I recently attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The fall weather was glorious and crisp — the kind of days that call you to hike the mountains and eat apples right off the trees. Sturdy shoes and flannel shirts, scarves and hats were the order of the day.
The tellers, more than 25 of them, were a diverse bunch: men, women, young, not so young, varied backgrounds and mixed ethnicities, and talents beyond simple story telling.
I heard nearly all of the tellers during the three days. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Tim Lowry told stories of the South Carolina Gullah culture. After setting the scene in an old plantation house, his voice drifted into the Gullah dialect. At first I wasn’t sure what happened and he didn’t stop to explain. He just kept going, assuming we were with him — and we were. I didn’t get every word, but I caught the humor. Listening carefully is a good thing.
- Motoko gave us the world of Japanese Christmas with her younger brother, Santa Claus, her parents, and the Buddhist priest. She paused several times to sing a Christmas carol; we knew her tune but not her Japanese words. I was so mesmerized by her story and culture and song, I couldn’t recall the English stanzas I’d known my entire life.
- Ingrid Nixon told Hansel and Gretel, one of Grimm’s fairytales, but with a twist — we heard the witch’s perspective on the children, the parents, and the entire situation. What a change to a story we thought we knew.
- Clare Muireann Murphy shared a fable of Middle Eastern origin about a baker and a baby and a king. She mixed and kneaded the bread like she’d been the baker all her life. Her steps across the empty stage magically transported us from house to castle to bakeshop.
- Katie Liesener, a freelance journalist, told a gripping tale of an eccentric man who collected found objects. I think the story was true, that she really interviewed the man several times herself, but I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that I was with her in that apartment full of boxes and dust and smells. I knew her discomfort.
Though their stories have begun to fade, I’m holding on to their language — words honed and crafted until they were exactly right. Nothing was there that didn’t belong. The stage was bare. They had no gimmicks, no instruments, no costumes, no props. Their voices and body language were their only tools. And their pacing was impeccable. They dropped words and phrases into silence spaces and let them sit until we picked them up.
Simple. Sparse. Minimalist.
Perhaps that’s how I can best hear your story.
Perhaps that’s how you can best hear my story.
Let’s not rush to fill the silence.
Let’s speak our words . . . and then wait for another soul to hear them.
Until next Tuesday . . .