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My Adventures at the National Storytelling Conference

I wrote the bulk of this article months ago, but what with money to make, houses to clean, meals to cook, films to finish, musicals to write, parties to throw, and babies to entertain … well, is there really a need to finish this sentence?

On August first, I flew to Arizona to attend the National Storytelling Conference. I’d been invited to perform there for a showcase.

The first tragedy was that my good wife took it upon herself to teach me a lesson in responsibility. She warned me months in advance that she wasn’t going to take care of my travel and lodging accommodations. But I’d heard such idle threats before and had always seen her come through in the end. I knew that her sensibilities for planning and security would overcome her self-restraints — especially as deadlines approached — as my lackadaisical intolerance for such minutia would drive her crazy.

Only this didn’t happen. Less than a week before the conference, I realized that my plane hadn’t been booked yet, and I said to her, “You’re really not going to do it for me?” – “No!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to look out for each other! I hope she was happy as I paid a premium price for my tickets. I hope she knows the hundred plus dollars we could have saved by booking earlier will come directly out of her flowers and chocolates fund. At least I learned a valuable lesson: hire a real secretary.

The second tragedy was that the TSA folks necessitated the disposal of my beloved key chain pocket knife. So how was I supposed to fight off the terrorists? Oh well. Nothing spells security better than the disarming of law-abiding citizens, right?

When I picked up a rental car at the airport (thankfully, there were a couple rental cars that hadn’t been reserved … boy am I irresponsible), the clerk asked where I was going, and I told him about the conference. He asked what it was all about, and I explained, “Well, people come from all over the nation to tell stories.” – “And then what?” he asked. – “Well … they also talk about how to tell stories.” – “And?” – “And … that’s it.” – “Are these kids?” – “No, they’re adults.” In the silence that followed, I reflected with him on this bizarre phenomenon.

What was I doing with my life?

I was already down so much money (the conference itself wasn’t cheap) that, for sustenance over the remainder of the trip, I picked up a box of imitation Oreos. Thankfully, when I got to the Hilton hotel, where the conference was held, I discovered little hors d’oeuvres with which to supplement my diet.

Because I also don’t have time in life to read schedules, I learned that the last event for the day had just ended when I’d arrived. This whole affair was turning out to be quite silly. Though I guess it was okay, because I’d only actually paid for Saturday. I was just hoping to hang out with some cool people on Friday evening, not defeat any system … at least not entirely. Oh well.

The third tragedy was that, despite my every attempt to wing this whole thing and thus enjoy an exciting night as a bum on the streets of Phoenix (which I’d done before and had fond memories of), Teresa had actually come through in one regard. She’d reluctantly called her aunt the day before and arranged a room for me to stay in.

Well the thought of spending the rest of the day at her aunt’s house was too depressing, so at least I could still do some bumming for a few hours at the hotel. I picked up my attendee lanyard, because the lady at the booth hadn’t yet closed shop for the night. I discovered that the words “Saturday Only” were written on the lanyard with big ink letters. They didn’t have to spell it out for everyone to see. And as far as I could tell, I was the only one there who had come only for Saturday. I hid the shameful lanyard in my pocket.

After stuffing myself with more cookies and hors d’oeuvres, I did, in fact, find some cool people to mingle with as they ate dinner. I tried to appear too posh to stoop to buying dinner at a rundown place like the Hilton.

From our conversations, I learned that there was actually one more event that evening: the “story slam”. Apparently this was a competition that people had been looking forward to all year, and it came with a fair amount of clout. I was intrigued, but I was a Saturday only attendee …

Still, this wasn’t exactly a Fri-day event … it was just one little evening thing. I mean, I wasn’t planning on this. They wouldn’t want me to leave, would they?

To make the story short, the devil won the argument, and with the lanyard still cleverly concealed in my pocket, I went to the event. There were hundreds of people in the large conference room. The many contestants put their names in cups. Everyone was given the topic of “Fire and Light” for their stories. I actually wasn’t planning on competing, as I didn’t have anything prepared. But in the last minute, as inspired by a bit of peer pressure, I went over to the cups and added my name.

Throughout the event, some twelve to twenty names were drawn. As the competitors began to perform, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I was called on. What stories do I have about fire? I thought of the story I’d told at the Utah’s Biggest Liar contest, about my adventure down the Mississippi river, in which I’d spent a sleepless night without a tent or a sleeping bag, hunched up by a campfire. It was an okay story, but I hadn’t won anything at the contest with it, and now I was up against national storytellers. Some of these people were the celebrities I’d admired year after year at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah. I was feeling inadequate. I knew I didn’t have what it took.

Just kidding. I’m not in to the whole self-doubt thing. I know I’m awesome. If anything I suffer from overestimating my abilities, which had gotten me into some embarrassing predicaments in the past, and I did wonder if this would be a similar instance.

Though it didn’t matter, because storyteller after storyteller was called up but never me. I admired the great and their spectacular performances. Only that’s a lie too. I was far too preoccupied with rehearsing my story, which I hadn’t told in many months, lest I were to be called on.

Finally, the emcee announced that there was only time for one more performer. “And that is …”

Everyone sat up in the edge of their seats.

Hearts were pounding.

Fingernails were chomped.

“… Stephen … Gah … ler.” (Only it was pronounced worse than that.)

I knew it. Okay, if it hadn’t have happened, I’m sure I wouldn’t have said I knew it, thus indicating that I didn’t actually know it, and yet … I knew it. This was clearly the doings of fate, and I knew the mischievous little man well. And now I had to win. The pressure was on.

I told my story. And here it is:

If you listened to the recording, you’ll know that the emcee spoiled my dramatic narrative by telling you that I won first place. Oh well. The fun part was when the judges announced that there had been a tie for first place, and the audience insisted that there be a recount. After the recount, the judges announced that they did, in fact, have a winner by a significant number of points. When the second place winner was announced (one of the national celebrities I’d often seen at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival), she got pretty mad (in a fun kind of way) that there had been a recount. Then finally the emcee called me up. “Stephen … Goo … ler.”

And so that was that. For the rest of the conference, I enjoyed celebrity treatment. Some people invited me to lunch the next day, probed with questions, and eagerly ate up my advice, though I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know what I was talking about. My Saturday performance went well, though it certainly wasn’t as exciting as Friday night had been.

Anyway, if the National Storytelling Conference Story Slam is any indicator, I guess I’m the #1 storyteller in the nation, at least until next year. If anyone else wants to give me celebrity treatment, I’m sure we can work out something.

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