(Antioch Review,  Winter 2002)

the fate of stories

by Bruce Jackson

               Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termite’s gnawing.

Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities 1972

Stories that Hold Their Shape

A story is a group of words arranged in a way that they have what we call a beginning, middle and end. I could say that in more complicated fashion, but I think you know what I mean when I say beginning, middle and end, so I’m not going to.
    We live in a world of stories. We tell them to ourselves and to other people, other people tell them to us, we experience them when we encounter radio, television, movies, magazines, and newspapers. We make up stories about what we are going to do when we apply for research grants, and we write stories about what we’ve done or want people to think we’ve done when we report on how we spent the grant money. The opening and closing statements of attorneys in court are stories, core religious information in literate and nonliterate cultures is embedded in stories, we amuse ourselves, account for ourselves, and identify ourselves with stories.
     Some of our stories are fixed, always out there and available for our attention. To access them,  all we need do is pick up the book or turn on the projector or VCR. There are many well-known literary anecdotes of the great work never published in the author’s lifetime or long ignored during or after it and then discovered or rediscovered and soon thereafter enshrined in the literary canon — the poems of Emily Dickinson, for example, or Melville’s Moby Dick, or all of William Faulkner’s novels except Sanctuary the year before he won the Nobel Prize.
     Some texts may be fixed, but, as many scholars have noted, it is unlikely that any narrative experience is fully replicable. The things you’ve learned and experienced between the readings or screenings – including having read or seen it before – alter how and to what you respond. Absent amnesia, you cannot step into the same narrative stream twice.
     In the first two or three years after I came to Buffalo as an assistant professor in 1967, I taught a seminar dealing with the work of William Faulkner, who had died in 1962. Then I didn’t teach Faulkner for maybe 20 years, until I had a visitation from several graduate students who said nobody was teaching Faulkner in our department and someone should and they asked me if I would do it. In preparation, I reread all of Faulkner’s novels. I was astonished at how much Faulkner had learned in those two decades we’d been out of touch. How much wiser some of his older characters were, how much more naive some of his younger characters were, and how resonant had become the literary, political, and social aspects when he wrote in his own voice.
     In addition to the alterations in oneself, there are variations in where and when and how we encounter these works of somebody else’s imagination. You’ve perhaps had the experience of trying to read a novel but not being able to get into it. The characters didn’t catch your interest or there was too much noise from the street or you had a persistent itch in a place you couldn’t reach. So you were reading words and sentences rather than experiencing the action, and sometimes you’d read the same sentence or paragraph two or three times and still it didn’t register.
     Or perhaps you’ve one time seen an excellent print of a film well projected in a theater with good seats and a fine sound system, and then seen that same film some other time but the print is scratched and spliced, the theater has lousy seats and lousy speakers, the guy behind you keeps bumping the back of your chair every time he sneezes, and someone nearby seems to have been dipped in the cologne you loathe more than any other. In the good screening you’re not aware of anything but the action of the film; in the bad one you’re aware of nothing but the environment in which the film is projected.
     My wife and I run a film series that meets once a week during term time at a theater in downtown Buffalo. The screenings are built around a University at Buffalo English department class, but anyone who buys a regular movie ticket can come to the screening and join the discussion. We’re familiar with almost all the films we show, some more than others, but as part of our preparation the two of us watch a tape or DVD of each film once or twice a few days before the screenings. The difference in the two modes of watching – two of us at home and two of us as part of 250 to 350 people in a theater – is astonishing and instructive. It’s not just that we see details on the big screen that we missed on the small screen, though there is always that. It’s not just that the theater is dark so our eye is not distracted by peripheral goings-on, and that the narrative is uninterrupted by phone calls or dogs wanting to go out or come in or be petted. Though it’s also that.
     More important, parts of the narratives and aspects of the characters that seemed to be one thing at home often seem to be something quite different in the company of all those other people. What was merely interesting at home may be deeply moving in the theater, what was mildly amusing at home may be uproariously funny in the larger company. The reactions of those other people – loud and noticeable like laughter, or soft and barely perceivable like changes in breathing as tension builds and ebbs – influence our own responses, mostly at a level far below consciousness. Simply knowing that film projected in a theater will not be paused and backed up so we can recover ground we missed while our attention wandered keeps our attention from wandering in the first place, keeps us focused, keeps us inside the projected narrative.
     Our own emotional state matters at least as much as the ambiance. Romantic movies or novels are very different if you are in or out of love when you see or read them. A theme song you didn’t even notice when you first saw a film may evoke very different emotional responses if, between your first and second viewing that song had played when your truelove promised to be yours until the end of time or, contrarily, said it wasn’t you now, never had been you, and never would be you, so please get out and don’t come back, ever. War movies or novels that were very realistic when you were innocent of war may not be so realistic after you’ve been shot at a few times in firefights, and realism that was once merely entertaining may, after the experience of real combat, be terrifying because of the horrible memories it evokes.
     Our relationship to the kinds of stories I’ve just been talking about may change in time, in place, and with mood, but their beginnings, middles and ends (absent someone perversely ripping out pages or snipping pieces of film or tape) do not. The physical things of this world are there whether we encounter them or not; they have, in James Agee’s words, their own “great weight.”
     You and I might have hugely different reactions to looking down into the Grand Canyon, because one of us is acrophobic and the other is not, but that makes not an iota of difference to the Grand Canyon, which remains exactly the same whatever our internal level of tranquility or perturbation. And the Canyon is there for experiencing by someone else, whatever the quality or fact of our experience of it. Likewise, Hamlet was there before you and I came along and it will be there long after you and I are gone,  and the long cetacean epic narrated by Melville’s Ishmael will always end with “the devious-searching Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

