In East Tennessee the performance side of storytelling can be observed at The National Storytelling Festival. Usually, when I tell anyone that I am going to a storytelling festival, they say, “What is that?” We have become accustomed to getting our entertainment electronically and the tradition of telling stories would probably be lost if it were not for places that make a point of preserving the oral storytelling tradition.
In the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, the telling of stories has become an art and “tellers” are celebrities with their own entertainment circle. The National Storytelling Center is in Jonesborough and you can visit it and hear stories by resident tellers anytime, though not in the quantity you hear during a three-day, and into the night, storytelling extravaganza. It is amazing to see a person without any props other than a microphone and a stool hold thousands of people spellbound.
Some of the storytellers are musicians who are most likely performers first and then weave the music into the story they tell. Some tellers are teachers, journalists, or speakers from other fields. But some are simply “talkers.” They have a story about something that happened to them or someone they know and it is too good to keep to themselves. Because they are talkers, not writers, they choose an oral accounting of the event.
Some of the stories told are true and some not as true. Embellishment is allowed if it helps the story to be a better one. A rule of thumb is usually that it is okay to embellish as long as it is obvious that it is not true. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell truth from fiction. One of the favorite tricks of tellers is to start out with an honest and forthright story and when people are totally convinced, to turn the story into such an absurdity that it is obvious that the listeners have been taken in. Audiences love these “tall tales and just plain lies.”
Does your own family have a storyteller? Often an older member of the family is the “family historian” and tells stories from their own life or that of ancestors. These stories can be passed through generations and eventually become folk legends. My mother was a storyteller. She was not a public performer and her stories were more of interest to relatives than to others. I remember many stories that she told about her childhood, most of which were finally written down, but some of which went unwritten and have been lost.
It is difficult to describe large-scale story telling as it is not only the story, but the shared experience of listening and being part of the audience that makes it what it is. It is not only the entertainment, but participating in an event that is somehow bigger, or more significant than the story. We are all familiar with these phenomena as fans at sporting events, when sharing in collective worship, or when attending a concert or play. Something just makes it better when you are not the only one who appreciates it.
Because I am a writer, the sharing of my tales is done with the pen or the keyboard. That does not mean that I do not appreciate other kinds of sharing. Stories may be sad, funny, or poignant, but are always entertaining, which is why they are stories, not reports. My stories are often humorous. I don’t always intend that, but the nature of a personality comes out in how a person tells their stories. The more you share your stories the better they become as they are polished with each telling like the smoothing of a rough stone into a gem.
And this is my story about stories. Remember what they say, “Everyone has a story.” Be sure to tell yours.
Copyright 2013 Sheila Moss