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Celebrating 40 years of storytelling with Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence

By Staff | Dec 28, 2018

Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Elizabeth Elllis recounts experiences from her life in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas during the Speak Story Series in Reynolds Hall on Dec. 11. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Since her Speak Story Series performance was snowed-out in March, Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Elizabeth Ellis was rescheduled to speak in Reynolds Hall on Dec. 11, to talk about her experiences as an Appalachian storyteller.

According to Speak Story Series founder Adam Booth, Ellis, who previously spoke for the series in Feb. 2015, was the obvious choice as the series’ first writer-in-residence.

“When I was thinking of whom would be the best inaugural Appalachian Writer-in-Residence, Elizabeth was the only choice,” Booth said. “In just a few weeks, she will be celebrating her 40th anniversary as a professional storyteller — something few storytellers can ever say.”

To kick off the evening, a group of three master’s degree students –Megan Rynne, Jan Stevens and Krista Kyke — presented research on Ellis’ life, which they had done as their capstone project for Booth’s graduate-level Appalachian folk tales and storytelling class at Shepherd University.

“We digitally archived the career and personal history of the living storyteller,” Rynne said, mentioning the group conducted 12 phone interviews with Ellis and her colleagues, to complete the project.

According to Rynne, the group’s research can be found in the Library of Congress, after Ellis discussed her concern over the many stories that have already been lost, due to them not being recorded.

“This graduate research class project we just took to the extreme,” Rynne said. “I felt that Elizabeth was telling me to go and use technology to record storytellers. In January, Janet, Krista and I interviewed Elizabeth Ellis for hours. Our last question was about technology’s role for future storytellers. Elizabeth told us she believes storytelling and storytellers need to use technology to record stories.”

After the students presented their research, Ellis took the stage, beginning her storytelling with thoughts about her childhood growing up in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I truly was a free-range child, and spent a lot of time alone, mostly with imaginary friends and characters from books,” Ellis said, mentioning that mindset has followed her through adulthood. “I was struck by the power that story had, to speak to people, to change people.”

After telling stories ranging from her childhood experience with peddlers, to her adulthood experience retelling Jewish stories to rabbis in airport terminals, Ellis closed with holiday good wishes to the community.

“I hope you all have wonderful holidays, and the joy of being with your family,” Ellis said. “I want to close up with a quote and a little piece of a poem by Carl Sandburg, ‘Joy always, Joy everywhere — Let joy kill you! Keep away from the little deaths.'”