The other kind of story

All that I’ve said thus far has to do with one kind of story, the fixed-in-form kind, the kind that’s always there in all essential regards whenever you want to encounter it. There’s another kind of story, the kind we tell one another, in which nothing is necessarily fixed. These are  stories in which it’s all up for grabs, stories that themselves change with those very factors I just said change our reactions to fixed stories: the moment, the company, the condition, the mood. They’re the stories we tell one another, they’re our personal stories.
     These stories that we tell one another vary in detail and emotional rendering, and sometimes even in basic structure, depending on the context. In oral storytelling, different listeners elicit different performances, and the same listener will, at different times, elicit different versions of narratives, and different sets of narratives.
     When I began noticing personal narratives, I was 25 years old; I'm now 65 years old. I don't get the same kinds of stories from people and they don't tell them to me in the same way. It's not only that my responses are different because of the years of experience or that I select different people to listen to and I have different subjects that interest me. It's also that a person talks differently to someone who is of an age where he might be son, father, younger brother, older brother, student, teacher. When I was a kid, older people seemed to feel they had to explain a lot of things to me. Now that I’m an older person, people assume I know more than I often do.
     At the end of Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s Kublai Khan asks the young Marco Polo, “When you return to the West, will you tell your people the same tales you tell me?”  “It is not the voice that commands the story,” Marco Polo replies, “it is the ear.” Only psychotics and drunks tell stories to no one in particular; for the rest of us, who the listener is modulates what stories we tell and how we tell them.
     Which is to say, these stories about our lives that we tell one another are protean.
     That word – protean – comes to us from book 4 of The Odyssey, a long poem filled with storytellers. Menelaus is telling his visitor, Odysseus’s twenty-year-old son Telemachus, of his encounter years earlier with Proteus, “the Old Man of the Sea who never lies.” Proteus had the answers to Menelaus’s questions about the past, present and future, but Menelaus wouldn’t get to hear them unless he could grab Proteus and hold on until Proteus wearied of trying to escape. Menelaus held on as Proteus transformed himself into a lion, serpent, panther, wild boar, raging water, tall tree,  and, finally, once again himself. Then and only then did Menelaus have access to Proteus’s truth. It’s a great word, protean.
     I suggested earlier that our experience of fixed narrative – of novels and films – is contextual. With oral narratives, both the experience and the narrative performance itself  are contextual. They are uttered in a certain way because certain factors are present, because certain conditions obtain. I’m not talking about professional performers, I’m talking about you and me and everyone you and I know.
     This isn’t anything we think about any more than we think what to do with the fork once we’ve speared a piece of food with it. Unless we’re interrupted, neither the eater nor the storyteller has to check in with a conscious part of the brain for the mouth to do its job.

