Everyone, regardless of age, likes a good story. If you don’t believe me, notice what happens to the person who’s nodding off during the sermon or a meeting when the speaker begins to tell a story to illustrate his or her point.
But storytelling is important for much more than mere entertainment, although that’s a legitimate use of it. Storytelling is a means by which we pass our values, history, and culture on to the next generation. Before the advent of the printing press and all of today’s technology-driven media, that was just about the only way of passing it along. And although we have so much technology and information at our fingertips today, storytelling is still an effective means of communicating truth and values to others.
Not just anyone can be an effective storyteller. It takes someone with special skills and abilities. Some of those people tell stories audibly; others tell them in written form.
Jesus Christ as the Master Storyteller. His most often used teaching technique was the parable, which often has been defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”
Another good (albeit human) storyteller was Mark Twain. He not only wrote good stories but also told them to live audiences. And he even wrote a story telling other people how to tell stories effectively.
But the storyteller I most vividly remember from my childhood was my maternal grandfather. He grew up learning that part of the Southern Appalachian heritage, and his diverse life experiences gave him much grist for his story mill.
As a kid, I used to sit with Paw Summers on his blue-painted wooden porch on many warm afternoons, staring out across the road toward the Southern Railroad tracks and listen to him tell stories. He sat in a homemade rocking chair that was held together by innumerable layers of paint and stare into the distance as he spun his tales.
Although Paw probably never read Mark Twain’s instructions on how to tell a good story, he was expert at doing exactly what Twain advised. He made a big deal out of insignificant minor details in his stories. For example, during a story, he would worry over what day of the week the event about which he was telling actually happened, what the weather had been that day, what year it was, or whether the event had happened in Clinton or in Kingsport or on Chestnut Ridge or beside Bull Run Creek.
He quite often diverged innumerable times during a story, burying stories within stories but finally finding his way back to complete the original story just when listeners were beginning to think he had lost his way entirely. Yet, he somehow always left his listeners wanting to hear more, or he would use the just-finished story as a springboard into the next story.
Sometimes my grandmother (Nannie, we called her) would be sitting with us. She often entered Paw’s storytelling, usually to argue with him over one of the many insignificant details of his story. Or she would interrupt with, “Oh, Fred! You did not!” Sometimes, discerning the story that Paw was about to tell, she would declare, “Fred! You know better than to tell that!”
We kids also used to love it when Daddy sat down in his recliner after supper. We begged him, “Daddy, tell us a farm story!” That’s what we called stories from his own childhood. They were usually funny, even after we’d heard the same ones time after time. The problem was that he, tired from a long day of work and his stomach full of supper, often fell asleep during his own storytelling. We never did.
Paw’s and Daddy’s storytelling were natural, not contrived. I think that they were totally unaware of their own storytelling prowess; they were just being themselves. Perhaps it is that very quality that makes Appalachian storytellers unique. Like Paw and Daddy, they just do “what comes natural.”
Storytelling is an important way in which my generation and countless ones before it learned of their heritage. It is part of our heritage that must be preserved and fostered, a skill that, like porch-sitting, must be passed on to our children and to their children for generations to come. Come to think about it, porch-sitting and storytelling seem to go naturally together!