Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are.”

As far as we know, storytelling is a part of every culture. The familiar perception of storytelling as an essential survival mechanism in the limited toolbox of ancient cultures, long since overtaken by the written word and relegated to a form of entertainment in most of the world, belies the truth of storytelling as our ever-present anchor in communicating with each other all day, every day, nearly everywhere.

We are all storytellers from the time we start interacting with the first storytellers in our lives (parents, grandparents, siblings, and so on), picking up the way to get the attention of others and our points across.  But some people seem to be born as truly gifted “tellers.”

On May 6th, many of those gifted storytellers will begin arriving in the historic town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, over the next five months with a full slate of performances leading up to the Autumn 42nd annual, world-renowned International Storytelling Festival.  Attendees from around the world will also begin arriving to celebrate what storytelling means in their own lives, and hear how beautiful and powerful stories can be when told by “tellers” who have honed their art to perfection. The seemingly sweet simplicity of a story told by a master of the art of storytelling can definitely “pack a punch” full of meaning you will remember for a long time—if not forever.

The lead in to the Autumn festival opens in less than one week with the Storytelling Live! series, a part of the festival that joined the line-up of events 13 years ago, and this year will showcase 26 storytellers known nationally and internationally.  These 26 extraordinary “tellers” will  serve as “Tellers in Residence” leading up to the 42nd  International Storytelling Festival on October 3-5, 2014.

We are very fortunate that Master Storyteller Donald Davis, whose performances are always a huge draw at the Festival, graciously agreed be interviewed for our site. Kiran Sirah, Executive Director of the National Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, describes Donald Davis as, “…one of the most respected Storytellers in the country—probably one of the best in the world. He does around 44 festivals a year… and does amazing work in youth education across the country.”  Kiran also recounted former Vice President Al Gore’s attendance at the International Storytelling Festival one year which inspired the former Vice President to develop a project about storytelling as a tool for peace, a project in which Donald participated.

So, now let’s hear from Master Storyteller, Donald Davis, as he describes his art as a “Teller.” It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Master Storyteller Donald Davis.

Rebecca: As a Master Storyteller, do you have a single theme into which all of the stories you tell must fit?

Donald: All of the stories that I tell are true and are my own original stories.  While there is no prescriptive theme, a descriptive inventory would find my stories to center around  family dynamics of common trouble.  Sometimes these dynamics extend to community and beyond.  I look for the common, not the weird, so that listeners can feel that they have also been there.

Rebecca: What is the difference between the “Art of Storytelling” and the kind of stories people tell each other in everyday conversation?

Donald: In everyday conversation, people mostly make oral reports.  That is, they simply recall what happened on a certain occasion without giving it reflective layers of meaning.  It becomes a story when it is told so that strangers can understand it and the story does not stop with the events but goes on to capture the learning realizations that make the retold events worth living through and warrant repeated retelling.

Rebecca: At the church I attended with my family as a child, we were handed a printed program at the church door upon arrival.  Before we even got to our seats, I was already reading the program, looking hopefully to see if our Assistant Minister was going to be giving the sermon that morning. His sermons were so colorful and exciting that they swept you up and kept you enthralled for the whole time.  The senior minister was a wonderful person, but I never could get the message I knew I was supposed to be getting from his sermons because my mind would wander so much…and time did seem to really crawl.  In your experience as a minister, did you approach delivering sermons with the same—or similar—style as you use when telling a story at, for example, a festival?

Donald: In preaching, I was and am always story centered.  I typically retell a biblical story and then place it aside a true contemporary story so that people can see that they are truly parables to each other.  If that works, people can then add their own third story beside my two and they have applied the biblical lesson very personally.

Rebecca: How do you select a story?  Do you take whole stories that are among those in a very large repertoire and then craft them to your own style?

Donald: I do not make use of stories other than my own in festival performance.  When I start with biblical stories in preaching, I work from the common lectionary and then match my story to the one prescribed in one of those texts.  Aside from that, I do not make use of stories outside my own canon.

