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September 26, 2011


Miss Maude and Creech lived in an old, unpainted, heart pine farmhouse in Barnwell County. Creech spent most afternoons sitting on the front porch. Children of all ages enjoyed stopping by for a visit. The old man always had a tale or two to tell.

“Uncle Creech, why do you tell so many stories,” his nephew asked.

“I’ll be glad to explain, but would you bring me some cool water first?”

The boy walked across the yard to the well. He lowered the wooden bucket to the bottom of the shaft and cranked it back up to the top of the well. He filled a gourd dipper from the bucket and carried it to his uncle.

“Thank you, kindly,” old man Creech said. “The water is mighty good, but why did you bring me the dipper when I only asked for water?”

“How could I bring you water without something to hold it?”

“And that is exactly why I tell these tales. Stories hold the truth I want to give to you.”

Stories are the vessels in which wisdom is contained. Aesop spun fables, Hebrew prophets used metaphors, Jesus told parables, and the best teachers have followed their examples. Stories are the containers into which moral instruction, deep pathos, and refreshing humor are poured.

Storytelling is a treasured part of my heritage. My grandfather had a tale suitable for every occasion.  My dad died in April of this year at the age of ninety. Dad was master storyteller. My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, was a delightful storyteller.  Mr. Jack and I could exchange tales for hours at mealtimes.

Lest I err by implying that storytelling is only a male endeavor, let me be quick to add that my mother and my grandmothers shared their own wisdom through stories, often read aloud. It is one of the reasons that I value books as I do.

Storytelling begins by learning to pay attention. I find stories everywhere, in everything I read, in every conversation, in silent encounters during the course of every day. Every person has a story to tell. He or she is almost always willing to tell it if someone is willing to take the time to listen.

Storytelling, like story writing, rings true when it is about what you know and where you live.  My stories are about my neck of the woods. They are from the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the rivers of the Piedmont, from the cotton mills, and from the lumberyard.

Sometimes people ask, how do you remember so many stories?  Stories have great potential but a very short life expectancy. They have to be used quickly or stored for later. One way to remember is to keep a journal. I almost always have a notebook and pen close at hand. Another way to remember is to tell the story to another person soon after you hear it. Every time you tell it, the story becomes more deeply implanted in your own mind. This is why our family tradition of mealtime stories was so important to me.

All stories tell the truth, even those that are fiction. In the best storytelling tradition, the truth is far more important than fact. In fact, fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth.

Each week since 2005 I have written “By The Way,” a column for H-J Weekly.  A collection of fifty of those columns was published by Hub City Writers Project in 2009 as  A Good Mule Is Hard to Find.

When I was putting the book together, my editor, Jeremy Jones, suggested putting all of the holiday columns into a separate book.  Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year is that book.

A Good Mule is Hard to Find was recognized by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance as one of the best books in southern literature for 2010. Last year, Betsy Teter asked me to do another collection of columns as a follow-up to Good Mule. Hub City Writers Project has published Banjos, Barbecue, and Boiled Peanuts. Both the Banjo and the Santa books will be released the first week in October of this year, 2011.

Santa Almost Got Caught will guide you through the holiday season from Thanksgiving through Epiphany. You’ll go into the woods in search of the perfect red cedar Christmas tree. You’ll be reminded of the real reason sweet potatoes are part of holiday meals. You’ll hear tales about a flaming Advent wreath and the Christmas tree emergency that required an exterminator.

Banjos, Barbecue, and Boiled Peanuts pulls back the curtain of kudzu to reveal a place of weirdness and wonder, a place where a five-string banjo may lead to insanity, the art of preparing slow-cooked barbecue is like making love, and wary visitors from above the Mason-Dixon Line try boiled peanuts for the first time.

These two new books and my previous books will be available at two special events next week in Spartanburg. I will be available to sign your books on Monday, October 3 at 6:00 P.M. at Morningside Baptist Church, 897 South Pine Street, and on Tuesday, October 4 at 7:00 P.M. at the Hub-Bub Showroom, 149 South Daniel Morgan Avenue.  Please join us.

My hope is that they will inspire you to tell a story or two about where you live and the people you know.


Kirk H. Neely
© September 2011

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