Rachel’s Crab

This is perhaps getting a little abstract, so before I say more about the process, let me give you a for-instance of the kind of story I’m talking about. I heard it in my kitchen. It has to do with a crab named Hermie.
     My son Michael, a 38-year-old musician, had just returned from a trip around the world, part of which had him for five days on the small Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which is part of the Chagos archipelago; it lies south of India and between Africa and Indonesia – far from Buffalo, where we live.  The sparse family of wildlife on the island, he said, includes wild chickens, wild mules, rats, and coconut crabs. “They’re nocturnal,” he said.
     “The rats?” I said.
     “No, the crabs. The rats you see all the time.” He told us of waking late one night to a peculiar sound coming from the jungle not far from his cabin. The next day, someone told him he’d been hearing one of the coconut crabs having a meal. They climb the palm trees, Michael was told, clip off a coconut, carry it down the tree, and crack it open. Michael said they aren’t bothersome if you stay out of their way, but they are powerful. He described them snapping in half a two-inch stick of wood waved in front of them, and imitated the action by making a pincer of the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and a circle with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Then he spread his arms to show us how big the coconut crabs  were with their claws extended.
     Rachel, his 31-year-old sister, had been listening to him describe his trip with great interest. She made several brief comments, the kind that keep someone talking rather than interrupt him: “Really? Wow! Sounds fantastic! When did you sleep? Who paid? Weren’t you scared? You were awake HOW long?” She didn’t really interrupt him until he told about the huge nocturnal coconut crabs on Diego Garcia.
     “I had a crab once,” she said.
     She told of a pet hermit crab when she was eight years old. Its name, reasonably enough, was “Hermie.” She’d come home from school, go to her room, take him from his tank (the gender was no doubt assumed rather than determined), let him scuttle up and down her arm and across her hands, put him back in his tank, and then she’d feed him. As she described taking Hermie out of his tank and his movement up and down her left arm, she traced the motions with her hands.
     She paused for a moment, then said that one day her mother had taken her to a pet store. She saw a tank with several crabs in it, and over the tank was a sign that said, “Do not touch the crabs.”
     “I knew they wouldn’t bite me,” she said. “I had Hermie at home and he crawled up and down my arm and across my hand and he never bit me. So I put my hand in the tank. And one of the crabs bit me. It grabbed my hand and it was horrible. It really hurt! I couldn’t get it off. I screamed and the lady who owned the shop came over with a screwdriver and whacked it really hard and it went flying and it hit the wall.”
     She sat there in our kitchen, her eyes welling with tears.
     “So you feel terrible because you got that poor crab killed,” I said.
     “No,” she said, then fell silent. We waited but she didn’t say anything.
     “So what do you feel terrible about?” Michael asked.
     She was silent for another moment and then said, “I never fed my crab again.”
     “No.” Her voice was really small.
     “You let it die?” one of us said.
     “You were mad at all crabs because one crab bit you?” someone else said.
     “You really starved your crab to death?” someone else said.
     “Yes.” More tears. After a while she said, “When we moved from that house three years later, mom found it in the cellar. I put it down there right after that other crab bit me.”

I suppose all of us have things we’ve done or not done which, if they’re in the forefront of consciousness might bring tears to our eyes – but we don’t bring them to the forefront of consciousness, we don’t even know they’re lying in wait for us. And if they do come forward, it’s rarely with the emotional weight they bore all those years ago. Rather, they’re very close to being about another person, a person we used to know very well but now know only slightly, a person who shares our name and parents.
     Lots of kids have fish or crabs or turtles or birds they don’t take care of well enough or get bored with or decided to experiment with, and as a result the fish or crabs or turtles or birds die. But do they cry about them 22 years later? Will you cry about your fish or crab or turtle or bird now that I’ve reminded you of it?
     A few observations: Rachel didn’t just come out and tell us about her longago neglected crab. She said “I had a crab once” in reaction to her brother’s graphic description of the faraway Indian Ocean coconut crabs. Neither did she just recite the whole story of her crab, Hermie. Most of it was elicited by our responses, our questions, our teasing. It was clear that she wasn’t just telling it; she was also actively remembering it. What started as a simple statement became, in a very few minutes, a huge rush of emotion. Her voice and body movements changed as she got closer and closer to the end. In the beginning she was telling us a story, by the end she was, as the folklorists say, performing it. What was interesting or a curiosity or amusing for us was something far more complex for her.
     And that is something central to our personal stories: they are always instrumental. They’re not just there (like a story in a book), they’re at once reactive and they’re active, they’re doing something. And what they’re doing this time is not necessarily what they’ll be doing next time.
     What was Rachel doing with that story or what was reconstituting it doing to or for her? I can only speculate, which is all any of us can ever do about another person’s motives. Anyhow, such speculation is peripheral to my subject here, which is how our stories change rather than what they mean. Even so, I will tell you what I think was going on there, but before doing that I have to say more about my primary subject, the protean character of the stories you and I tell.


