WYTHE COUNTY, Va., January 3, 2011 — My love affair with the written word has been a constant throughout my life. I’ve also had a life-long love affair with storytelling. Each is aware of the other and is willing to work together as a team. My life seems a bit crowded here for one person, doesn’t it? However, I’d like to think I’ve seen enough in life, and paid attention enough to have something of value to share with you now.
Storytelling is a finely developed art in my family. I’m pretty sure there’s an extra strain of DNA that explains it. Until I was exposed to the families of my suburban friends, I didn’t realize the extent of our differences. Prior to that I assumed everyone’s family was as witty and clever with words as mine. To this day the pleasure in storytelling that my family happily displays makes just getting heard a challenge at times.
I fondly recall the times we gathered by the hundreds for reunions, to reconnect and “Swap Lies.” The family wit hit an all time high during those years, and as a result of that exposure, my verbal battling skills were honed and advanced to the PhD. level. The generations that have followed show evidence of carrying on the tradition.
We moved a lot when I was a child, living in cities, suburbs, and farms along the way. The older I got the more I realized that The South, and more specifically, The Appalachians, have the best storytellers. In college, while studying these mountains and our people, I accepted some conclusions provided and developed some of my own. One thing we did agree on were the effects of isolation on the region.
For the first settlers there were few opportunities to obtain an education. To own a book other than the family Bible was rare. What little time that was left after meeting the needs of survival focused on ways to stave off the dread of loneliness and isolation. Music and storytelling emerged as the primary forms of entertainment, and to this day there’s a distinctly unique version of both alive and well here in the mountains.
Storytelling required little more than imagination and an audience. It was the perfect fit for the poor and isolated mountain people. It also fit well with the typical Appalachian immigrant’s life prior to coming to America. They already had generations of the storytelling tradition in their humble family trees and peasant backgrounds. As a result, the natural progression of this tradition continued in the new world.
Until the late 1800s, strangers wandering in or mountain folk wandering out were rare in Appalachia. It took an additional century for a more accurate perception of the people and the region they call home to emerge and overcome the negative stereotypes. This is good and bad, I think. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to finally be free of preconceived notions. On the other hand, it means the rest of the country that finally gets it will come here in droves like we did, just showing up over three hundred years behind us. And we’re “the backward ones.”
The “outsiders” will be new to the area, and since hospitality is the only acceptable protocol, I’ll list a few basic rules that should help the newbies.
* Hospitality here is the alpha and omega of proper etiquette. We help each other out. It’s not complicated.
* The best towns always have “Unincorporated” after their names.
* Any town without a Wal-Mart is an excellent choice as well.
* While driving, turn signals are optional or misleading at best.
* There may be more churches than people. Don’t attempt to figure it out; just be aware it’s true.
*Be prepared to be called “Sugar,” “Honey,” and “Darlin.” A lot.
* Be prepared for kindness from strangers and always return a wave or greeting, whether you know them or not.
* And perhaps most important of all, learn how to listen to, as well as tell a good story. There’s no rush for details here, take your time when telling a story. I think we prefer eloquence over expedience in these parts.
The written historian confines and limits the interpretation of past events, while the verbal historian inspires the limitless imagination of thoughts. You might assume this presents a conundrum for the storyteller in me. It does not.
At times, it is important for me to embrace both expressions. Both ways have a time and place in my life. It just depends on which is called for at any given time. The only thing that matters is my love affair with both, and if I’m very lucky, the opportunity to share that love with others.
To contact L. King see above.
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