The bigger the tale, the better

by Mimi Montgomery

Storytelling is a prolific vocation in the South; honestly, I’m surprised it doesn’t come with a W-9 form around here. People will pull you aside and basically tell you everything about anything. I think it’s the reason why shows like Law & Order never take place in a Southern city like ours. People talk so much, they’d trip themselves up and confess to a crime just to land a punch line.

I think it’s this ease with words that has made Southern literature so popular. Southern writers are first and foremost storytellers; the prose, syntax, and imagery isn’t always the focus, more often it’s the universal and everyday. Maybe it stems from the ease and comfort that comes from sitting around countless tables, staying up till all hours of the night simply talking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that reading Faulkner is like picking up Green Eggs and Ham, but I’d rather have a beer with him than Dostoyevsky, that’s all.

It’s no surprise then that the Raleigh area boasts a bevy of local writers. Lee Smith, Sarah Dessen, Belle Boggs, Wilton Barnhardt, Allan Gurganus, Jill McCorkle – and that’s just some in this neck of the woods. I didn’t even mention Thomas Wolfe, Ron Rash, Charles Frazier, Wiley Cash, or a whole host of other prolific North Carolinian authors.

As a kid growing up in Raleigh and then Gastonia, I was pretty lucky to be in a place that encouraged creativity, the arts, and expression. It enabled me to translate my love of stories, other people, and the world into a specific strand of connection. Without this community and heritage, I may have never discovered writing. Had I grown up in North Dakota, I might just be a really under-stimulated dog-walker who tells her stories to a pack of Yorkies all day (not to say that I don’t still find myself talking to dogs).

If you really think about it, it’s not that surprising that I’m a writer. It’s basically the only vocation I could find that wouldn’t require me to shut up in order to make a living.

Origin story

      My fixation with the world began the moment I entered it. My dad has the slightly disturbing propensity to tell the story of my birth at cocktail parties, airport security lines, Mexican restaurants, christenings, annual vehicle inspections – you name it. I’ll condense it as generically and non-traumatically as possible for you, but basically I came out with my eyes wide open, head rotating around the room like a coal miner blinking in the sunlight. In this moment of sacred union between mother and child, as a bond unlike any other manifests itself through new life, my mom promptly looked down and exclaimed, “Holy %&*#!” People tend to have this same reaction toward me to this day.

I could understand her sentiment, though. The feeling was mutual, Mama – ‘Holy %&*!’, indeed! What a weird world this place was – how loud and spectacular and wild and crazy! And I had the rest of my life to explore it!

It was all downhill from there.

Every report card was pretty standard until you got down to the section about classroom behavior. While each teacher tried as hard as possible to be lovely and diplomatic in the comments, the underlying thesis blared: Mimi Montgomery has a mouth bigger than a Blue Whale crossbred with Steven Tyler. I would just not shut up. And to make it worse, I was weird.

It’s one thing to have a cute, pigtailed child in a sailor suit chatting charmingly at the lunch table next to you, but when a feral, human-alien hybrid yammers nonstop in the neighboring booster seat, it’s downright disturbing.

To be fair, I was doomed from an early age: I read too much, and had too much to say about it all. Still, I will forever be thankful to my parents that they never regulated the books I could read or the movies I could watch. I truly think this made me a more inquisitive, self-motivating seeker of the unknown.

But that kind of freedom does set your kid up to be a mumbling weirdo on the playground. Contrary to popular belief, other fourth-graders don’t really want to hear about the magical realism in the Peruvian novel you’re currently reading, and they sure don’t care about the Monty Python and the Holy Grail reenactments you and your brother stage in the backyard.

Eventually, through intense and scarring Darwinian social grooming, my conversational topics grew more appropriate, even if my volume didn’t.

As I got older, I learned to casually chatter with the best of them, slowly discovering my love of storytelling. In high school, my buddies and I would do astronomically stupid things just to have a story we could tell afterward. At slumber parties and over Bojangles’ breakfasts, our recounts were elaborate and long-winded, complete with accents, sound effects, and choreographed stage blocking. (“You mean Lizzie rode around Myrtle Beach on the back of some dude’s moped last night?” “Didn’t you just hear me do the moped noise?”)

In college, living in a sorority house was like one long improv comedy sketch. Everyone was loud, everyone was funny, and everyone had stories to tell. It was a crash course in comedic delivery and performance: Our neighbors across the street used to tell us our cackles were audible late into the night, like a coven of preppy witches.

Every Saturday morning, girls would stumble downstairs and we’d swap weekend tales. There was a definite hierarchy. Each person was constantly looking to top the previous anecdote: Some girls invited a touring band back to the house for an encore (unbeknownst to our house mother), others broke into the business school and wrote all over the whiteboards, I may or may not have hitched a ride across town with a Domino’s delivery man, and then there was the legend of the 2009 pledge class, who snuck a keg all the way up to the third floor balcony (where it stayed until it began to leak through the floorboards).

I learned a lot of things from my stint in the Tri Delt house, namely that you cannot try to raise a puppy in a house of 30 girls, the entire University of Pennsylvania men’s cross country team won’t fit in a dorm room, and that you can open a wine bottle with a shoe. Mostly, though, I learned that stories weren’t just something to be traded back and forth – they could be bigger than that. They could make people feel and think and discover new things. It was all in how you told them.

As I got older and became a writer, the stories of my Southern childhood began to take on a new meaning. Each one was so vibrant, full of eccentric humor and detail, that they practically told themselves. My mom’s best friend smoking a cigarette outside the hair salon in her foil and setting the porch on fire, our housekeeper buying a pig from the Gaston County flea market (“When you look at him, you can see exactly where pork rinds come from!”), the time my eighth grade science teacher threatened to cut off my toes: This is what they mean when they say truth is stranger than fiction. It would truly be impossible for me to make up any of these things.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a lot of places: The blue-shouldered shadows of Istanbul mosques, crowded favelas in Sao Paulo, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong harbor; but there’s only been one place that’s truly felt like home. North Carolina – Raleigh, Gastonia, Wrightsville Beach – with its nonstop talking and wisecracking and tall tales, has always been my heart’s song. Without it, I’d simply be someone else. Or a lot quieter.