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.”
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.’
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.
[Images in this post, as per many others, pulled
from varied Internet sources.]