Ordinary storytellers, people like you and me, consciously and unconsciously tune and revise all the time. Change is as much a condition of our stories as are beginnings, middles and ends. Our narratives change for a host of reasons: because we decide to alter them, because we forget, because it is okay to use certain words in some company but not in other company, because we just feel they work better one way than they do another, because the responses of our listeners encourage us to emphasize and expand some aspects and downplay and contract others, because we’re interrupted before we’re done or because when we’re done someone says, “And what happened then?”
     When I say we do unconscious tuning and revising I refer to the same order of act as when we taste food at dinner and decide the dish needs more salt. We don’t and perhaps can’t articulate our sense of the particular balance of flavors that at that moment require adjustment, we just know the balance isn’t right and we’re pretty sure that it will take two (and not one or three) shakes of the salt shaker to get it the way we prefer. We refine that even further: when we see how much salt comes out with the first shake we decide if another shake is really needed and how vigorous that shake should be. (It’s akin to what engineers call a ‘servomechanism.’) What is a proper amount of salt one time may not be a proper amount another time; it depends on what else is being served and on how we feel at that specific moment. How we amend the taste of that dish in front of us is not merely the work of a moment; rather it is grounded in a lifetime of eating, tasting, putting on salt, sometimes too little, sometimes too much, until we know how to get it the way we want it without giving it a conscious thought.


We tell stories about what happened to us, like Rachel and the crab, and we tell other people’s stories, like me telling you about Rachel and the crab. I think we give little conscious thought to the way we make other people’s stories our own. These may be personal stories, but just like a good winter coat, they may fit and serve people other than their original owner. But, unlike a good winter coat, the fact that someone adapts and incorporates someone else’s story into his or her own repertoire doesn’t diminish the original teller’s store one bit. Your story, my version of your story, and someone else’s version of my version of your story can coexist with no diminishment, however long the cycle of adoption, adaptation, and incorporation goes on.
     An example. I gave the keynote address at a session on gunfighter westerns at the 1976 Sun Valley Institute on Arts and Humanities conference on Western films. The session was chaired by the actor, Peter Fonda. When I was done with my presentation, Peter told a story about his father that I now often tell when I’m trying to describe the way artists relate to their work. It is probably my favorite representative anecdote about artistic sensibility.
     This is a transcript of the way I told the story at a recent lecture that happened to be tape-recorded:

