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New Stories at the National Storytelling Festival October 15, 2015

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

As I think back on the Festival I think collage. Collage. A series of bursting moments and images. I think of telling Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura at ten that Saturday morning when the rain was so loud it was like a train. One part of my consciousness was aware of the rain and the wind flapping the sides of the tent that holds fifteen hundred people. But the greater part is I’m simply performing the story and I feel free. The audience is so open and receptive that I’m free, free to just be part of the story, be part of the words, the gestures, the movement, the characters, the silence, the dialogue. It’s all one.

The rain beats down. Sancho Panza is patting his belly upset that Don Quixote has sunk his lance into the sail of a windmill and been thrown violently to the ground. Sancho helps Don Quixote onto his horse, Rosinante. Sancho says, “I don’t know how we’re making this a better world but the manchego cheese is good.”

I go on telling. Sancho is there, the rain is there, the wind is there but without thinking I know we are all in this story, fifteen hundred people are all together in this story. After working on the story for a year and a half it all came together only last week. In shaping the story I forgot something elemental – most stories have to have one central character. If there are several characters the audience’s attention is divided. In Hamlet we can have Hamlet’s mother and the ghost and Ophelia, but the story is about Hamlet. Everything in the story relates to Hamlet. I forgot that so the story was half about Don Quixote and half about Laura. And I realized the story is about Laura. It is a quest story. It is the story of Laura’s quest for learning. Even as a five year old she felt school was pinched. It needed more life. As she grows up and goes to high school she longs for some of the wind of real life.

Collage. Collage. Faces Saturday morning. At nine thirty Saturday morning we were walking down Main Street in Jonesborough in the rain. We were headed to the Library Tent where I would tell Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura. Hundreds of people were walking down Main Street with umbrellas. I was walking with my daughter, Laura and her husband, Tim and my wife, Linda. They were all singing

                  When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling

                  The whole world smiles with you.

As they were singing their umbrellas, red and blue and yellow were bobbing up and down.

                  When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing

                  The sun comes shining through.

I’m singing along with them. We’re going by the great old brick buildings on Main Street. I’m singing and laughing and delighted. Usually before I perform I’m silent and often nervous. This morning I’m singing as if I don’t have a worry in the world. This is absurd. Usually if I’m telling at this National Festival I tell a story I’ve told fifty or a hundred times. Here I’m about to tell a story that’s come together only in the last week or two and I’ve told it only to my wife, Linda. This is absurd. I’m not worried at all.

Months ago I was at a spiritual retreat and became aware that my task of the moment was simply to trust the two stories I was working on: Don Quixote and My Daughter Laura and Falling for Emily Dickinson. This was my task month after month. But I wavered a month ago with Don Quixote. I told it to a group of friends and it didn’t work. So I was going to drop the story and tell one that I’ve told hundreds of times. But Linda said, “Just commit to the story.” And I did.

A week before the National Storytelling Festival I woke thinking of two stories about Laura when she was a child. I told those stories and realized they belonged in this long story. Why? Because listeners must care about your character. You’ve got to care about your character and fall in love with her. These two stories would do that job.

Then I had another insight about Cervantes’s Don Quixote. As I perform the story I lift up my left hand and the fingers are straight and I’m talking to Laura in the story and saying, “Laura, if the story is just about Don Quixote it fails. But,” and I bring my hands together and intertwine my fingers, “But if it’s about Sancho and Don Quixote; it lives because Don Quixote is the dreamer and Sancho is the practical one. We have these two forces inside us. And often the struggle is to let the dreamer emerge.” To me that’s the crux of the story; it’s about a girl becoming a young woman and bringing these two parts of herself together, the dreamer and the practical one. And the story is also about the father encouraging the daughter.

I’m telling the story as the rain is driving down. The rain is drumming and when I finish and as people are applauding my dear friend, Connie Regan-Blake, who was the master of ceremonies, asked Laura to come up to the stage. Laura doesn’t dawdle, she runs. She comes onto the stage. As Connie is saying, “Laura is now an interpreter for the Deaf; she’s climbed the Himalayas, biked across the country twice, run the Boston Marathon.”

Laura is shining. I’m on the stage with my daughter Laura in this wild rain and to my right is Liz Barlow-Breslin, Interpreter for the Deaf. Such a moment; this had been my vision months ago but I put the vision away because the story had failed time after time, but here it is.

That Saturday evening I’m standing in the theatre and begin with the words, “If you grow up in New England the leaves whisper Emily Dickinson.” And I tell Falling for Emily Dickinson which I’ve worked on for two years. I’m feeling grateful and alive.

Saturday night, once I finished telling Falling for Emily Dickinson, we’re walking down cool, dark Main Street in Jonesborough, my wife, Linda, my daughter, Laura and her husband, Tim. We’re full of stories, full of memories of meeting so many friends and storytellers in the last two days. We’re walking together with the ghosts of old Jonesborough headed to the home of Bill and Virginia Kennedy. The Kennedys have opened their home to us for thirty years and became very close friends. They are part of the soul of Jonesborough.

I know for me that I’ll be awake most of the night because Emily Dickinson and Don Quixote and My Daughter, Laura will all be dancing together and in the morning the rain will be gone and the sun will come up.



1. Pete Griffin - October 15, 2015

Oh, wow, Jay. You continue to be an inspiration. I now think of stories in ways I’d never imagined before. Thank you!

2. Kezia Bacon - October 15, 2015

Jay, this was an inspiring post, and I am looking forward to hearing the new and new-ish stories! Also looking forward to seeing all the O’Callahans on Saturday at Derek & English’s wedding.

xo, -Kezia


3. Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller - October 15, 2015

Beautiful. Thank you Jay for taking me there. You put the essence of storytelling so clearly.

4. Peter Brodeur - October 15, 2015

Bravo! I’m reliving that magical morning under a tent in the rain all over again. Thank you!

5. Tim Kinsella - October 15, 2015

Jay sang “When You’re Smiling” with audiences more than once from the stages at the National Storytelling Festival that weekend. What started at his breakfast table and walking along Main Street, broke through the clouds and brought a ray of sunshine to his audiences and light to their faces.

6. Christine Elbert - October 16, 2015

My first time at Jonesborough, Leaving the tent on Sunday with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. “When you’re smiling”…… Both stories were amazing and thought provoking. Thank you for your continuing ability to transform ordinary events into extraordinary ones.

7. Laura S. - October 19, 2015

To have heard you and sang with you. All weekend, while I worked elsewhere, I had the sense of the heart of Jonesboro coming back to life. Thinking of you.. Don Quixote, your family and life, and Emily Dickenson all alive through your voice. brings tears of joy to my eyes
miss you all,

8. New Stories at the National Storytelling Festival - This Is Just To Say - May 19, 2019

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