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Main Street, Jonesborough May 3, 2012

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.

Creating Main Street, Jonesborough was like climbing a great, rocky mountain during a fog, which turned into a rainstorm, which became a sleet storm and then a ragingly hot day, which parched me and dizzied me so that I started going backwards for days and weeks.

Main Street, Jonesborough was something I dreamed about and one of the dreams was so vivid I was totally lost in the dream.

Main Street, Jonesborough

In the dream I was in a crowded tavern and thought everyone must have been drinking because they spoke so oddly. There must have been a hundred people laughing and talking in the tavern. I could hear horses and carriages going by outside. I could hear the sound of market sellers shouting outside even though it was night. Then I thought, well these must be actors acting some Elizabethan drama and they’re still in costume because they have to do a scene later on. There were lanterns all about but no sign of electricity anywhere. Several colorfully dressed men were smoking pipes and I noticed they were clay pipes and a few were ornamented with gold. I managed to find a table in the rear where there was a man in his forties sitting, nodding to himself. The man had a short red-brown beard; he was balding and had warm alert green eyes. He looked at me and said, “I’ve had more than more.” He laughed and raised his hand for another ale and then called, “Two, two ales.” A waitress dressed as a serving maid brought two ales. She was tall, black-haired and very pretty but when she smiled I saw she was missing a tooth.

“You look worn,” he said.

“I am. I’ve been working on a story called Main Street, Jonesborough. I feel I’ve been at it for years.”

“Tell me,” he said. His voice was strong and rich. Perhaps he’s a singer or maybe an actor I thought.

“It’s about a town,” I said. “It’s a town that nearly died.”

“Death’s good in a story. It keeps attention.”

“But this is a town that turned around; it came back to life. It’s a kind of resurrection story.”

“Ah, a comedy,” he laughed. “A comedy.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s comedy in it but it’s an odd story. It’s a tumble of scenes. I have students that I’ve created and these students are acting out buildings in the town. Can you imagine that? I have the students acting out townspeople. And then I have townspeople telling stories of their lives so they ‘re introducing more characters. There are characters all over the place, there are almost as many characters in my story as there are in this tavern.” I was warming up and went on. “There’s war and song. There’s a man rising up in life because he knows so much about the water. He knows everything about the water in the town.”

My listener smiled asking, “Does he have water on the brain?” And he went on, “Your story sounds wild. What holds it all together?”

“A young woman holds it altogether. She’s been betrayed by her lover and so she goes far from her big city to live in this little town for a year. She goes to live with her grandmother but when she arrives in the town she’s appalled. It’s looks awful compared to the memory of her childhood so she feels betrayed by both her lover and town.”

The bearded man drank more of his ale and said in that strong voice, “Is it entertaining?”

“Well, it entertained me,” I said. “I think it works but I’ve never done anything like it.”

“Have you got some lively characters, funny characters?”

“Well there is one funny character, his name is Buddy Gresham. He’s a local bootlegger. He keeps spirits bright.”

The man looked puzzled. Was it the word bootlegger? “Maybe you need some evil characters,” he said. He looked at me and said, “I’ve written some awful ones. Too many words, boring, boring. I like your Buddy Gresham character. Maybe you need more like him.” Then the man began to stand up and said, “I must go. Another ale, I won’t be able to walk home, but I needed this tonight. I just….”

“You just needed to relax,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “I’ve been at it. I’ve been working on a long story about a king who has three daughters.”

“Not, Lear,” I said. “Not King Lear?”

“Yes!” He looked suddenly alert and surprised. “Who art thou?”

“Well if it’s Lear you’ve done you must be exhausted,” I said.

He was standing now, a little unsteady and he said, “Well, it all ends badly. There are corpses all over the place. I don’t know if it works. Oh Lear, Lear, Lear. Oh, he’s drowned me. Lear, Lear, Lear.”

He was leaving and I called after him, “Don’t worry about it. It works, it works.”

And he turned, “Well thank you, thank you. I hope it plays well. One day I hope to drop the pen and go back to Stratford and put my feet up.
The dream ended but the voices of the tavern continued through the night. I wish I could have told him the whole story.

Discovering the Narrator April 1, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.

I think I’ve discovered a narrator for the Jonesborough story. He’s relaxed, loves Jonesborough and his ease delights me. It’s clear he’s spent his life in Jonesborough and acts as a tour guide who we can trust and enjoy. One of the nice things about the narrator is he’s not bound by time. He’s clear at the beginning that it’s the late 1950s then in moments he takes us to the early 1970s.

