Friday, May 22, 2015

Jonesborough, Pt II

I'm now wrapping up my week in Jonesborough and I have learned an awful lot. Here's what I did in the second half of my week here.


I went back and took pictures of all the things I saw in Jonesborough that I forgot to snap pics of earlier. I often walked around Jonesborough in the afternoon or evening after the library closed, because it was always nice outside, quiet, peaceful, and everyone was friendly. Sometimes the stores were open and I could pop in to the art gallery to look at art or into the music store to jam with my new friend Dean.

This courthouse is all old and stuff. Washington County is the oldest in Tennessee and one of the oldest in the old frontier (back when 'Murikah was just the coastal states).

The General Store sells slightly overpriced sandwiches, but they're not too bad. It's charmingly old-timey.

Creepy doll in the toy shop.

Saw the antique mart but did not go in. I meant to, but kept forgetting and had to be other places. Sorry, mom.

Another historic Jonesborough landmark. There is a nice bench up the street a bit that is a very nice place to sit and go over notes or read a book.

Jonesborough has plenty of churches, and I took pictures of many of them.

Here is another. I believe this one was a Presbyterian church.

This one is definitely a Methodist church. I only took pictures of these three churches, but there were definitely several more.

Here is the concert outside the courthouse on Friday night, an event that happens every Friday in Jonesborough. This week the featured group was called Harpeth Rising, an all-female trio from Nashville that played Appalachian-folk inspired music with some tight harmonies and a bit of an edge.

Here's a cute dog that was listening to the music.


On Wednesday morning, I headed to Jonesborough a few hours before the Elizabeth Ellis performance so I could get something to eat and hit the Jonesborough Public Library one last time. The performance itself was fantastic. Elizabeth Ellis has an entrancing way of speaking that comes straight out of the mountains of east Tennessee, and while her historical and folk material is great, it is in her narratives of personal lived experience that are the most powerful.

I had the great opportunity to meet with Elizabeth after the show and talk about storytelling. I had plenty of questions about structure and the way she moves from outlines of plots to full-fledged narratives, and she was very helpful and kind. She answered every question I had with careful thought and wisdom until all my questions were completely exhausted.

I even got the chance to meet with Karin Hensley, the Director of Operations of the National Storytelling Network, an organization that serves as a hub for storytellers and communication between them. We talked for a long time about how to get in touch with storytellers, the resurgence of the movement, and various festivals I could go to.

Karin gave me a huge pile of resources to check out, and later sent me an email with a bunch of links to even more resources. She and the rest of the National Storytelling Network have been incredibly helpful and welcoming to me this week.

The next night I got the chance to see Elizabeth Ellis again in the Mary B. Martin theater, a small and intimate theater in the ISC that really makes you feel like you're sitting on a porch somewhere, listening to a story up close. She was even better the second time. She opened with a short folktale from Hungary about an old woman who successfully cheats Death, and then launched into an ninety-minute tale about her own experience with a stroke in August and the resulting physical therapy. The story was called "A Stroke of Luck", which tells you something about the kind of person she is. She also quoted the Lord of the Rings several times:

"There may come a day when the courage of men will fail, but that day is not today. Today, we fight."

The quote is from Aragorn, addressing the armies of Men and Elves outside the Black Gate of Mordor in Return of the King (the movie, not the book). It seems a ridiculous quote out of context, but her storytelling ability is so great that when she delivered it, several people in the audience were brought to tears.

I had the pleasure of talking to Elizabeth again after the show, and she told me to keep her updated on my progress and let her know if I need anything. The kindness and wisdom that Elizabeth showed me might have been the best part of this trip.

The International Storytelling Center in the afternoon. Today, Friday, I just had two meetings, so I hung out in the sunshine in Jonesborough and the darkness in the ETSU library for the middle of the day. In the morning, I had a meeting with Professor Delanna Reed in the Storytelling program at ETSU, and she was incredibly helpful--most of what I was asking about was on her syllabus, so she was able to answer my questions in great detail and gave me great lists of resources. We talked about games and how they intersected with performing arts, and about various groups I could observe playing my game for my final thesis.

