Barbara McBride-Smith at the National Storytelling Festival 2007, copyright Tom Raymond, Fresh Air PhotographicsWhen I wrote in March cajoling everyone to attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, it was months away. Now, we’ve just come home from the best weekend of the year, having introduced our son to a storytelling extravaganza.

A lot of people ask me if I read my stories or essays at this event, which tells me not everyone understands what storytelling really is. Of course writing fiction and creative nonfiction involves a storytelling element, but this event showcases professionals of a different shade. Picture yourself seated around a campfire, the only sounds the crackle of the flames and an occasional hoot of an owl (a coyote or wolf if you’re going for ghost stories). The best talker among you starts to tell a story about the funny old lady down the street who used to watch him as a child, or a story about her Cuban father’s introduction to American Southern culture. Every other person in the group is spellbound, caught up in the simple way the words lilt and fall, creating images and scenes, and evoking emotions different but emphatically and bindingly human in each person.

Listeners spill out of tents at the National Storytelling FestivalThat’s what a storytelling festival is, except this one is held in massive circus-like tents outside. Fires probably not encouraged, but I’ve seen tellers so good they could probably make you feel the warmth of a nonexistent flame. The National Storytelling Festival is the best of the best, with storytellers from all over the world, from a 4-time winner of the West Virginia Liars Competition (Bill Lepp, who was also a Methodist minister) to Charlie Chin who uses three simple props (a fan, a stool, and a robe) to bring audiences of hundreds or thousands into traditional Chinese tales.

From a storytelling immersion, you come back renewed, hopeful, with a mind more open and receptive than it was when you left home. Amid the turmoil of politics and war and injustice, storytelling gives some hope for the future of both humanity and humanism. It’s also sheer, pure, classic entertainment. I’ve laughed until my sides split at preacher Donald Davis’s rendition of his ill-fated donkey-riding descent into the Grand Canyon, and shivered as David Holt sent me to frightening places accompanied by the eerie strumming of a steel guitar.

Festivals are born out of traditions: harvest, celebration, the welcoming of spring, the turning of the year, whatever is unique to each culture. Storytelling — the passing of history and individual wisdom through word of mouth — is a tradition that is common to all.

(Top image: Storyteller Barbara McBride-Smith, copyright Tom Raymond, Fresh Air Photographics)