We sat down with Donald Davis—award-winning, crowd-thrilling storyteller—via phone and talked about what he most loves about storytelling, his advice for bringing storytelling in to classrooms and homes, and what he most enjoyed about telling stories to his own four boys.
Emilie: Since your storytelling plays such an important role in families’ and children's lives now, what role did storytelling play in your childhood?
Donald: On my dad's side of the family, one of his brothers, who was my Uncle Frank, we sort of turned to as the constant family storyteller. There were just stories and stories and stories about his adventures and the things that he told about and every time the family would get together, if you said to him directly tell about it, he wouldn't do it. You had to sort of sneak up on it some way. We loved to hear those stories. Part of the result of that was that I think I thought nobody else in the family really had any stories and later I'm realizing they actually do.
Frank was just a dominant character that we didn't really realize that as much. And his stories were about things that happened in the family and they were always things that someone learned something from and you would learn something from hearing the family. So that was the family story side of things. In my mother's family I heard a lot of fairy tales and folk tales but not family stories. But family stories were a great part of the home culture growing up in North Carolina. I heard other peoples' stories as well, and we kind of shared those stories. It was a big bond among people. He's the kid whose mother died when he was two weeks old, and he's the kid whose uncle got his leg cut off in a farm machine.
E: So did you mainly grasp onto the family theme of stories or did you take an equal part in
developing your own storytelling where you were drawing from folk tales? You said your mother's family shared more folk tales.
Donald: I would say in the mid 70s, people started asking me to tell stories, to come places and tell stories. And at that point, mostly I was retelling stories I'd heard and it was both kinds. I was telling some jack tales that I'd heard in my mother's family, like from my grandmother, and then I was telling about stories Uncle Frank told, and people weren't much interested in the folk tales. Kids would be interested if I was at school, but they were interested in what they called "the real stories". And then what I think happened was every time someone would ask me a question about one of those people, like about my dad or Uncle Frank or some of the other relatives, the answer to that question was the starting place of another story. So what I gradually realized was that when I introduced those characters, I was in fact telling stories. And so my stories just began to grow and grow and grow. And I remember one of the real memories was that when the World's fair was in Knoxville, Tennessee, that was 1982, I was invited to come there and tell stories for the week. And I told folk tales and family stories. And people came up and they wanted to know more about the family, they wanted to know more about the places I grew up, and I think during that week probably I—created isn't the right word - I discovered a whole bunch of what were/would be new family stories just through conversing with people answering questions about family members.
E: So in telling stories based on your family, how much do you stick to the facts and how much liberty do you take to embellish your stories?
Donald: My sense has to be you never know who's in an audience. I can tell stories at the National Festival in Jonesboro about some character in the town where I grew up and right out of the audience when it's over comes a high school classmate of mine, you know. So I have to tell it right. There's of course your point of view and your perspective, but I can't just make up stuff that didn't happen, and I can't warp things so much that someone who was there is going to come up and say "That's not right." I've had all kinds of high school classmates come up out of festival audiences and friends of my parents who know all the people in the stories. And when I go back home to where I grew up, I'm going back there later this year for the Public Library anniversary, those people know the place and they know the characters, so there's funny stuff because it's happened, and it's how you describe stuff. The basic happenings are all very real. They're real in terms of what really happened.
E: How did you make the transition from telling stories within the family setting to telling stories professionally?
Donald: It's hard for me to figure that out because while something's happening, you're not really paying attention to it, it's just happening. And later you can go back and say well how did I end up here. I lived back in the mountains and then I went away for college and was away for a while and then I moved back there and I was living near a place called the John Kimble Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. That was a real center of folk, so storytelling was sort of a topic of interest. And when I would hear other people tell stories, I would think "oh, that's like my family's story about so-and-so" so I would tell about that. And pretty soon I began to be asked to do that deliberately.
