The title might make this post sound a little more interesting than it really is, but isn’t that the point of a great title?
I did something a little different this Tuesday night—I participated in a live, open mic Southern storytelling event! If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested, here’s the information you need. I participated in a group called Stories on the Square that meets the second Tuesday of every month at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. It’s an awesome venue where people go to actually listen to live music, but other groups can use the space.
I’ve done open mic events before, usually poetry slams and readings, so I was expecting a little something like that. I brought an edited and updated version of “Exposure” thinking I could do a fun, dramatic reading from it and get some more feedback. However, the event organizer saw me reading over my text and making cuts and told me that we weren’t allowed to read from a printout or even use any notes! YIKES!
I frantically scanned my document, trying to memorize a basic outline and a few of the better images and jokes, when Wayne (my amazingly intelligent husband) suggested, “Why don’t you just tell the story about Darrell and the letters?”
I jumped on the idea instantly because I’ve told the story so many times I have it nearly memorized. I instantly felt more relaxed and started working to remember the better details and tangents that I could include to make it more interesting. I know it was a million times better because it came out of my head rather than from a page. I could just tell a story organically and let it ride rather than fight to follow a pre-set template.
If you’re interested in joining me next month and want to avoid the same near catastrophe I did, here are the rules. The Facebook site I linked to above is where you can get the month’s prompt or topic. For instance, this month’s choice was “rule breaking,” but many of us didn’t know before the event because we were new. Hence, the stories ranged from musings about buddies lost in Vietnam to urban chicken farming and even crazy people you meet when you work at a law firm. (“I am Rose M. Jones, comma, the I AM, the Superior Goddess of Love.”)
Each participant gets seven minutes. However, if your story is engaging, you can push that a little bit. Also, if fewer people are there to tell stories, you can have a little more time. Just plan accordingly. As I said, you cannot use any notes. You cannot do a “stand up” act, sing (unless it’s relevant to the telling of your story), or go on a political rant. Your story needs an engaging hook, it needs to follow a clear narrative pattern, and it needs to have a definite, punchy ending. It’s all the stuff that a written story requires…plus a theatrical element with regards to presentation. Things like body language and tone of voice enter into it. Some of the tellers were hilarious because of of what they said AND how they said it.
If you’re Southern, you know at least one great storyteller. He or she usually holds court on a front porch and can keep people there well past the time they meant to leave as they ream out one hilarious, poignant, or bizarre story after another. This monthly meeting is an attempt to keep that art form alive, and I think it’s another great way to use storytelling skills and practice my writing. I highly suggest you join us at Eddie’s Attic next month or, if you don’t live in the metro Atlanta area, to find a similar group in a neighborhood near you.
Here I am telling my story, which went a little something like this…
I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Would you be enthused about admitting your from a state whose unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi”? (That’s so we don’t have to come in last in everything.) Well, folks from Arkansas, we’re a little…different. None more so than my Great Uncle Darrell. My grandmother’s youngest brother, one half of a set of twin boys, was the quintessential Qualls (their last name). Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in the presence of one, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my cousin repeatedly lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times in rapid succession. He only stopped when my grandmother flipped him the bird, which sent him on a laughing jag.
So Darrell was a Qualls through and through. And he was highly intelligent and creative (though not college educated), which is a lethal combination in a super villain but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.”
Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply? It was, “Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.” (I’ll leave that one up to you to figure out. It’s worth it in the end!)
Well, Darrell once had a job working at a paper mill on the night shift when there wasn’t a whole lot of “pulping” going on. He was up in the control tower watching lights blink on and off on a gigantic board (hopefully in the right order). That made for a lot of staring, and (if you’re Darrell and have more brains than you know what to do with) a whole lot of boredom.
So he started writing letters to a friend named Leroy. This was a guy who hung around with Darrell and spent a lot of time with our family. Leroy had fought in a war. It could have been Vietnam, it could have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and kicking. I personally think he made the same deal as Dick Clark.
Well, Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing rather than scary to me when I was a child. One of the oddest things he did happened whenever he came around to eat a meal with us. He’d load up his plate, grab a napkin and fork, and proceed to stand in a doorway to eat it. “Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asked, though we all knew he’d answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He’d come back to refill his plate or glass and then return to the doorway to continue eating. And he could put it away, perhaps because it could just go straight down his leg. I dunno.
Well, Darrell got this bright idea that he would write letters to Leroy in which he posed as a bookseller trying to get him to purchase “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each letter, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles.
He also made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. His brain needed something to do. Wouldn’t you like to read:
The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel
Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars
The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen
Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia
How to Grow Yellow Blueberries
and (my personal favorite) How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity
Well, every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail. For seven years, this happened. And never once did Leroy order a book. Leroy also never knew it was Darrell who was sending the letters.
At Darrell’s funeral many years later, we were all sitting around after the service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and forced smiles onto our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal….boring. Everything Darrell had never been.
Well, we were sitting around after the service picking petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, and talking about how odd a funeral actually is when someone mentioned Darrell and asked, “What do you think he thought about it?” Well, as we are wont to do in the South, that question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about our dearly departed Darrell. And you can guess which story came up. Yep, Leroy and the letters. Mind you, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Darrell’s brother, Doug, and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was responsible for all them funny letters all them years ago?”
When Doug (who was more heartbroken than he let on at the time, what with losing his twin and all) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a loud, full-bodied chortle full of joy and replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of laugh that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.
And I can’t help but think that was Darrell’s reason for writing those letters all along.