Saundra Kelley is that and much more. The Jonesborough Storyteller’s Guild president says she knew she was “different” very early on in her life. Her journey has, and will continue to be, one that connects the past with the present through the world of oral history — an ancient tradition in which practitioners like Kelley develop various methods to record, understand and archive narrated memories.
“We storytellers are not mainstream — we’re different people,” she said from her Jonesborough home as her dog, Geoffrey, napped in her arms. “I think we live with one foot off the ground. We live in the world of imagination. A story is a living organism. I think a lot of us are introverted people. But when I get up on stage, I’m transformed.”
The gregarious Kelley talked about her life while glancing from time to time out her front window as birds circled a feeder. A laptop sat open on a nearby table where she spends much of her time. Books were in greater supply than household furnishings at Kelley’s home.
Born in Tallahassee, Fla., she attended Florida State University. Her chosen field? Social science, of course.
“I had matured a little by that time and minored in creative writing and communication,” she said. “I went to London on a study program just because I was curious. I lived in a 13-story building. I was at the British Museum all the time. The Royal Institute of Ethnology was part of my exploration.”
When she returned home, she went to work for Easter Seals. There Kelly found donated books dealing with folklore and the development of cultures. Her job was to inventory these materials, and that helped her learn that oral history is a “stamp” or footprint of the heritage of human beings.
She also worked for a hospice on the coast of Florida, and she was one of the only human beings living on what’s known as a “sandspit” — a point made of sand that extends into the water.
“There I saw black bears, egrets — that’s when I really started to write and to verbally express what I saw,” she said. “There was this egret named Snow by the previous owner of the place where I was staying. It would land on my deck. He would stay there, and I put food by his feet. When I left the beach, Snow was on top of the roof. It was as if he was a weather vane wishing me fair weather.”
Kelley came to East Tennessee State University to get a master’s of arts degree with a storyteller concentration. She received training in the psychology of storytelling, and it was at this time when she was introduced to a technique by professor Bobbie Pell called the “arc.”
“I started by doing cartoons,” she said. “I would take the story and break it down by elements. Then I would create the essence of the story in my mind. I began to realize I could learn and create numerous stories. I can visualize stories — countless stories. I’m seeing pictures.”
Kelley worked with Johnson City’s purchasing department for seven years and wrote features for Jonesborough’s Herald & Tribune for a period. She got a contract with North Carolina’s McFarland Publishing to interview storytellers in Appalachia, including the well-known Ray Hicks.
The writing bug got the best of her, and her readers as well.
Southern Yellow Pine Publishing in Tallahassee published her “Danger in a Blackwater Swamp.” Then, Red Hills Writer’s Project in north Florida published her story, “Worm Grunter’s Wisdom,” a true story about a man who would conjure up earthworms from the ground and use them as bait to catch fish to feed his family.
Kelley confessed her passion has changed her life, and she considers it a gift that brings personal joy she otherwise could never find. But she also had some advice for future storytellers.
“Caution. Treat it gently,” she said about the sacrifice and ultimate reward of storytelling. “I have become, to a degree, separated from the world. I’ve gotten to the point I don’t have a television anymore. I devour books. Make sure you have a good business sense. It’s a hard journey by yourself.
“Your senses are wide open all the time. You’ve either got to accept it, or close it down.”