It was never my idea I didn't come up with the idea. I just began to be asked and asked and asked more and then all of a sudden, like out of nowhere, was being asked to come tell stories at storytelling festivals. That was a new invention and they were looking for people to tell stories. So I'm not quite sure how it happened. It's just that all of a sudden, there were invitations coming in right and left that I didn't solicit or look for, it just kind of happened. And then it slipped over everything, so that's about as clear as I can get a hold of. Part of the answer is "I don't know" and part of it is "people who heard me just tell something for fun began to ask me to do it on purpose."
E: You worked for some time as an ordained minister. How did your work as a minister affect your storytelling?
Donald: It was really much more the other way around, because I grew up with storytelling. And I went off to school and I learned how to do things academically and that sort of put people to sleep, and then I began to put use of the storytelling I grew up with. And all of a sudden, people weren't asleep any more. So it was in sort of an opposite direction in that my childhood really impacted and shaped my work in the church, especially in preaching and teaching. That just led to more exposure as well. I was in a public thing where people would hear what I was doing, and they'd invite me to speak somewhere else for something different.
E: Do you have a favorite family story that you were told as a kid?
Donald: I really don't. My Uncle Frank, whom I mentioned earlier, died in 1971, and he was 68
years old. He just had a heart attack and died. And people began to say, "oh, we wish we could hear the stories from Frank," "oh, we wish we could remember all those stories." So what I did one day is I just sat down and tried to make a list of all the stories. And they didn't have titles, they were just sort of topical. About the time so-and-so happened, the time so-and-so...So I think those stories were my favorite early stories. Stories about his hunting dogs and stories about things that happened on the farm and stories about going to school. I couldn't say there was a favorite one, but they involved sort of the shenanigans of the boys.
There was a huge family in my dad's family, and right in the middle of the family there were 4 boys in a row that were just like boom, boom, boom, boom. And there were a lot of stories about my daddy and his brothers, about things they did and things they got into. I think the reason those were favorites is because I had one brother and a lot of those stories paralleled things that we did. So if I cut my brother's hair, my daddy would have a story about childhood when somebody in the family had done that. When somebody got hurt, there was an Uncle Frank story about when somebody got hurt. I think the stories that were my favorites were the ones that no matter when or where you grow up, the experiences are so common that everyone repeats them. It's like bike wrecks and fires and accidents and stealing presents from each other and all kinds of things that siblings can do and get into.
E: Do you have children of your own?
Donald: Yes, we have four boys and then we have two grandsons. We don't have any girls, it's just all boys. We wouldn't even know what to do with girls.
E: Would you tell me a bit about telling stories to your own children?
Donald: They would have favorites, things that they would ask for. And that was kind of the giveaway, because when they would ask for stories I knew the certain things that they'd get into. But they liked stories about this time of year (a little before Christmas) I'd remember about getting into and opening Christmas presents ahead of time. My little brother, my parents tried and tried and tried to get him to not do that and they couldn't get him to stop.
So one Christmas after he'd already opened everything he knew, he started opening his presents and they didn't turn out right. One of them had a rock in it, one had empty dog food cans in it, one had an old vacuum cleaner bag with dirt in it. He'd already opened these, and he knew what was supposed to be in there but he couldn't say anything. So it kind of cured him of opening presents. That kind of story our boys would love, especially after one of them had done the same kind of thing.
E: In an interview you did with Virginia Libraries, you talked about being a strong advocate for storytelling in everyday life, and I wondered why that is?
Donald: Well, our stories tell other people who we are. You know, if you hear someone tell a story from their life, you know about their values, you know what they believe in, you know what's important to them, you know what you can get them to do and what you couldn't get them to do. You know all kinds of things. And when we tell somebody a story that's what we're really telling them. In a story, we really give away more of ourselves than if we're just in a straight forward way answering questions. If you ask somebody "What are the stories you've heard about when you were born," that's an important story to us, but we weren't there in memory.
We had to hear it from other people, probably from our parents. So when we hear that story from our parents, they're telling us about things that they feared, hoped, believed, things they'd fight for. They don't know that. They just thing they're telling us a story about when they were born. But we're hearing all kinds of things about them in the process.
