The new Tufa novel, Gather Her Round, begins on the stage of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN where twenty years ago I felt the first stirrings of what would become the Tufa. My friend Christi, a.k.a. professional storyteller Magda the Story Spider (above, onstage at the festival), was with me that first time, and she was kind enough to write a bit about her experience.
About 20 years ago, I heard of Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival for the first time. Surrounded by a group of bardic friends, we were all fascinated by the concept of an entire weekend of storytelling and oral tradition of all sorts and styles. There had to be something special about an event which tripled the size of a small town in upper East Tennessee every first weekend of October. Money was really tight as a student, but I scraped together enough pennies to carpool with my friend Alex and my adopted teenage sister Sarah. We were a trio of curiosity seekers ready for a spectacle.
We found ourselves in a well-organized circus, surrounded by huge white tents, taking over the small town square. Instead of lion tamers, acrobats, and clowns, these oversized marshmallows contained chairs for hundreds of listeners and a single stage where different tellers, armed with only a microphone, set a spell on each set of ears. We used the printed program as a treasure map, moving from site to site, seeking aural charms and prizes.
I was surprised by the sheer variety. Who knew how many ways a person could tell a tale? Some used just words, while other incorporated song and props and/or colorful costumes. Really, it was the words that captured all of us. Spoken syllables have a power that none of us can deny and when these professional storytellers spoke, a spell of silence bloomed, sending everyone to the edge of their rickety seats, clinging to that single ampiflied voice.
I learned more a few lessons during the weekend. The first was always know where your jacket and seat pillow are. It’s colder than you think when you spend an entire October weekend outside on metal chairs. The second was there are more Bledsoes in Jonesborough than all of Middle Tennessee. Mr. Alex’s family name seemed to be stenciled on businesses everywhere. Lastly, there is a power in these old tales. Whether was Sheila Kay Adams singing the old “love songs” that her Granny taught her or Andy Offutt Irwin reincarnating his Aunt Marguerite or Ed Stivender proving that a Northerner can spin a Jack tale just as thoroughly as anyone born below the Mason-Dixon line, everyone’s story is important.
Years later, when I went to graduate school, I went out of my way to take a storytelling class. I wanted to learn that magic for myself. I wanted to join the circus. Most of the other students were focused on children’s education, but it became very clear very quickly that these stories belonged to everyone. Stories are not just for children. Even during my own performances now, I find that parents tend to be even more interested in my words than their kids. There is as much enchantment in the words, “Once a upon a time…” as there is “That reminds me of…”. People of all ages know and value a good story when they hear and need it.
As humans, we speak in the language of story all the time- to our friends online, during our family nightly suppers, and even on televisions and movies. It shakes our memories, helping us remember people’s names. It gives us a deep biological tool, so we know in our guts what places and people are “safe”. It helps us communicate and connect with people we have never met. It gives us empathy with the rest of humanity.
So, when the NSF asked for submissions for their first ever Story Slam in 2012, you’d better believe I sent in a video. That October I was standing in one of those big white tents, on a single stage, armed with only microphone, facing hundreds of people in rickety seats. I didn’t win, but for five minutes, I got to be one of the circus magicians and I’ll never doubt the power of my own story ever again.
For the last eight years, Magda Underdown-DuBois has professionally performed stories in homes, bookstores, schools, festivals, and even farmers markets from North Carolina to West TN. In 2012, she was selected to performed in the Jonesborogh National Storytelling Festival’s 1st Annual Story Slam. She is a member of Explorastory, a Storytelling Guild based out of Hendersonville and an affiliate of the National Storytelling Network. You can find Magda the StorySpider aka C.M. Underdown-DuBois on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.