Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Rhythm of the Story

A few days ago I had the honor of sitting on a panel with fiction writers Darnell Arnoult and Robert Hicks and Martha Stamps, owner of Martha's at the Plantation restaurant, eatured at the Downtown Nashville Library. The subject was southern literature in all it's glory. Our wonderful moderator, Jeff Jacobs of the Borders Bookstores fame corralled us nicely and made us sound smart and thoughtful. (Okay, Robert and Darnell are smart and thoughtful anyway.) so we did a fine job of sharing stories not hogging the floor as ALL SOUTHERN STORYTELLERS, that being every man, woman, and half-pint child I know born and bred in the South is capable of doing. Shoving an entire crowd of people converging on a plate of fried chicken out of the way so they will hush up and let him tell his story! In the vein of NOT being a floor hog myself on this particular day I let one of the questions put to us go unanswered. Meaning I most likely looking liked an extra bump on a log for no good reason but I swear I was trying to mind my manners (so unlike me) - And so it goes.

Here's the question: "So, why is it with other writers from various points up north and beyond that when their novels or stories begin, they actually BEGIN, where as Southern writers seem to meander a bit and their stories start so SLOW?" (MY PARAPHRASE - FORGIVE ME JEFF)

Robert Hicks responded by telling a great story (as he is apt to do) saying that his stories start slow because he is slow himself (Which is soooo not true. The man's brain is lightning quick!) Darnell Arnoult answered the question with grace and intelligence and foresight. I kept my mouth shut sitting there thinking that was a really funny story and that was a really intelligent answer so what more is there to say?

But being that a few days have gone by and I still have this on my mind, this would have been my answer.

It's the earth. And that lazy old sun that got nothing to do but roll around heaven all day. That rhythm of the planets that sets the seasons in motion is something that Southerners and Southern writers are instinctively keen to. Just as you don't suddenly wake up one winter morning and open your window to discover - Why, it's SPRING! Because that's not the way that the earth rolls out from under us. But little by little, inch by inch, we feel it coming on. We smell the change long before it arrives. We have an awareness, this DNA in our bones, boiling in our blood, bless our hearts awareness of the seasons coming on and changing. Of babies being born and old folks dying. Of our dreams rising like smoke from the ashes. We know that life, and all the glory of it is transitory and bittersweet and breathtaking. We know it so much our hearts could break with the fullness and the loss of it.

So, it's not that our friends up North like New York and other wild exotic places are any less of the writers than we are. They are not. They are just different. We can color most of our 'Yankee' writer friends as down right brilliant in their execution of the written word on page. And yes, Robert Hicks, maybe we are a little special in that our brains just might work a little slower. I know when I read books like The Corrections I think - man, these folks are just so smart. And like I often say, when I read a writer from way up North I can hear their brains ticking. But when I read a Southern writer I can feel their heart beating. Slow, steady pulses that lead me into a deeper shade of life. At a pace that allows me to leave one world and enter into a place word by word, that will hypnotically reveal the glories waiting for me on the next page. Words that will seduce me so softly, or grab me so passionately, that time stops and I'm in the middle of the life my brother or sister has given birth to.

Why is Southern fiction slower, Jeff? Because this dance we call life is something so precious to us that we know the moments must not be rushed but savored. That the glow of a Grandmothers old wedding ring against her coffee cup at sunrise, throwing gold shadows against her well worn face, is worth slowing down to breathe in and take notice. And we help our readers step into a place where they can slow down and take notice, too.

So, we old Southern storytellers are always inviting readers to dance with us but just a little bit slower. Slow enough to hear the music, to feel the air move across their skin as they twirl one time through this earth - and to remember.

River Jordan is a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee. Jordan’s writing career began as a playwright where she spent over ten years with the Loblolly Theatre group and received productions of her original works for the stage including Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek; Soul, Rhythm and Blues; and Virga.

Jordan’s novel The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (Harper Collins, Harper One) was published in January 2006. Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living Magazine who chose The Messenger of Magnolia Street as their Selects feature for March 2006 and by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.” Her first novel, The Gin Girl, (Livingston Press, 2003) has garnered such high praise as these words from Florida Today, "The Gin Girl is like crossing that deep, languid stream into the land of milk and honey. This author writes with a hard bitten confidence comparable to Ernest Hemingway. And yet, in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, she can knit together sentences that can take your breath."
Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story,’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, Backstory with River Jordan, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville every Saturday at 4:00 CST,
www.backstoryontheradio.com .

She has just completed a new work of fiction and lives with her husband in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at


Ginna Foster said...


Totally agree that the panel on Saturday was terrific! I too have been giving a lot of thought to what makes a southern writer's work distinct. You captured it beautifully here. It's about the slow and supple. It's about how everything is interconnected. It's about real life and the small moments that profoundly touch us.

Thank you for giving voice to the southern experience.


Toni said...

I think southern writers also suffer from the "why he's that way" syndrome, because we know the way a person became the person they are is just as important as what they're about to do. How they got that way is generally a story in itself, and impacts the reader's or listener's understanding of the point of the story about what this person is doing in the present tale. We'll veer off on tangents because we enjoy the crazy way the stories interlock to have created a world, rich with atmosphere and emotion and nuance and, like you said, heart.

Barbara T. said...

And the slow truth wins out again. Excellent. As always, you make my day.

Anonymous said...

I love that even your explanation/answer has that slow cooked, crock-pot tenderness that is bursting with flavor and richness that only long, gentle cooking can bring to any simple dish.
Chef Catherine

Anonymous said...

You know how hard it is to truly explain the south and southern writers. You did well enough that I am adding this to my stash of quotes:
"And like I often say, when I read a writer from way up North I can hear their brains ticking. But when I read a Southern writer I can feel their heart beating."


River Jordan said...

Well, I reckon if you adding quotes to your stash we orda clean it up a little. How 'bout -
"When I read a Northern writer I can hear their brains ticking but when I read a Southern writer - I can feel their heart beating."

However, quote and paraphrase at will :) - I'd love to see what it turns out to be at the very end. Something like - no words left but just "thump, thump, thump" when describing a southern writer would please me to no end!

Toni my writer girl friend - you are so right. One story leads to another - like the way old people start telling you something and they MUST connect all the dots, people, cousins in between! And you are all wonderful for reading and supporting the Southern Authors Blog - A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Make a t-shirt and spread the word.


Anonymous said...

A)“And like I often say, when I read a writer from way up North I can hear their brains ticking. But when I read a Southern writer I can feel their heart beating.”
River Jordan

B)"When I read a Northern writer I can hear their brains ticking but when I read a Southern writer - I can feel their heart beating."
River Jordan

I'll use "B" if you want, but "A" is what I hear. It's River on the porch with friends taking a pull on a long neck and giving her opinion. "A" is your heart beat, "B" is your brain ticking.


Anonymous said...

I like what Janis Owen's daddy said, "It's just a story (pronounced stow' ree)." There is also a more literary way of saying it: "all-inclusive circumlocution," which means simply that in order to tell the story one has to tell everything else that has to be told about the subject as well.

River jordan said...

Yes, yes, yes. And speaking of GREAT SOUTHERN STORYTELLERS - Our lady of story Janis Owens is a Queen. In person and on the page!


Anonymous said...

This is so lovely, River. I love the part about teh grandmother and her wedding ring.


danajoredhead said...

Hmmm .. in the middle of that, I closed my eyes and saw that precious grandmother just weeks before her Heaven-going sitting at the kitchen table with the sun on her face. How DO you do it? Thankfully, Dad moved us to the South when I was 16 and it's made all the difference. Thanks for the precious memories, River!