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Home » Intrinsic nature of his art » JEAN SHEPHERD–What’s in a Story? 1 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD–What’s in a Story? 1 of 2

Several times over the years Shepherd talked on the air about the nature of his discourse, in part because he gave a lot of thought to the subject, in part because some people questioned the nature of his storytelling and he seemed to need to explain and justify himself.  He probably wanted his audience to understood how his performances fit into the written literary tradition he admired.  However, his comments have not always been consistent, even from one part of a monolog to the next.

During one broadcast he spends much of the 45 minutes in an intense disquisition on telling stories—his own and those of other people.  He comments that telling a tale orally is not the simple trick it seems—it is very difficult to “tell a good story without stopping.  I mean a story that is so good that you’re not wandering all over the place.”  Here, in regard to his own oral storytelling, Shepherd accurately puts himself in the ranks with traditional, high-quality authors.  Without actually saying so, that his art also consists of doing it nightly on the air, makes his act even more extraordinary.

Some of his reasoning provides valuable insight into his thinking about his own work.  He discusses the relationship between memory and invention:

 People continually write me and say, “Aw, come on, Shepherd, that stuff that happens to you as a kid, now come on, you’re making all that up!”  The reason I’m mentioning this now is that there is a recurring theme that runs through these letters that “that many things could not have happened to you as a kid.”  Well, that bears a little investigation.  I submit to you that there are millions of things that happened to you as a kid, except that you either don’t remember them, or/and, don’t recognize them for what they were.  Don’t recognize them for the wild or unusual or graphic or dramatic incidents that you were involved in.  (June 3, 1966)

This explanation, regarding the hundreds of stories he tells, is an interesting commentary on the nature of memory as it relates to his and anybody else’s storytelling.   He is actually suggesting here that his stories are based on both his conscious and unconscious memory.  Yet, whenever Shepherd discusses his creative techniques, he insists that rather than remembering his own stories, he invents them.  He comments, in a way that others have noted about him when he’s in the all-encompassing transport of the created reality of his own storytelling with its sometimes questionable veracity, that “a man is not really telling a story, he’s imagining a story, which is a very different scene entirely.”

He also tells of the author Richard Hughes, who wrote, regarding his novel of a ship ravaged by an unexpected hurricane and ultimately saved by another ship named “America,” that he only recognized years later that the inspiration for it came from his emotional response to the approach of World War II.  Yes, events and general observations do inspire much of fiction, sometimes through unrecognized indirection.  So, sometimes the storyteller becomes aware of an actual incident and reconfigures the details into an artistically organized story, at other times the teller unconsciously or consciously invents the incidents based on his own experience.

moby dick book

Shepherd describes at least some forms of creative writing when he speaks of Melville and Moby Dick in a discussion on a Long John Nebel program:

He really was telling a story.  He wailed, he keened (You can take all the puns you want out of that kind of wailing.) He wailed, he keened, he ranted, he raved, he laughed, he muttered, he did everything in it.  But he told a story and he told it his way.  Now, he invented a lot of things within the story, but he could only invent upon the thing which he actually knew….

Yes, there was, actually, a white whale.  Are you aware of that?  It wasn’t exactly the way Melville wrote him.  Who was Melville?  Maybe he was Ahab.  Maybe he was Moby Dick!  He certainly could not—well, possibly he was Ishmael, but I doubt it.  I would bet on him being the whale himself.  That’s another story, and that’s for another evening.

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We know that Shepherd also had claimed to work on a story for months before improvising its expression on the air.  We also know that in a 1968 radio discussion on that Long John Nebel show, Shepherd disparaged the idea that his storytelling monologs could be simply transcribed from his broadcasts.  He insisted that the transcription needed further work, transforming the spoken to the written word before it could be published in print.

He wonders if any writer who is serious about what he does ever really knows why he has told the story:

A true storyteller is driven by impulses and urges and drives and its—don’t come around and say “sickness” and one thing and another—that’s not what we’re talking about at all.  He is driven to create what he creates by forces often far above, away, and beyond his own little life.  Now the bad storyteller often is driven only by his own life.

So, as he comments from time to time and even from one moment to another in the same monolog, he seems to change his mind, thinking of creative activity in two different ways—it originates from the millions of one’s experiences directly, and on the other hand, originates from forces often “beyond his own little life.”  Shepherd, who sometimes makes definitive statements, also is aware of the many-sided aspects of a subject he is talking about, and he contradicts himself.

When each of Shepherd’s somewhat inconsistent statements is seen not as a rigid, exclusionary truth, but part of a whole monolog that is improvised in a thought process and that it becomes an exploring of his own diverse opinions articulated on the fly, they can be appreciated—a multifaceted description of how writers write different things at different times.   He sometimes gives us major thoughts on his art as he opens up the subject for serious contemplation in an expanded, complex description of what artists do all the time.

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2 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    There is truth in the statement that lots of things happen to us as kids that we either don’t remember or don’t take the trouble to recall. I have vivid memories of events from my early youth (3-6 years). I retold them to my grand kids in the form of bedtime stories. I told them these were true stories of things that happened to me as a kid. They loved hearing them because they were true and personal. After a few years, I ran out of events, but their demand caused me to dig deeper, and eventually recover more stories. Some I embellished to flesh them out but the core of truth was there.

    Shep said more than once, that his stories were often parables, that he used events as the basis for creating a larger story that made a point about human nature. The BB Gun story was one such as was the battle of the tops. The incredible thing is we who listened to him or read him as kids were witness to an amazing creative process every night for years. it’s as though we were invited into Picasso’s studio every day to watch him create a painting from a blank canvass. I think it is only in retrospect that we recognize the art in his work. As kids, we were simply captured by it.

    Joel

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