The narrator tells us about these beautiful old brick buildings that he loves and he says that the bricks were made by both black and white hands and that the craftsmen were so able that the buildings are still standing. He also tells us that the Nolachucky River is only six miles away and that everyone in his audience has the Nolachucky River inside them. Way beyond are the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s been very helpful to email Jim Rhein and Janet Browning whenever I have questions about the river or the Main Street or the barbershop or the beauty parlor. And it’s also been very helpful to work here at home with storytelling colleagues. It’s with them I’ve tried out the narrator. In any story there are certain moments that stand out. The discovery of the narrator is one of those moments.

I hope April 22 to tell some snippets of the Jonesborough story. It’ll be a chance for the narrator to leave my living room and enter into the bigger world. The threads that are appearing as I work on the story are: time, the ability to listen deeply, the beauty of East Main Street, the possible death of downtown Jonesborough and the strength of some of the ordinary folks there. In the early scenes we’ll meet Pearl and Jim Jackson. Pearl Jackson was famous for her cream pies at Rush’s Restaurant. Jim Jackson, her husband, was a farmer who grew up in extraordinary poverty, but he had the strength of character to make a fine life for himself. If there’s time we’ll also meet Eva Taylor and Curtis Buchanan.

I feel that the Nolachucky River is flowing through me and the story has begun.

The Pace of Jonesborough February 18, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.
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In the New York Times, February 4th, 2010 I read about how Don DeLillo’s new novel came about. In the summer of 2006 DeLillo was wandering through the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He happened upon Douglas Gordon’s “Twenty-four Hour Psycho.” This is a video installation that consists of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Psycho” slowed to two frames a second so it lasts for an entire day instead of the original hour and a half or so. DeLillo said, “I went back four times, and by the third time I knew this was something I had to write about. Most of the time I was the only one there except for a guard, and the few people who came in and left hastily.” The slowness of the film and the way it caused him to notice things he might otherwise have missed, appealed to him.

Reading about DeLillo made me think about Jonesborough and time. That same day I was on the phone talking to Carolyn Moore of Jonesborough. Carolyn said to me that when you walked down the street in Jonesborough it might take thirty minutes to an hour just to go a couple of blocks because you would be stopping to talk to people.

When I was a boy people would stop in Brookline Village in Massachusetts to chat, but it would never take an hour to go two blocks. There’s something important about people taking the time to talk to one another. Listening requires generosity and attention and you have to be willing to let go of accomplishing the next thing on your list. There’s something very human about that.

Twenty years ago my son and I climbed the Appalachian Trail in the North Carolina/Tennessee area. When we finished my friend, Connie Regan-Blake took us to see the great storyteller Ray Hicks at his mountain home. Ray sat on his porch and talked to us for a couple of hours. I had the sense that if we wanted to stay all day that would have been fine with Ray. That’s the way he lived. And that’s the way Jonesborough was and doubtless is today.

I’m haunted by the scene of people walking down East Main Street in Jonesborough in the 40s, 50s and 60s stopping to talk. In my imagination I look down on the street and imagine Caroline May on a corner talking to one of her piano pupils, Fred Chase coming out of Rush’s Restaurant with his arm around a friend, Alfred Greenlee talking about a break in water pipes with Bob May and Jimmy Neil Smith, a high school student, talking with a friend as Jimmy Neil goes into the hardware store to play the miniature organ. What I don’t see is people hurrying along the sidewalk so fast they don’t have time to say hello. So one of my jobs is to think about time and how slowing down allows you to see and to listen and to laugh. Mostly, it allows you to be part of the lives of the people you talk to.

Beginning My Jonesborough Commission January 27, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.
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Downtown Jonesborough

I began the New Year in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It was fourteen degrees one morning, the snow was falling lightly and yet the main street was quite beautiful. The town of Jonesborough, home of the International Storytelling Center, has commissioned me to create a story about Jonesborough. The moon was full the night I arrived and Dr. Bill Kennedy, my host, said it was a blue moon. Evidently a blue moon is a term that refers to a moon that’s full twice in a month.

Jimmy Neil Smith, Director International Storytelling Center

Bill and Virginia Kennedy have long been friends. Bill Kennedy has been chairman of the Historic Zoning Commission for about a quarter of a century and he’s played a crucial role in preserving the beauty of the town.

There’s a mystery about Jonesborough. Limestone, Tennessee is just down the road from Jonesborough and that’s the birthplace of Davy Crockett. In the 1940s and 50s the main street of Limestone was busy. You could go to the grocery store or hardware store the gas stations and the beauty parlor, but now it’s silent. It’s dead.


The main street in Jonesborough was dying in the late 1950s and 60s. No longer could you get a slice of Pearl Jackson’s pie at Rush’s Restaurant. No longer was Fred Chase cutting hair in the barbershop. Shops along the main street were closing and in some of the empty brick buildings there was more water inside than out. Jonesborough rebounded. It’s flourishing and continues to grow. It’s a mystery story in reverse; instead of who killed somebody I want to know how the town came roaring back to life.