Donald Davis grew up with a host of chatty aunts and uncles in Waynesville, in Haywood County, in the western tip of North Carolina. Their stories have stayed with him throughout his 71 years and for the last 40 years or so he’s been sharing them – and others from his rich life – at storytelling festivals around the country.
Davis, a retired Methodist minister, has also produced 15 books, including “Tales from a Free-Range Childhood,” and more than 25 CDs. He’s also been featured at the World’s Fair, the Smithsonian and on NPR.
The way he sees it, stories – particularly those told across the family dinner table – are how we connect with one another. Davis will be at Fearrington Village this coming weekend to spin his tales and ahead of his visit, he took a few minutes to share some storytelling wisdom.
Q: What’s the key to building a good story?
A: What people really relate to is things that are so ordinary, something in them says, ‘I did that or I know her.’ The best stories are not about things that are so weird that it’s never going to happen to us but things that are so ordinary that they remind us of things that did happen to us. That’s what I work with. Stories about your relatives, your childhood … everybody’s been there.
Q: Who are your favorite storytellers?
A: My favorite died a few years ago – Kathryn Windham from Selma, Ala. Kathryn was favorite for forever and ever. She was 93 years old. She was telling stories up to two months before she died. I do a lot of work with Bil Lepp, Carmen Deedy and Bill Harley.
Q: Tell me what you like about their storytelling.
A: It’s visual and it’s about the ordinary. It’s about everyday things.
Q: As we gather around family members for the holidays, what stories should we ask folks about?
A: The stories that are really important are the stories about things that people lived through that they didn’t know were going to happen to them. It’s how you made it through the unexpected. Unexpected doesn’t need to be bad but unexpected. … It came around the corner. When we know those stories we have a sense of where we came from and who we came from.
Q: What mistakes do people make when it comes to storytelling?
A: Trying to make it too short. Because as soon as somebody says, ‘Let’s make a long story short,’ it’s kind of over. The story has to be descriptive. We don’t really listen to stories, we watch them. Unless you take time to paint the pictures, we don’t see anything.
Q: How important is the art of listening to crafting a tale?
A: It’s the most important thing as far as learning something. I don’t learn when I’m telling, I learn when I’m listening. I’m asking, ‘How are they doing that?’
Q: What attributes are required to become a storyteller?
A: Listening is No. 1. It’s about thinking about what’s good for the audience. You have to be listener-centered and ask what’s the right thing for them to hear right now.
Lacy is the author of Sunday Dinner, a Savor the South cookbook from UNC Press.
If you want to go
What: Donald Davis telling a holiday tale and stories from his newest CD, “Stories My Mother Shouldn’t Hear,” and his upcoming book about his father, “Cripple Joe.”
When: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 11 a.m., and Sunday, Dec. 20, at 2 p.m.
Where: The Fearrington Barn, 220 Market St., Fearrington Village, Pittsboro.
Admission: Canned goods and gently used children’s books for the Book Harvest will be accepted.