“Once Upon a Soggy Time,” column for Oct. 6, 2015

This story began 15 years ago in California, when a reader of my column wrote to say: “You need to go to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. And if you can’t find a place to stay, my mother will put you up.”

I’d never heard of the festival, but she was right. I needed to go. It was all about storytelling, a magical power I’d been immersed in from birth and believed in with all my heart. It took place just over the mountains from the Carolinas, where I grew up, and would give me a chance to visit my family.

Most of all, it sounded like fun. So I went.

I didn’t stay with the reader’s mother (though I met her and found her just as lovely as her daughter). Instead, I talked my way into a beautiful old inn downtown. When I phoned, the innkeeper laughed.

“Vacancies? We’re booked years ahead for Storytelling! No, we don’t have any vacancies!”

“Do you have a basement?”

She did. I stayed in it for the next five festivals. Then I got married. And moved to Las Vegas. That’s a different story.

When my husband retired recently from the newspaper business, I said, “OK, what do we do now?” And he said, “Let’s go to the Storytelling Festival!”

He had never been. But he, too, knew the power of storytelling and believed in it with all his heart. Or he was sick of hearing me talk about it. Whatever. I called my friend the innkeeper. Her basement was booked. But the next day she called back to say she’d asked around and found some friends who had offered us their guest room.

That’s the kind of town it is, and the kind of people who live there. They believe so surely in the power of storytelling and the importance of preserving it they were willing to take in strangers.

So we went. As always, the festival took place the first full weekend of October, when the weather is typically postcard perfect. This time, the forecast called for “potentially historic rainfall.” Or as storyteller Donald Davis might say, “Noah’s second flood.”

Even so, people showed up by the thousands, two by two, like animals lining up for the ark.

For three days, we slogged around in the rain in ponchos that kept our shoulders dry, while our pants legs acted like giant wicks, as we moved from one big tent to the next, sitting in puddles on folding chairs listening to story after story.

I wish you could’ve been there.

Maybe you were. Never in my life have I seen so many people in such miserable conditions seeming to have so much fun.

That’s the power of stories. They paint word pictures of who we are and make us laugh at ourselves. They celebrate our uniqueness _ our cultures, races, nationalities and peculiarities _ and help us to see that in the things we care most about, we are far more alike than different. They keep us on the edge of our seats, even when the seats hold a puddle.

Some people came to the festival to connect with family and friends. Others, like my husband, wanted to see what it’s all about. But most of us came for the stories _ those we heard in the tents and those we’ll be telling our grandchildren about a time we once spent sopping wet in the rain, listening to stories and feeling lucky.

You don’t have to go to Jonesborough to celebrate storytelling. There are festivals around the country. Or you can start one of you own. All you need are two people: One to tell, one to listen.

Take turns listening and telling. When it’s your turn to tell, tell a good one. When it’s your turn to listen, pay attention. Turn off your cell phone. And take an umbrella.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Once a story begins, you never know what strange and wonderful places it may lead you. Just ask the good people of Jonesborough. You could find yourself taking in strangers.



  1. Thank you, Sharon, for your appreciative words about storytelling. It is a wonderful artform that not only connects us and teaches us lessons about ourselves, but also is a great tool for passing along family history and communication skills. We have a small but wonderful state-wide storytelling festival in Kansas the last full weekend of April every year in Downs (of all places!) You are most cordially invited to come any time, next spring it’s April 22-23, 2016. The Festival is a testimony to the great things that volunteers can do for their community. It is entirely coordinated by volunteers and financed by business and foundation sponsors who understand local effort. One member of our coordinating committee owns a bed-and-breakfast in Downs and offers you a room to stay upstairs when you come! Meanwhile…keep us noticing the small, important things in our lives along with you in your column.

  2. Sandra Garrett says

    A Bristol friend mentioned this column. I’m glad she did! My husband and I have been volunteering and attending the National Storytelling Festival since we moved to the area in 2004. It IS a wonderful event, regardless of the weather. Folks throughout the region participate enthusiastically, and the people of Jonesborough proper are some of the most hospitable and downright friendly people you will ever meet.

    I think we may have spoken to you while we did our volunteer shift at the information table! I’m so glad you and your husband had a good time. We look forward to seeing you again next year… and the next year… and the next year!

  3. I’ve never been to a storytelling festival, and I can only imagine how fascinating they must be! The ability to tell a story in such a way that the listener is transported is such a beautiful gift (one that you possess, if you don’t mind me saying!)

  4. Sharon, I love your column, by the way, and live about an hour from Jonesborough, however, I have never been to the festival. It is now on my bucket list for sure. So glad you enjoyed the weekend of stories and our beautiful area.

  5. You are right Sharon , we need two people to tell a story or a number of stories ,fake or real if somebody has good ears to listen ,of course kids would listen both unless they belong to life ,our own or about anything they like . They are very good listeners and they do not mind listening to same story every day . Not sure about adults as they pretend more to listen than telling their own stories full of emotions but most of them are real. So I do not pretend to listen . Thank you Sharon
    as I do like to read when there is so much technology available to do so . And I kept the cell away too at least when I read a beautiful column written by you .

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