E: Because storytelling is such a personal experience for you, do you prefer telling stories to smaller audiences or does it matter? What is an ideal audience?
Donald: The bigger the easier. With a big audience, everyone starts to begin listening like a single listener. They start laughing all together and getting getting quiet all together. They begin to become sort of corporate personalities. And that's really fun because they're getting energy off of each other as well as off the story, and they're listening side by side. It becomes a big, kind of corporate experience. That's really really fun, and that's really really easy. The hardest audience is a classroom size because all those people can remain individuals. That's why teaching is so hard. You don't have one audience, you have, say, 25 audiences. One person catches on fast and one doesn't catch on at all, and one likes it and somebody else doesn't like it. All those distinctions disappear in a big audience. Everyone becomes a single team. The festival audiences are the most fun and the easiest because of that sort of dynamic that happens. And it's an interesting thing, because people haven't done this would think it's the opposite: afraid of a bunch of people, not afraid of a few people, but the opposite's the thing that really works.
E: What's it like being away from home traveling and performing for most of the year?
Donald: Well I go back to places I've been before. Say in a whole year, I may not go to maybe but one or two places that aren't places that I'm going back to with a familiar audience. The next place that I go is a workshop outside Baltimore, and it's a group I've done this weekend with for 30 years, and some of the same people have been there for that whole time period. And then I get to the event at Virginia Beach, and it's something I go to every other year. And then I go from there to Alabama and I go to that thing every year. It's not like I'm going to new places and taking a chance. It's like I'm going back to see people I'm glad to see, I would miss them if I didn't go there. They're like extended family. So it's very different from like a musician who goes to different place, different place, different place, because in the flow of my year, I go back to the same places at the same time of year, year after year.
E: So they feel a bit more like home and family?
Donald: It's like not being away from home. It's like you have multiple homes.
E: At August House, so many of our authors are also storytellers. I've been learning a bit more about the storytelling revival. I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about that trend.
Donald: This past year was my 35th year to tell at the National Festival at Jonesboro. I've been telling there for that long. In the beginning, storytelling was like...if I went to a school to do storytelling, it was like a break, it was like an entertainment break. Now, when I go to the school, it's part of the curriculum. It used to be that if I did an event for a corporate event it was entertainment, and now it's a workshop that's used for learning to use story in marketing or in sales. So the seriousness of storytelling, not just as entertainment but as a useful tool in the world of business and the world of health and care taking, has really been recognized immensely and hugely through that time period. We almost thought, in the early generations of television, though "oh storytelling, that's a relic of the past," and then we realized "wait, television doesn't know your story. It's doesn't know my story." We have to be with other people for that to be happening. So we've had this sort of wonderful discovery of real stories, stories that you have to be there to hear them and somebody has to be there to tell them. And it's something that has grown and grown and grown.
E: You talked about working within schools. Why do you believe storytelling is important to
teach students? Why is that an important part of development?
Donald: One of the things is it helps kids learn that they have a story, that they have stories of their own. So in writing, they're not sitting there trying to make up imaginary planets with space people blowing each other up, they can write real stories: when they went to Disney World and got stuck on a roller coaster. And once we know that, we establish an identity point. They begin to understand who they are. Then their identity isn't from watching television, their identity comes out of the roots and base of their own family. That's a health thing. That's just a mental health thing. To say "who are you" and for someone who's a child who's ten years old to be able to answer it and say "I'm the child of the parents who did this and the grandmother who survived that and the grandmother who enabled this to happen. I know who I am and I know the road that I am in and I know the things that I want to keep alive and I know the things that I've had enough of and we can let go of." And if kids don't know that, they're empty because they're waiting for someone to come along and fill them, and that's kind of dangerous.
E: It sounds a bit like working with students on storytelling workshops would be extra important then in lower income schools. Is that something you find?
