Ever since early man drew pictures on cave walls to commemorate a successful hunt, and Aesop anthropomorphized animals in his fables to teach morals, to today when popular podcasts like “The Moth” and “Mortified” attract thousands of listeners to hear true stories told in front of live audiences, we have depended on storytellers to teach us about ourselves. Nashvillian Clark Akers is a huge fan of anyone who can spin a good yarn. “That’s how humans communicate as a species. That’s how we connect — through stories.”
Clark prefers fanciful stories told for pure entertainment, like those featured at the National Storytelling Festival every fall in Jonesborough in East Tennessee. “Some make me laugh, some make me cry, but the best ones give me a lesson in the form of a teachable moment.”
Other people prefer true stories over fables and fairy tales. Michael McRay leads a storytelling series called Tenx9 Nashville, where each month nine people get up on stage to tell something true about their lives in less than 10 minutes. Michael first discovered Tenx9 in Belfast while he was in grad school in Ireland and was so impressed by the events that he asked founder Pádraig Ó Tuama if he could set up a second outpost of the series in Nashville. Since then, Tenx9 has produced more than 50 events around different themes each month. “We call ourselves a place for the nervous to tell stories,” Michael explains. “We all embrace the hilarity and inanity of live performance and offer the chance to share vulnerability and honesty or just to be absolutely silly. All of those are true elements of life.”
WPLN podcast producer Jakob Lewis shares stories in his own unique way. In his “Neighbors” podcast that is available online or in shorter snippets during the local NPR station’s regular broadcast schedule, he uncovers the details of local people’s lives and allows them to share in their own words. Adding his own narration helps move the story along, but Jakob strives to keep the focus on his subject.
“As the narrator, I have the license to help tell the story. I’ve gathered the subject, but I have to make you see what I see in the story. Narration is informational, not emotional.” Jakob came to Nashville in 2009 with a degree in religion, but soon found himself working as an apprentice in a cabinet shop. “I spent 3-and-a-half years working by myself listening to podcasts while I sprayed and painted cabinets. I was losing my mind in that shop, and desperation made me want to tell stories as a way to use my creativity and connect with other people.”
That sense of connection through stories has been a big part of the storytelling traditions of the South for years, but technological developments have made it harder to come by. Clark bemoans the loss of stories being passed through generations. “Air conditioning drove it away,” he opines. “Older homes still have front porches, but nobody sits outside to cool off anymore. Those used to be the gathering places where people would drop by and visit. Then they told stories. Particularly among older people, that’s how they shared information. Stories bind you to your history, and you need to put time and effort into finding out about the past from your elders!”
As a reaction to this loss of connection, more and more opportunities to tell and listen to stories are popping up around the country. Michael sees this boom as a very positive and necessary development. “I have a hunch, with the increase of technology and social media and living so much of our lives online, we’ve become more globally connected. Distances are easier to deal with, and you can communicate with someone halfway across the world just by typing a Tweet. But we’ve become more locally estranged from each other and begun to neglect the people right beside us. People are realizing how important personal interaction is. Facebook “likes” won’t sustain us, but sitting around with 100 people, drinking a beer and hearing stories about what it’s like to be alive can really connect us.”
Jakob, Michael and Clark are making active efforts to keep the art and practice of storytelling alive and thriving. Jakob founded a collective of podcasts called “The Heard,” sort of like a radio station that focuses on telling finely crafted stories. He recognizes that his work also fulfills an important need of his own. “What we’re doing is really risky and hard. I gave myself this job as an excuse to get out and meet more people, to reach out of my sphere. I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, so it’s important to be very intentional to set aside time to learn about each other.”
Michael continues to expand the reach of Tenx9 Nashville after starting out in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution prison sharing stories with inmates to outgrowing the space in a local cafe to their current home every month at Nashville’s Douglas Corner. Signing up to tell a story at Tenx9 is a democratic process. The theme of the month is usually announced a few weeks in advance, and the slots fill up through online submissions. “Lots of people tell me that they’re not a storyteller,” shares Michael, “but I tell them everyone is. Whenever you tell someone something that happened to you, that’s what you’re doing. We encourage people not to try too hard to give us a moral. Just tell stories.”
On the other hand, Clark loves a good moral and actively seeks out storytellers who can entertain and inform at the same time. He’s been attending the Jonesborough festival for decades and invites some of his favorite performers like Donald Davis, Bil Lepp, Andy Offutt-Irwin and Kevin Kling back to Nashville to share their talents with the community. “I’ve sent them to schools where they’ll appear at an assembly or in an English class. I’ve also just invited people over to my house who I think would love to hear a great story told well, but who might not have had the chance to get to the festival before.”
Clark is proud of an initiative from a few years back when he took some storytellers to the Martha O’Bryan Center in East Nashville. “We introduced them to a bunch of kids who didn’t think they had a story to tell. We held workshops to teach them that they all have something worth sharing with the goal to give them the confidence that they have a story, to teach them to tell it and encourage them to share. Once they got their feet under them, they took off. We’re all storytellers.”
Clark truly believes that stories can help save the world. “If I were president, I’d have storytellers on Air Force One and on the ground in Syria or anywhere that there is conflict. I’d have them writing stories that can help heal and can teach empathy.”
Now that would be a story worth telling.
To learn more about the storytelling scene in Nashville, check out Tenx9 Nashville, East Side Storytellin’, Neighbors podcast and Nashville Storytellers Project. Not in Nashville? Here are some additional resources to check out — National Storytelling Festival and 2017 National Storytelling Festival YouTube channel.
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