Story Telling as High Culture and Community Connector.
Most of us have good childhood memories that begin with the phrase “tell me a story.” Stories are some of the earliest connections we have with those we love. They can fire our imagination, touch our emotions, teach us valuable lessons.
That is only the beginning. Stories are also how we pass down culture and history. In some cultures, this is the primary means for passing along what is important. Story tellers are honored people, with foundational roles in society.
You may be forgiven for thinking this is no longer the case in America. In our high tech, mobile society, we rely on media and data banks to capture who we are and where we came from. I am pleased to inform you, dear reader, that you would be wrong in that conclusion.
Storytelling remains alive and well in this country. It is a thing of beauty and power to experience. Storytelling has always been a part of regional cultures in America. This true nowhere more so than in Appalachia.
Now that we live in the Smoky Mountains, my wife and I have come to know the storytelling culture much better. There are story telling events, invitationals, workshops all over the area. Many of you may be familiar with the Moth Radio Hour on PBS, which is dedicated to world class story telling. (https://themoth.org/radio-hour). They are about to hold their second national competition story slam in our hometown of Asheville. This is by far the smallest community in which such an event has been held. When it comes to storytelling, we fight above our weight around here.
But the Mother Ship of storytelling resides in Jonesborough, TN. This is home for the National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center. It is a place to behold. (http://www.storytellingcenter.net/events/national-storytelling-festival/)
We had heard of the National Storytelling Festival. This year, we finally got to attend. This is as good as it gets.
Imagine an entire town overtaken by world-class story telling. This is a big and complex event, run by a bunch of volunteers and a handful of pros. Sponsors range from the local wine store to the National Endowment for the Arts. Every available space in town is taken up with circus-like tents. Each tent has a series of storytellers, each performing for about an hour. People are free to wander in and out as they wish. I never saw anyone wander out. We were all spellbound.
The storytellers are a people apart. This is a unique skill set. Most of them make their living doing this. They wander the globe to reward the audiences that find them. Most have great websites and blogs. They range from well-known locals, to country and city people. Many are from other countries. Quite a few also play instruments, weaving music into their stories. Sing alongs are heartily encouraged.
Most stories are personal. Some are intensely so; it takes courage to share such a story. But they do, and the audience is unfailingly receptive, gentle, and appreciative. There are plenty of places in the world to be mean or cynical. A storytelling gathering is not one of them.
In addition to tent loads of stories being shared all over town, there are workshops and study groups to teach the craft and polish the skills. There are open mic settings, special programs for children, ghost stories at night. On and on it goes. One could get drunk absorbing all this humor and wisdom.
Storytelling is much more than simply relating an event or sharing facts. It is about creating a collective experience. When done well, everyone in the audience feels as though they are inside that story. They are a part of the experience, they come to know the characters. It is as though we are all transported and are sharing a collective consciousness. It is the most shared experience in a large group that I can remember.
By the end of the story, people feel as though we all know each other. Multiply that over an entire weekend and you can imagine what an experience this could be. What makes the experience even better is the diversity of the audience. All ages, races, genders, and life experiences are gathered together to be transported by a great story.
If you have not been to a storytelling event, start looking for them. Your life – and maybe even your personality (!) – will be better for the experience.
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