Saturday, January 5, 2013

Are Southerners Natural-Born Storytellers?

"Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers...great talkers."

Eudora Welty
The above quotation comes from a woman who epitomized Southern storytelling to generations of readers, Eudora Welty. The Mississippi writer's quote evokes images of Southern folk in creaky rocking chairs on weathered front porches, drinking bourbon out of Mason jars, swapping stories late into the night, to an hour when even the crickets and 'lightning bugs' (aka fireflies) have retired.

But was Welty right? Are Southerners inherently good at spinning a compelling yarn? Or is it a myth, perpetuated by the enduring reputations of Southern writers (Welty, William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor and such)? And if it was true in Welty's time (1909 to 2001), is is still true today in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging?

Truman Capote
I think there is some reality to Welty's quote, but there's also some wishful thinking behind it--which, come to think of it, are frequently the ingredients for a good Southern story.

It's true that Southerners tend to be 'great talkers,' but that's not the same as being a great storyteller. Ask the typical Southerner a question about, say, a favorite food, and he or she is likely to tell you the entire recipe or the name of the restaurant that serves the particular dish plus directions for how to get there--all without a pause.
Flannery O'Connor

One of my closest Southern friends has this habit, especially when talking about someone else (something we Southerners love to do). He'll start off with an interesting piece of information but soon gets bogged down in irrelevant details. When I see this happening, I try to stop him by saying "Mother's maiden name!" This is code between us that means: Stop before you tell me everything I don't need to know about this person including her mother's maiden name!

I've known some fascinating Southern storytellers, but they're usually not great conversationalists. Recently, I ran into a man I knew years ago when I lived in Charleston. He was seated at a table in a San Francisco cafe. Once I said his name and he recognized me, his one-man show began. What followed were a string of hilarious, witty, and at times poignant stories. But not once did he ask how I was doing, as I had a few stories of my own to share. When I tried to tell him, he changed the subject back to himself. Narcissists, whether of Southern, Yankee, Midwestern, or Japanese extraction, are often fascinating but ultimately tiresome people.

Southerners, in general, often have a heightened sense of drama and frequently possess a terrific sense of humor, especially about themselves, which helps a lot when telling a good story. The Southerner's slower sense of pacing also contributes, as does the accent. Some Southerners are keenly aware of their region's reputation for good storytelling and feel a duty to preserve it, as well. There's even an organization called the Southern Order of Storytellers, based in Atlanta, whose mission is "to bring storytelling to wider audiences and help make storytelling once again an integral part of culture and entertainment."

Finally, there are lots of eccentrics in the South--people who know they are outside the mainstream. Rather than denying it, they flaunt it; eccentricity is their calling card. These are the characters who tell the richest stories, or who are the basis of stories others tell about them.

In other words, a Southerner isn't by nature a great storyteller, but the South has its fair share of them. But for how long? The Internet, globalization, and other forces are flattening out regional and cultural differences, so it's only a matter of time before Southern storytelling becomes yet another lost art form.

In the meantime, however, we have Leslie Jordan.

Jordan is a gifted actor from Tennessee best known for his roles in Will and Grace and Sordid Lives, the film and the TV series. During a recent one-man show in San Francisco, Jordan held his audience in rapt attention for two hours as he spun one Southern story after another, many of them featuring eccentric characters (himself included). If Southern storytelling is a dying art form, Jordan is single-handedly keeping it alive. I'll conclude with two examples.

Leslie Jordan
An anecdote Jordan re-enacted on stage was about how, as a boy, he would hang out in the local beauty parlor with his mother. One day, in walked the town tramp, her torpedo tits "entering before she did." Jordan's recounting of this story was full of small details, from the clothes the woman wore to the cigarettes she smoked. At one point, the hair stylist asked the town trollop if she wanted her hair teased. "Teased?," the woman responded. "I want it terrorized!"

In another anecdote, Jordan recounted a chance meeting with a Southern drag queen who called herself Kitty Litter. Jordan had been friends with Kitty in Atlanta years ago, in their wilder days. During their unexpected encounter years later, Kitty asked Jordan if he still drank; Jordan said he stopped long ago. "Me too," said Kitty. "I only have a little Peppermint Schnapps now and then to sweeten my breath."

And then, after a beat, Kitty added, "Sometimes, my breath is so sweet, I can hardly stand up."

----- What do you think? Are Southerners great storytellers? Do you have a great 'Southern' story to share? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. I think the teller creates the story, rather than the story creating the teller?
    But oh, the South has some great fodder. I mean, where else in the country do people drink brown sugar water, aka iced tea?
    Great post!

    1. Thanks Judi. And great question you posed -- I think you're right, the teller creates the story.

  2. I think the south gives us plenty of material to work with. You can't sling a dead cat without hitting a reality show based in the south. You just can't make that stuff up! I think that part of the charm of a story teller is the attention to detail and southerners are keen to pick that up.

    1. Agreed, Bill -- it's all in the details.

  3. Yes, Ya'll certainly are.

    Some more betta than the othas mister.

    Hugs from Paris...Tim

    1. You got that right, Tim. Hugs back to you in Par-ee.