Tov was about to tell her she could have a son, but only for a short while. As soon as I had seen the opening scene in my mind, I began to describe it to the audience - I began to tell the tale.

Ten minutes through my story, I suddenly realized: this was not the seven-minute story I had meant to tell! What had gone wrong? Thinking back in panic, I remembered that I had imagined the triumph of the correct story. But when I had shifted to the opening scene, I had seen the opening scene of an entirely different story about the Baal Shem Tov. What was that old woman doing in this story? Her story would take fifteen minutes to tell, and all I could do now was finish it.

As I returned to my seat, I heard one of the older members of the congregation whisper, "That was so long!" His wife said, "Shhh!"

When I returned to the rabbi's house, he began telling me about the arrangements for my performance the next morning. I interrupted him, "Something happened tonight that shook me up. I can't concentrate until I tell you about it."

He paused patiently while I told him about telling the wrong story. "The most unusual thing," I said, "is that even though the whole congregation shook my hand and thanked me as they left, no one said, 'That story was for me.' Usually, when a story comes to me that strongly, at least someone in the audience has said they needed it."

The rabbi suddenly looked uncomfortable. After a moment, he said, "It was me." His eyes on the floor, he went on slowly. "You see, our son died a few years ago. I've never really accepted it. That was the story that I needed to hear."

After that experience, I have a new perspective on the power and responsibility of the storyteller to choose stories. I no longer feel an obligation only to choose stories well. Now I also feel the obligation to let the right stories choose me.

I tell these stories whenever they ask to be told, even when I don't understand why. I tell them even though they describe experiences I never had.

My job is to let these stories choose me. Your job, though, is not to tell these stories. Your job is to find your own forgotten story. You may choose to tell it, or not. But once you've found it, then you can go beyond it, to live your own unknown, unfinished story.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jewish Storytelling Center Newsletter.



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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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