Peter Fonda said that his father was once outside by the pool practicing a fast draw for a scene that was to be filmed the following day. For a long time Henry was out there by himself, whipping the pistol out of the holster, putting it back in, whipping the pistol out, and putting it back in again.
     There was a guest at the house and they were calling Henry to come in for dinner. He said he needed just a few more minutes. The guest, who was also in the movie business, asked what was going on. Henry said that his character had to have a very fast draw so he was trying to get his speed up. The guest said, “So let them under crank.”
     That means, you slow down the film going through the camera so when it is run through the projector at normal speed things seem faster than they really were. That's why people in some old silents seem to be running everywhere, because film meant to be projected at silent speed of 18 frames per second is being projected at sound speed of 24 frames per second.
     “We can’t do that,” Fonda said. “The character is wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch fob. It will swing too fast.”
     “The audience will never notice that,” the guest said.
     “No,” Fonda said, “but they’ll feel it.”
That’s what the artistic sensibility is all about, right? The artist doing things at a level the consumer of the art will never note consciously but will feel at the level and in the place the work really matters. The audience will never notice that.” “No, but they’ll feel it.” I just love it.
     When I started working on this essay, I listened to a tape of that 1976 symposium to make sure I had Peter Fonda’s story right, something I never felt the need to do in all the years since I heard Peter tell it and all the times I’ve repeated it since. There was no need for me to check the tape; I remembered the story perfectly and other than the obvious changes, the mutatis mutandis stuff, of Peter saying “my father” and me saying “Peter’s father” or “Henry,” I’d changed nothing of moment. Sure.
     This is what Peter Fonda said in Sun Valley in 1976:
I watched my father prepare for a movie called Warlock, which I heard you mention. And, my father really liked the movie a lot and he really liked the book and he tried to buy it and found that Fox had bought it from the galleys, which means from the publisher. And, he practiced drawing. He’s right-handed and I'm left-handed and he would draw day after day and I asked him why he was practicing so much because they could just – you know, under crank the camera and it would look really fast. He said, “No, no, no. He’s got this watch fob, you see, and it hangs here and there’s a little key-like thing, like a Phi Beta Kappa or something.” He says, “If they speed up the film they'll see the thing go like that [Peter made a rapid back-and-forth motion with his index finger about where a PBK key would hang], and they'll know they sped up the film” So he learned how to draw fast enough that it looked like he could shoot the target as best as any of the quickdraws. And, I admired that; I felt that was part of the perfection of the gunfighter and that’s why I threw that into this conversation.
A lot of differences. For one, I introduced a major character, the dinner guest. I also introduced a good deal of dialog. I changed the temporal structure. Peter’s story was vague about time: his father was out there “day after day” and the conversation took place on one of those days; in my narrative, it all happens in a single afternoon. Peter mentioned – and I omitted entirely – that his father is right-handed and he’s left-handed, and that Henry got so good at the “perfection of the gunfighter” that “he could shoot the target as best as any of the quickdraws.”
     And the “ands”: Many of Peter’s sentences begin with “and”; none of mine in that transcription do. In ordinary speech, “and” often functions as punctuation rather than as a conjunction; it’s a way of saying, “I’m starting a new sentence now.” The several “ands” in his statement and absence of them in mine would tell an experienced analyst of oral narrative something important: Peter was recalling an event, but he wasn’t telling a story he had told very many times; I was telling a story I had honed or polished enough so I didn’t need those oral punctuation marks.
     That’s style. What about substance? Did I change the substance of Peter’s story? Oh, did I ever! I did what oral storytellers and novelists do all the time. I populated an event I knew a little about with sufficient detail to make it more effective and dramatic, so it would do what I wanted or needed it to do.
     For me, that story is about Henry Fonda telling his son that if the audience becomes conscious of the actor or the mechanics of film-making, even if only at an unconscious emotional level, then they’re out of the experience of the film, and it’s part of the artist’s job to be aware of the nuances that keep them inside the dramatic experience. I like the story because it is a perfect example of my aesthetic about dramatic film or fiction: if we’re consciously noticing what was just done, as opposed to what just happened (what a great shot, how well the actor – as opposed to the character –  uttered that line, how that phrase alliterates) we’re out of the action, we’re engaging in aesthetic criticism.
     Some writers and filmmakers want you to do that, and when you’re watching their work it’s fine for you to be outside the experience. But for those who want you to experience the narrative, being conscious of the narrative building-blocks is the last thing they want you to see. It would be like saying, “What a wonderful job you did putting on your makeup” rather than “How lovely you look tonight.” That was not only why I liked the story, but why I tuned it the way I did, to enhance that very point.
     But that wasn’t Peter’s point. I never knew I had tuned his story at all until I listened to the 1976 tape of Peter. I tuned his story without deliberation, intent, or plan.
     I tell that story as an anecdote about the relation of artist to his craft. In my telling, Henry is the central character; Peter figures only as the source of it. For Peter, the story is far less about Henry Fonda’s aesthetic than it is about the very difficult relationship between Henry and Peter Fonda, father and son.
     When Peter told it, he was a grown man reflecting on a moment when his famous obsessive father put the family on hold (surely not the first time) because work was more important. Peter told it at a time in his life when he had been working with middling success for many years in the trade in which his father had become so famous and successful. Peter told an anecdote about Henry, and central to it was the relationship between father and son, one of them right-handed, the other left-handed. That different handedness meant something to Peter, which is why he put it in; it was useless to me, which is why I cut it out. I’m certain that Peter didn’t think about the possible import of their different handedness when he told the story in Sun Valley and I am even more certain that I never consciously decided to delete it when I told it later. But he did include it and I did not.
     So when I say, “I’m going to tell you a story Peter Fonda told,”  and I tell the story I told first, am I telling you a story Peter Fonda told? Yes and no. I’m telling you a story Peter Fonda made it possible for me to tell. A story that did one thing for Peter Fonda and something quite different for me, a story Peter told one way and I told another.

