A storyteller, an Internet image
accompanying a short essay titled
“The Science of Storytelling”
by Kami Thordarson,
Innovative Strategies Coach
Does Jean Shepherd know when he’s telling true stuff and when he’s telling fiction? Do we know? We all know that on the radio he tells it like it’s all true. But when he discusses the act of storytelling, he says it’s all created (fiction), although he also admits that, like most authors, there are fragments of actual people and events.
So, there’s the question of what we can understand of Shepherd’s words as truth and what is made up. What’s invented out of whole cloth and what out of half cloth? On a program he once commented to his engineer, “You mean you—you really believe that everything you remember actually happened?” In my Excelsior, You Fathead! I explore this a bit:
“…Shepherd here contemplates the truth and falsity of memory (and, by implication, his own ‘remembering’ as a storytelling device). Maybe Shepherd was not always sure how much he was making up and was suggesting that to some extent we all create our memories. Certainly, it seemed for Shepherd that memory is a baffling mix of [the actual, plus] conscious and unconscious fabrication. Thus it will never be fully possible to separate Shepherd’s reality from his performance—or, indeed, from his everyday talk. As Shepherd’s friend Bob Brown puts it, ‘He had the ability to weave things that really couldn’t possibly be true—in conversations. He was a difficult guy to know where reality stopped and fiction began. What he saw—or whether he saw it literally or whether he saw it in his mind—became reality for everybody around him.’”
There are some variations as to what might be true in storytelling. In a Paris Review interview, American writer and composer Paul Bowles comments about Mrabet, a Moroccan storyteller/author he translated, “In a story of his it’s hard to find the borderline between unconscious memory and sheer invention.” Might relate to Shepherd, but, despite the quote above, I think that Shep always knew what was memory for him and what he invented.
It’s my belief that regarding Shepherd’s kid stories and army stories, they are almost 100% fiction. There may or may not have been some incident in his life that inspired the fictional story. In the army stories, there is enough available information and circumstantial evidence to assure us that: he was in the Signal Corps; he trained at the Signal Corps school in Camp Crowder, Missouri; he claimed to have graduated from code school at Fort Monmouth, NJ, and that may well be true; he trained in radar operations at the secret radar training facility at Camp Murphy, just west of West Palm Beach, Florida, on the northern edge of the Everglades. We have army records showing when he entered the Service (achieving the rank of T/5), and when he was discharged. Most everything else in his army stories was very probably fiction–he created some great stuff.
EXAMPLE FROM SHEP’S ARMY
In Shep’s Army, the story about “USO hospitality” provides an example of what I believe is the nature of what is known as true. Here are some bits referred to in the story and what we can reasonably believe:
1. Shep spent time at Camp Crowder, near Neosho, Missouri.
2. He consistently made disparaging remarks on his shows about Camp Crowder, Neosho, and Missouri.
3. Rural and small-town areas in states such as Kentucky and Missouri have reputations for illegal brewing of strong alcoholic beverages.
4. An Internet site describing Neosho comments that its citizens had the custom of inviting GIs home for a meal.
5. On several occasions, Shepherd has commented that young women in backwoods areas of some states were extremely nubile–think Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae.
6. He even mentions the comparison to Daisy Mae Scragg, seen here.
I believe that, putting all of the above into the mix, Shep concocted what is very probably the totally fictional story. Note that it is a Shep-rarity in that he implies therein a sexual encounter.