Donald: The funny thing is that it's almost the opposite because those kids are more likely to know their own family stories than affluent kids are. Affluent kids have been bought every toy that exists from the moment of birth, and they've never really sat in a car without a DVD player playing and, as they ride along, being told stories of the people they're visiting and the people who used to live there. But I find a very poor child, raised by its grandparents, knows all sorts of stuff about its family. And it's often what we see in the cycles of first generation success coming out of poverty and then the second generation coming out of there losing it again. So that's a very interesting thing to watch. Very very fascinating. And often, especially if I'm visiting, say an expensive private school, those will be the kids who know nothing about their families. They don't know anything about them because everything is in relation to television and computers and cars and ski trips and fencing lessons. But what are my mother's stories and what are my grandmother's stories?
E: Well if you were going to give parents a set of tips on how to use storytelling in parenting, what would they be?
Donald: The easiest tip is to sit and make a list of the people that you knew when you were growing up that you wish your children could know. And then once and a while tell them about someone you wish they could have met. And when you think about that, sometimes it's funny stuff, sometimes it's stuff that really involved some hard learning, sometimes it's sad stuff. But just a list of people. And then you could add to that a list of places you liked to go to when you were growing up that your kids can't go to anymore. So tell them about people and about places. That's the easiest thing to do, and it's the thing that really begins to work.
E: Why would you say that's important for parents to do?
Donald: We're so much a product of place, so we have no way of understanding our parents unless we have a way of understanding the context of the place they came from. And they didn’t just come from nowhere, and if we don't really understand that place, we don't understand what made them the way they are. And with the people they grew up with, they can help us understand who our parents really are. And its kind of important for us to know what made them the way they are so we can...conquer them! hahaha. Or can reasonably deal with them. We can understand when things resonate with a spot in them.
E: What sort of advice would you give for teachers on how to bring storytelling into the classroom?
Donald: They have to model. If they're not willing to tell stories to the kids, the kids are going to tell stories. It's like being a swimming teacher who won't get in the water, they just won't do it. You can't just say "jump in". If I want to hear their stories, I have to tell them what I did during the summer that I want them to hear about before I ask them what they did and what they want to tell us about. I have to go first if I'm the teacher.
E: How did you start working with August House?
Donald: Ted Parkhurst came up to me at a storytelling festival and expressed some interest in my stories. I said, well they're not written, and he said "could you write some of them?" I went back and took 14 old stories that I'd told for years and had never, ever put in writing. And I wrote them. I wrote them thinking two things: nobody can ask any questions so I have to answer all the questions and nobody can see me so I have to explain who it is that's telling the stories. So then that collection became Listening to the Crack of Dawn. That was the beginning place so then we did all kinds of stuff after that.
E: Since most of your background is in oral storytelling, what's your writing process like? Do you have to tell yourself the stories out loud and then write them down?
Donald: I don't try to write a story unless I've told it many, many, many times. And by that time, I know how the story goes. And then what I have to say is, ok, when I write I become invisible. I have no body, which means I have no body language. I have no face, which means I have no facial language. Nobody knows who it is that's telling the story. And nobody can ask questions. So I'm creating for a different medium. When I'm writing, I'm documenting a story I'd like to tell you for a person who's not there. So my question is not "have I said it." My question constantly when I'm writing is "can they see it?" So that's the guide in writing when I get to that point.
E: Have you ever told stories over the radio?
Donald: Yeah, that's in between and recording's in between, because in recording you still have a voice but you don't have the rest of your body and you don't have an audience looking back at you that you can play with.
E: One last question. What’s your drive for your interest in storytelling? Is it the interactions with the people or is it a love of language? What makes you want to keep telling stories?
Donald: I think the first thing is that I want my stories to be like parables in that when people hear my stories, I hope they'll realize or remember stories of theirs that they wouldn't have thought of without hearing mine. So the real reward comes when someone comes up and says "that reminds me of," and then they tell me a story that they had never even thought of until they heard my story. And then of course the language is delicious and I love playing with the language, and I love trying to model and maintain good language. I hear so much bad language. I don't mean bad in terms of profanity, but bad in terms of grammar and structure and context, and I hate that more than anything.