Things We Remember Well

We ordinarily think of memory as a condition rather than a process: “It’s in memory…I got it from my memory…As I recall… I’ve got a good memory….” That may be fine for computers, but human memory isn’t nearly so passive. Human memory is active, busy, meddlesome. Without corroborating evidence, a good story out of human memory is never more than a good story. You don’t have to lie to get history wrong, all you have to do (as Leonard Shelby, the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s astonishing film Memento demonstrated – and promptly forgot) is put total confidence in the innocence and infallibility of memory.
     David Tereshchuk, a documentary filmmaker for UNESCO, wrote about being a young reporter in Northern Ireland covering a protest march in Derry in 1972. Suddenly, British paratroopers began firing. Tereschuck’s primary memory of the event was of  “a soldier in a red beret, down on one knee, leveling his self-loading rifle toward me and shooting.”
     Fourteen people were shot to death that day. Tereshchuk testified about what he had seen at the official inquiry. The inquiry exonerated the British army of wrongdoing. Anger about it never went away, so in 1998 British prime minister Tony Blair ordered a new inquiry. An investigator taking a deposition asked Tereschuck a question he had never been asked before

about my most vivid memory, the soldier firing toward me. “What was on his head?” Without a moment’s pause, I recalled his red beret. But as all the photographs clearly demonstrate, he was wearing a helmet. After checking more pictures and news film, I have come to see that – however certain my recollection – I was simply wrong.
   I may have fused two memories into one, or given the soldier some features of a nearby senior officer who was wearing a beret. For us in the crowd that day, realizing that the paratroops of the Parachute Regiment with their distinctive red berets had crashed onto the scene was crucial. Amid the panic, or afterward as I struggled to make sense of everything, that detail stuck with me. At least that is how I can best explain it….
   Today, I’m older, possibly wiser, but so much less certain – not only about the precise details of what I saw but also about how I have observed the world for more than 30 years. As a reporter, I have always insisted that facts are facts and supposition is something else. My own involuntary fudging of the narrative has harshly mocked that ingrained belief. I winced when the new inquiry’s chairman announced, “Reporters often make excellent witnesses.”
   For all I have recently admitted about the malleability of memory, I still have no doubt that 29 years ago British soldiers opened fire, unprovoked, on innocent British citizens. But unlike the hordes of conspiracy theorists that Bloody Sunday has attracted, I still have no idea why. My life’s effort to extract hard truth from its messy surroundings has been severely humbled by the essential messiness of my brain. And yet, even with an indisputable set of photographs in front of me, I close my eyes and still see a red beret. (“Lives: An Unreliable Witness.” New York Times Magazine. January 28, 2001. p. 66.)
This is the problem with the things you remember well: the fact that you remember them well doesn’t mean that they happened, it means only that you remember them. Memory melts things, tunes things up, rounds the edges, provides connections. Memory is an artist, not a computer.

Sticking to the Point

You and I make these narrative changes without necessarily thinking about them, but we’re no more born with the ability to compose and tune stories than we are with the ability to ride a bicycle or drive a shift car. Storytelling is a learned skill, just like playing the piano or dancing, and some people never get it right or are never comfortable at it, no matter how many lessons they have. Just as there are some people who are good at telling jokes and other people who never learn that the punchline hinges on timing and you should only tell it at the end, there are some people who are good at telling stories and other people who never learn that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, preferably in that order.
     But sometimes, what we think is a bungled story may seem bungled only because we don’t understand the real story that is being told.
     We’ve all had the frustrating experience of asking someone “What happened?” and getting in response a rambling farrago of words about the car, the children, the dinner, the shoes, the guy who shot the clerk, the problem at work, what cousin Elmo said the time the dam broke, the… And we’ve wanted to scream (and sometimes have screamed), “Can’t you stick to the point?”
     I now think that in many of those rambling and digressive narratives, the person is sticking to the point, only it’s not the point we’d like him or her to be sticking to. From their point of view, our incessant questions going back to that one moment when the gun went off and the person fell down, is missing the point.
     That is, sometimes when we think a teller is not getting the story “right,” it means that the storyteller is not telling the story we would prefer to be told or that we think is being told. Those digressions and misdirections may not be errors so much as the enactment of another story entirely. The folklorist Ilhan Basgoz found that among Turkish storytellers, the story they’re digressing from is merely the frame for utterances that could be made safely in no other way. The next time they tell the story, those digressive utterances will be different, depending on what delicate matters are on their minds that day.  Someone transcribing recordings of the several recitations and cutting out the digressions and asides as transient deviations from the ‘real’ narrative, may very well wind up with several similar texts. But they would be the wrong texts, because it was in the transient parts, the variable parts, that the real action was taking place. The ostensible story for such narrators is like the stand that holds the violinist’s sheet music: there, necessary, but hardly the point of the encounter.