Later in the day I had the chance to have a long phone conversation with Dr. Hannah Harvey, an absolute expert on the intersection of performative storytelling, identity, and performance studies. She had a long list of resources for me to peruse, but she also had very concrete suggestions for me on the topic of making genre modular, encouraging different and unusual plot structures, and ensuring multiple points of view. I found her insight and suggestions perhaps the most helpful of anything I learned this week.

I spent the rest of the daylight doodling in my notebook (I started trying to sketch out some art for the final product, but it became doodling very quickly out in the sunlight) and filling out my little notecards for the prototype 1.0 edition. I am proud to say that it is more or less done at this point.

I had a great time this week in Jonesborough, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of what was recommended to me and finishing up v1. I'm headed back early tomorrow morning. Looking forward to seeing everyone at home. Miss you all. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Jonesborough, Pt I

After a few suggestions from various people and getting my mother to promise that she would read it if I wrote it, I have decided to shock this blog back to life and write a bit about my trip to Jonesborough, Tennessee. I don't have the photographic skill that Sarah does, and sometimes I even struggle to focus the camera for selfies, but I have included a few pictures so that you can get a sense of what it's like here. I hope that as Sarah and I continue to travel, we can document our experiences here so we can remember them and so our family can keep up to date on what we have been doing.

I am in Jonesborough for a week this May as part of my honors project for my self-designed "Storytelling" major at W&M. William and Mary doesn't have a Storytelling program, but ETSU in Johnson City, TN does, so I came to Tennessee to check it out and get some advice from tellers in Jonesborough, "the storytelling capital of the world."

As far as I can tell, it deserves the title. It is home to the International Storytelling Center, an organization dedicated to preserving and developing the ancient art form of storytelling. They have tellers performing all week every summer (this week is the talented Elizabeth Ellis) and a festival in October, and they promote and fund tellers year-round. I came to Jonesborough ("the oldest town in Tennessee"!) in hopes that I could get some advice on my project from these master tellers.


I drove from Williamsburg to Johnson City on Sunday the 17th in my NEW CAR :D. It's a little over 400 miles and took about 6 hours. I drove north of Richmond to I-81 and then down the mountains from there--an absolutely gorgeous drive. I would have taken pictures of all the mountain chains and amazing overlooks, but I was driving, so I just took them with my eyes and remembered them. You can't see them.

Here I am stopping at the Tennessee border to buy Cheez-Its at a rest stop. Did you know Tennessee is "The Volunteer State"? I didn't. Makes sense, though, because everyone is so nice.

If you've ever been to Breezewood, PA, Johnson City is like that but bigger. It appears to be built of chain restaurants that grew over and on top of each other and spawned more mini-chains. I think the spores get sucked up in the clouds and roll down the mountains to the valley that Johnson City is sprawled at the bottom of and they just take root in the shade under the overpasses and grow into mega-version of every store you can think of. I did manage to find this cool little restaurant called Babylon near my hotel where I got some tasty schawarma that really hit the spot.

I'm staying in the Red Roof Inn in Johnson City like a real adult. I don't know if the TV works. Just checked--it does. I am living large right now. The desk is tiny and doesn't fit all my books but other than that this place is great. It has a shower and everything.

The next day, I set out from the hotel to find Jonesborough and get the lay of the land before my first meeting at the International Storytelling Center. Jonesborough is only about 15 minutes from JC, and the historic district is really only one street. I parked at the public library and headed to the visitor's center to learn about the town. There was a little museum there, so I poked my head in there and then headed out on the town.

I then learned that everything is closed on Monday (Sunday and Monday are the shopkeeper's days off), so I mostly just walked around and peered into dark windows. I did meet a very nice man named Steve who runs a lot of the public music events in Jonesborough and owns the art gallery I was poking around in, and he invited me to the public concert on Friday night. Pretty much everyone in Jonesborough is unreasonably nice.