Rebecca: Do you build stories around your observations of the way people behave in certain familiar situations like, for example, trying to explain an idea or belief to someone who is skeptical?

Donald: I do not put performance stories together with an agenda.  They are simply stories that  come out of my work at reflecting on how my experiences set forth the human common agenda.  I can’t use a story to try to bend someone else’s ideas and it is important to me to always honor the listener’s integrity as final interpreter of the story.  Sometimes a  story it “just right for the time and place,” and my trust is that stories do their own teaching work. 

Rebecca: Do you retell stories that you heard in your early life, but update some elements to make the story relevant for listeners today?

Donald: Every time I tell a story it is matched to the audience.  The same stories are told  differently to children and adults. And, yes, stories that I have told for years have gradually evolved as time has passed.  I never actually give this an active thought as there are no “scripts.”  My stories are carried visually in memory so they always are  being tailored to the listeners at hand.                  

Rebecca: Are there “classic” stories in the world of storytelling that are sacrosanct, never to be changed just to appeal to a new generation?

Donald: There are great classic stories…the Odyssey is the greatest of all.  I retread it every year as it deeply informs all that I do as a storyteller.  There are always needs for new translations to keep us current and lively (the one I read now is the Robert Fagles), but the story itself never changes.  The great stories are windows into the culture from which they came and the peculiarities of the human dilemma…this cannot be changed!  

Rebecca: How to do you craft a story and does the way in which you tell a story evolve over time with each telling?

Donald: How I craft stories is a semester long question!  I work on the story orally (always with a listener) until the story finds its way and is moving pretty much the same way each time I tell it.  Then it is ready to come out to the larger audience.  After many more tellings it  is ready to record…in recording you have to explain more than with a live audience.  Last of all comes the written story for publication…it is much fuller as the readers can ask no questions and all must be anticipated then settled in the written version.  The written story is usually too “fat” to tell.  You know by now that all of my stories are in evolution throughout my lifetime.

Rebecca: How can storytelling help us make sense of the tragedies we encounter in life, both at the personal level and at the larger societal level?

Donald: Stories enable us to live through every dilemma, positive or negative, of the human experience without having to take on those same dilemmas ourselves.  In this sense stories can have a strong prophylactic function in protecting us from stumbling…if we give living attention to them.  When we are in trouble ourselves, the stories of how  others came through the same travails can show us that survival is possible, even if our way through is different from the protagonist’s journey.

Rebecca: Please add any other comments that you think could help us all appreciate the important place storytelling holds in our efforts to communicate with each other successfully.

Donald: My deepest belief about story is that story is the vehicle that carries our identity.  Tell children all the stories of the people from whom they have some and they will never lack an answer to the “who am I” question.  Without our own stories, we are lost!

Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information with us and educating us about the invaluable role stories play in lives.  And within your answers, we can truly see the philosophy of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

Donald: Peace and joy always!

It seems that the art of storytelling has been rediscovered in applications we haven’t traditionally thought about such as business.

Jonathan Gottschall, PhD, author of the bestselling book published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt entitled The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is an excellent resource for exploring more about the way storytelling is woven into the fabric of being human. He tells us,

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
                                                            ~Jonathan Gottschall

Related posts:

  1. Storytelling Artists Stimulate Our Imaginations
  2. Learning to Listen Through Storytelling
  3. The Story of Who Owns the Land
  4. Stories Help Us Remember that We are Human
  5. Discovering Our Deepest Human Connection through Stories

About Rebecca Popham

Rebecca Popham is the Managing Editor for the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA website. Her current work with Orion Wellspring, Inc., a consultancy for authors and entrepreneurs, includes developing content strategies and providing editorial services for clients. As Creative Director , Rebecca led the project team that designed and developed two interactive companion CDs for Southwestern Publishing Company and Delmar Publishers. She also developed a joint Washington State and Japanese Community College program to train health care workers, part of the effort being onsite in Kobe, Japan. Rebecca holds an M.A. in Whole Systems Design from Antioch University-Seattle, and is also an active, dedicated hospice volunteer for Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, WA.
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