I’ve said that all our stories have beginning, middle, and end, but I didn’t say all of those were fixed. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man always ends with Stephen Dedalus going off to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but our narratives about our lives are far more protean,  far more mutable. It’s not just that our stories can be longer or shorter, or made to start or stop at an earlier or later point in time. When the beginning or end change, the importance of everything between the beginning and end changes too. Sometimes things that were previously highly important are now of only passing interest or mere background, and things that seemed barely relevant before or weren’t even included before are now major plot elements.
     The way you describe your first sexual encounter, for example, probably gets narrated differently a day after the event, ten years after the event, and ten years after that. The thing that’s probably most worthy of note a day after the event is that it happened at all; in time, other elements may take precedence, like who you did it with.
     The Elian Gonzalez story, as Maryanne Fulton, a curator at George Eastman House recently pointed out, was first about the heroic rescue of a five-year-old boy found alone at sea after the small boat powered by an outboard motor in which his mother had tried to escape Cuba had gone down in high seas. Then it turned into an international custody drama, and then into American farce as various members of Congress and candidates for president made speeches about giving the boy citizenship. The endpoint was the famous raid or rescue, depending on your point of view. And now it’s just one more goofy incident in the long and goofy relationship between the US and that small island 90 south of Miami.

Barabas Stories

But some of our stories seem to change very little in form, words, delivery.
     Andy Golebiowski, one of my graduate students, spoke of attending a screening of a film about a photographer that was prefaced by the photographer talking about himself. “He told these stories about himself,” Andy said, “and then they ran the film and he told exactly the same story in exactly the same way.”
     Another student in the seminar asked, “And what do you think of that?”
     “I think maybe the story was a shield, that rather than exposing something to us it was shielding him from us.”
     Andy’s onto something. Some stories we tell are, I think, nearly as fixed as entries in the telephone book. The function of those stories, as Andy intuits, is to keep other people from taking the conversation somewhere dangerous. The rigid story doesn’t only bring information in; it also keeps other information out. It’s a screen more than it’s a window.
     I think of those preemptive strikes of personal narrative as “Barabas stories” after Barabas, the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, who is stopped on the road by Friar Barnadine immediately after he has set fire to a convent in which he thought his daughter was sleeping. Friar Barnadine points a finger at him and says “Barabas, thou hast committed–” and the homicidal arsonist Barabas famously picks up the sentence with a different narrative entirely: “Fornication? But that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead.”
     Even those highly polished and tuned stories are variable and various, though perhaps on such small levels you wouldn’t notice without a recording of both to compare. We learn after a while what works and what doesn’t, what moves people and what bores them, we discard and embellish, we polish and we prune, we tweak and we tune.


I never consciously altered the narrative I told people I heard Peter Fonda tell about his father. David Tereshuck never consciously replaced the steel helmet with a red beret on the British paratrooper firing at him in Northern Ireland. I doubt Andy Golebiowski’s photographer consciously decided  which of his personal narratives would be cast in stone and which would remain variable.
     One consciously thinks editing thoughts when one is working on a legal brief or on a discursive essay or a novel, but that’s not how it works with the stories we tell again and again. What happens is more akin to the way our favorite clothes come to fit us over time. They adapt to the way we’re shaped, to the way we move, to what we’re doing at the moment. The problem is, absent someone who can say, "I was there and I remember it differently," or a tape, photograph or some other contemporary documentary record, the mind works its economies silently and seamlessly, and our narratives seem as free of interference and manipulation as does the beach just washed smooth by the waves of the incoming tide, the beach that only moments before showed the clear marks of my feet and perhaps yours.
     I try to avoid the passive voice when I describe behavior, but here I think that’s the point. There’s no active or conscious agency involved in this process of constant change at all: The beach was smoothed by the waves…The jagged edges of our memories were smoothed by time… The story developed….
     Eyewitnesses in television legal dramas regularly get up there and tell the story of what happened. With rare exceptions, that occurs in real courts only when the attorney letting it happen is an incompetent. Most experienced trial lawyers will tell you that eyewitnesses are the most unreliable evidence they can present in a case. Real-life lawyers put someone in the witness box and ask very narrow questions, the answers to which they know beforehand. The last thing in the world they want is you up there telling the jury this week’s version of how you think those chaotic facts fit together.
     If our stories are always in flux, what can they ever tell about the truth of anything? I guess that depends on what you mean by “truth.” If you mean “exactly what happened at that moment,” then stories alone may not help you much. It you mean “a primary indicator of what’s happening now,” they will surely do that.
     Our personal stories, like the films and novels I mentioned earlier, are not just about something, they are something; they don’t just report facts, they are facts. The facts of the past are of far less importance in our stories than the construction of the past in the present.
     All those family narratives hauled out in long or short form at weddings, funerals, holiday dinners are true stories all right, but they’re at least as much a story of how we regard the family now as a report of what happened then. Which is to say, they’re more a story of the family we are than the family we were.
     Truth? Truth and stories only coincidentally have anything to do with one another.