I took a little walking tour and visited all of the notable landmarks. It didn't take all that long, because Jonesborough is a very small town. I forgot to take pictures, though. I kind of fall apart when Sarah isn't around. But I will revist some of the locations (the little general store and sweet shop are cool, and so is Sister's Row) and take pictures later in the week.

Then I made my way to the International Storytelling Center (right in the middle of downtown Jonesborough) for my meeting with Kiran Singh Sirah, the president of the ISC. He is an artist and peace-builder who believes that storytelling can bridge social divides and help people relate to and understand each other, and can form the foundations of meaningful relationships and partnerships. We had a nice long talk about how collaborative storytelling can be a meaningful way of building community and how I could structure my project to encourage a certain kind of storytelling that would equally involve everyone and make sure everyone is involved in the creative process.

After my meeting, I visited the local farmer's market to buy a loaf of fresh-baked bread and some honey. They were out of little jars of honey and only had the quart size, though, so I passed on the honey (until later in the week when the nice bearded yoked man said that they would get more little jars) and got some chocolate milk instead. It was the best chocolate milk I ever had. I finished it while I organized my notes from my meeting and sat in the Jonesborough Public Library Garden. When it started raining, I went inside the library.

The Jonesborough Public Library has a huge collection of books about storytelling and folklore (pictured is around a fifth of it), so I perused the shelves and did some research on the history of the storytelling movement and some basic narrative construction stuff for a few hours before I went back to the hotel.

The next day, Tuesday (today), started a little earlier. After breakfast, I popped into the Books-A-Million to see if they had a collection of books about storytelling, too. I hadn't come close to reading everything I wanted to at the JPL, but I wanted to see if there was anything I could take home with me.

I didn't find any special books on storytelling or folklore, but I did find that in Tennessee, magazines about science are filed under "New Age", so that's pretty funny.

My meeting today was with Dr. Joseph Sobol at ETSU. He is the director of the Storytelling program there and has been working on the program since 2000. His special interest is in performance (he is also a musician) but he had a lot to say about the history of storytelling in general and recommended me a lot of reading (classic professor). He also quoted Yeats a lot and said that storytelling was a form of magic. I strongly suspect him of being a wizard.

He also knew a lot about tabletop role-playing games, and even had a master's student that did a fair amount of her graduate work studying them as a form of storytelling, so we talked about that and he pointed me toward even more resources. This is exactly the sort of thing I came to Tennessee to find!

I headed to the ETSU library to check out their collection of books on folklore, which was a little bit bigger than JPL's and way bigger than Swem's. I skimmed a lot of the books that Dr. Sobol recommended, but didn't get a chance to read many of them in depth (even though I was there for a while--a few hours at least. they have a lot of books.) before the library closed for the evening. I resolved to come back later in the week to finish my reading.

ETSU has a very pretty campus, and the students were happy to point me back toward the parking garage. Like I said, everyone in Tennessee is nice.

They also love their sports. I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but that thing is well over 100 ft tall. It's probably 1.5 times the size of Kaplan. There were a large number of outlying baseball and football fields, too.

The last thing on my schedule for today was attending the Storyteller's Guild performance in the ISC. Every week, the guild chooses three of its members to perform at the theater there. This week, they were joined by the current ISC Teller-in-Residence, Elizabeth Ellis, for a total of 4 tellers, all of whom were great. I think Ellis was my favorite, but all of the tellers (including the man who had never shared as a guild member before!) were very good. The dedication of these people to their craft is inspiring. I talked to most of them after the show and collected some business cards, and I hope to follow up with meetings later in the week.


So far, this trip has been a success. I especially found my conversation with Dr. Sobol and the books he recommended helpful, and I will have to keep reading at the ETSU library and when I get back to W&M. I worked on some Act-II storyboards today at dinner and I think I am about done with those, so my first edition is close to being done. I'm looking forward to the rest of the performances and meetings I have lined up for this week, but I miss everyone at home. Hope everyone is well.