Home » Comments about Shep » JEAN SHEPHERD Imagination and Memory

JEAN SHEPHERD Imagination and Memory


d.quixote reading




A constant question in regard to Shepherd’s stories, narratives, commentaries, is–where’s the truth based on reality and where’s the art based on created material? What is “imagination,” anyway? Shepherd spoke on the radio as though his stories were true–and they came out of his extraordinary memory:

I’ll never forget one time, I’m a kid about–oh, I must have been in about the eighth grade….

As I put it in EYF!, “His stories contained stuff we knew was true, or easily verified, that melded seamlessly into each increment toward the unlikely and unbelievable. We did not know were to draw the line. W did not know that there was a place for a line. we did not know that a line had any need to be thought about. Worst of all–no, best of all– there was no identifiable borderland where a theoretical line might accurately have been drawn….Jean Shepherd’s stories of his childhood always signified, but as ‘truth’ they were especially suspect.”

But why I happen to be able to pull it out of my vast Kodachrome file–busted up slides of memory, is because, one, it happens t be my profession. You know, my job, the work that I’ve chosen in life, is mostly, totally introspection–and then transmitting it out. That’s what an artist does, really.


Of special significance here is to another related idea I discuss in my book that begins, “…what was truly extraordinary was his ability to remember so many bits and pieces from the past and present, which made his monologues seem real through their detail. Actual remembering was not a simple act with Jean Shepherd: it was a major tool of his creativity.”:

Do you ever have the feeling that half the stuff you remember just didn’t exist at all? That you sort of made it up? [Here, more than in most cases, he is obviously talking to personnel in the control room.] Or in some nutty way? You mean you don’t have that problem ever, Herb [Squire, his engineer]? You mean you–you really believe that everything you remember actually happened?

“….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 conscious and unconscious fabrication.”

peeWee playhouse

Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

I realize that I believe that most all of what I remember actually happened! (For many years I’ve told as true an incident regarding what I experienced walking home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan–strange occurrence. Only recently I’ve begun to wonder if it was just a very realistic and convincing dream.) What got me thinking again about this topic was an op-ed article from the December 2, 2014 New York Times. The article, by two psychology professors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, is titled “Why Our Memory Fails Us.” They begin by describing errors in memory by George W. Bush and Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and host of the TV series, “Cosmos.” The writers comment:

“Erroneous witness recollections have become so concerning that the National Academy of Sciences convened an expert panel to review the state of research on the topic….

“When we recall our own memories, we are not extracting a perfect record of our experiences and playing it back verbatim. Most people believe that memory works this way, but it doesn’t. Instead, we are effectively whispering a message from our past to our present, reconstructing it on the fly each time. We get a lot of details right, but when our memories change, we only ‘hear’ the most recent version of the message….

“It is just as misguided to conclude that someone who misremembers must be lying as it is to defend false memory in the face of contradictory evidence. We should be more understanding of mistakes by others, and credit them when they admit they were wrong. We are all fabulists, and we must all get used to it.”

Continuing what I’d written about this subject: “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 conscious and unconscious fabrications. Thus it will never be fully possible to separate Shepherd’s reality from his performance–or indeed, from 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 conversation. 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.’

brain 101

As for what to think about the extent of Shepherd’s  memory and

imagination–I’m less certain now than I’ve been in years.

einstein imagination pin

[Images in this post, as per many others, pulled

from varied Internet sources.]




  1. mygingerpig says:

    This is a fascinating subject. I recall hearing the program where Shep talked about memory and imagination. I know from my experience that stories I tell of events that involved me at early ages or later take on a greater impact when small details are included, details which are perhaps not essential to the story but create a feeling of reality and credibility. A smell, a color or sound, the make and model of a car, the color of a jacket are details that when included in a narrative bring it alive. Shep was a master at this. As Seinfeld noticed, he could take something very small and trivial and expand it to something very large and engaging. So he might take an exam he recalled in school and build an entire program around it, while the kernel of truth is the exam, and the rest is his painting a picture around it to make his point.

    I imagine that every story he told had at least one kernel of reality in it, and from that, lots of threads were woven into a humorous story with a message. The battle of the tops is likely based on an actual experience, but gave him a framework for a story about nuclear war and mutual destruction. He described the store window where the top was sold, the colors of the tops, the price he paid, how he got the money, the trip to the store to get the top etc. All details that he used like colors on his palate to “paint” the story.

    Might be interesting to deconstruct one of his stories and theorize what the reality was and what was likely added to it.


    • ebbergmann says:

      Thank you for all this–very strong and valid point about the details that make it “come alive.” The kernel of truth in a story might not even be specifically related to any detail in real life. For example, many people have suggested that toy guns might well instill in a kid’s mind that guns and shooting at people is not so outrageous, and this might have been all Shep needed to bring forth his “Duel in the Snow” story that led to A CHRISTMAS STORY.

  2. mygingerpig says:

    There are several stories I tell about events in my life that I know I have adapted details that may or may not have happened. At this point, I have told them so often, even written some in my blog, that I honestly could not tell you which details were exaggerations or fictional. I have a very good memory and recall details about events and places from my early years (2-4 years old). People often ask me how I can recall so much. When I put these into a story, it comes to life. Without them it is just a routine report of an event. It is the details that make it interesting.

  3. mygingerpig says:

    For example, he details in this story are all true. I can attest to each one of them as actually happening.

    On the other hand, this story is based on a true events, but contains details that are a product of my imagination.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    I imagine the kernel of truth in Duel in the Sun was the obsessive attraction to the Red Ryder BB gun as a ten year old. Whether he actually got one or not may be irrelevant. Shep said the story was about obsession. Had he chosen another object of obsession, (a new short wave receiver, for example) the trajectory of the story would have been quite different.

  5. Lou says:


    I think it was Shep who once said “you can’t create in a vacuum” when discussing the creative process.

    My Uncle Jack was a great story teller in our family. He had been a cop in New York City in the 1920’s & 30’s, and his sometimes hair raising tales about that job could be gruesome but were ALWAYS hilarious in the way he told them to us!

    I noticed that when he would occasionally repeat some of his stories, the details would change (sometimes significantly), but the basic point of his story was always the same, and always got a laugh.

    So whether they were exaggerated, or the “result of a faulty imagination”, there was some truth in there.

  6. gary in california says:

    Shep described his work, in his own words often, recently I listened to his 10-27-75 WOR show about Fictional Characters. He makes it clear that he was a storyteller-performer not a historian.

  7. mygingerpig says:

    I recently listened to a piece Shep did on an album called “Monkey on my back” that told how he god snared by a drug pusher as a kid by being given small plastic toys that contained some kind of candy. he described how he started to chew the candy and how it made him feel and act, until he was hooked. He tells the story in first person and says he was using for four years as a teenager. He described how he scrounged for and stole for money to buy the stuff. It is highly unlikely that this is a “true” story about his own experiences, yet he tells it from the first person. It is a pretty dramatic example of his technique. (Unless there is some evidence that he actually was hooked on some kind of chewable opium or heroin as a teenager, which I doubt).

  8. mygingerpig says:

    “Got” snared, not “god”.

  9. mygingerpig says:

    He also makes it clear during his interviews with Studs Terkel that he is not writing actual events but is writing parables based on some aspect of real life. He also goes to great pains in these interviews to disavow nostalgia.

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