Rachel’s Crab, Again

Which brings me back to Hermie, Rachel’s starved and desiccated crab. I said I’d tell you what I thought was going on there and so I shall. What I think happened was this:

Michael’s report of the giant coconut crabs on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean triggered not just a memory for Rachel, but a sequence of memories. A sequence of memories is like the geometer’s points: two can define a line, the ends of which in theory extent to infinity; three can define a shape, four an object with physical volume. She remembered her pet crab, Hermie,  at first with pleasure, and then she remembered the nasty crab in the store, and then the way she let her pet crab Hermie die. Probably she remembered something of how she felt when her mother found the desiccated shell in the basement on the day they left that house forever. Those rememberings didn’t happen at once, they were serial, they happened in the telling, in time, the emotional object they defined growing ever more complex with each resonant extension of that first simple line: “I had a crab once.”
     Were the tears she shed that Sunday afternoon in February 2001 shed for the crab Hermie who died such a dark lonely death 22 years earlier? I doubt it.  Rather, I think those tears were for the little girl who did and didn’t do those things, the little girl who that woman telling the story once was, the little girl neither she nor anyone else will ever see again.
     She was telling a story about something that happened to a young girl, but the story she performed isn’t about a young girl at all: it’s about a young woman, near the end of her first year as a lawyer, the first year she’d been more or less on her own, sitting with her older brother and with her father and stepmother. It’s a 31-year-old woman’s story, not an 8-year-old  kid’s story. It’s a story in which Rachel, in the telling, sensed something we all at some point learn about growing up and about growing older: that you can talk about what happened back then, but you will never in this life go there again because you will never again be that person. In part, because that thing happened to you.

There’s a danger in what I’ve done here, in retelling and then trying to figure out the meaning of someone else’s story. It’s the danger that I never fully appreciated until I realized how much I had altered the character and probable function of Peter Fonda’s story about his father at the pool, practicing his draw with his right hand and not coming to dinner: I can analyze the story and its function, but so can you, and there’s no guarantee we’ll arrive at anything like the same place when we’re done.
     So I ran it by Rachel, to see what she thought of my take on what happened the night we talked about the crabs. When I was done talking about it I saw she again had tears in her eyes. “There’s nothing to cry about,” I said, “it’s a story about growing up.”
     “Growing up?” she said, “What’s sadder than that?”

How do you talk about such understanding? You don’t. But you can tell stories in which such things are enacted – I said enacted, not depicted. Because every story has two parts: what’s in it, and how it is performed, and they are no more the same thing than the texts of the novels and films I referred to earlier are the same as the experiences we have each time we encounter them.
     We all contain libraries of those small things that happen or that we do that take us over a boundary we can never recross, those defining moments encapsulated in sometimes the smallest narrative utterances that will forever contain more meaning for us than we could ever express in any way but telling the story itself. All explanation is partial, reductive, and all our stories contain more than can be abstracted or extracted from them in any single, transient moment. Buddha and Christ  had good reason for teaching in parables.
     In time, how we tell our story depends not so much on what happened then but on what we know of the world now And that is why the story of that time told in this moment means at least as much, and perhaps more, about this world now than that time then. And that is why these stories we tell again and again remain forever new.

So what is it that really matters – what the story is or what the story does? the memory or the utterance? the text or the encounter?

       Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
       “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.
       “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”
       Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds; “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”
   Marco Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”


copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson

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