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The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories

Bruce Jackson

Publication Year: 2009

Making and experiencing stories, remembering and retelling them is something we all do. We tell stories over meals, at the water cooler, and to both friends and strangers. But how do stories work? What is it about telling and listening to stories that unites us? And, more importantly, how do we change them-and how do they change us?

In The Story Is True, author, filmmaker, and photographer Bruce Jackson explores the ways we use the stories that become a central part of our public and private lives. He examines, as no one before has, how stories narrate and bring meaning to our lives, by describing and explaining how stories are made and used. The perspectives shared in this engaging book come from the tellers, writers, filmmakers, listeners, and watchers who create and consume stories.

Jackson writes about his family and friends, acquaintances and experiences, focusing on more than a dozen personal stories. From oral histories, such as conversations the author had with poet Steven Spender, to public stories, such as what happened when Bob Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Jackson also investigates how "words can kill" showing how diction can be an administrator of death, as in Nazi extermination camps. And finally, he considers the way lies come to resemble truth, showing how the stories we tell, whether true or not, resemble truth to the teller.

Ultimately, The Story Is True is about the place of stories-fiction or real-and the impact they have on the lives of each one of us.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vi-ix

The Story Is True would not have been possible had it not been for all the people who told or wrote or filmed or otherwise transmitted the stories I tell you or tell you about in these pages. Most of them are named throughout the book so I won’t anticipate the roll here. Honor and eternal peace to those who have departed this mortal coil, and an endless supply of fine listeners to...

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pp. x-xii

The Story is True is about making and experiencing stories as something people do, as one of our basic social acts. It is about how stories work, how we use them, how they move about, how they change, how they change us. It is about stories we tell friends, family and strangers, and it is about stories made for us at a distance, such as movies, television...

Part I: Personal Stories

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1. Telling Stories

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pp. 3-15

It seems to me now that The Story Is True has its genesis in a question John Coetzee asked one evening after dinner about twenty-five years ago. The three of us had spent much of the evening catching up and talking about politics (John and Diane had shared an office in the University at Buffalo English Department for a year in the early 1970s, when she first came to Buffalo and just...

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2. The Fate of Stories

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pp. 16-39

What I said at the end of the previous chapter has to do with stories that are fixed in form, that are always there in all essential regards whenever you want to encounter them. There is, however, another kind of story in which nothing is necessarily fixed. These are stories that themselves change with those very factors I just said change our reactions to fixed stories: the moment, the...

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3. The True Story of Why Stephen Spender Quit the Spanish Civil War

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pp. 40-49

When I was a graduate student, I drove Stephen Spender to the Indianapolis airport from Indiana University at Bloomington, where he had given a reading. I had read some of Spender’s poetry, but I knew little about him other than that he was a famous and highly respected poet. Spender talked about several things during that sixty-minute drive, but what I most remember...

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4. The Stories People Tell

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pp. 50-79

A story is not the sequence of events only; it is also the specific words with which that sequence is given utterance and the way in which those words are uttered. The plot is only part of the story. I think I first became aware of this when I tried to deal with a conversation I had in 1964 in the ward for terminally ill convicts on the top floor of the old state prison hospital...

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5. Acting in the Passive, or, Somebody Got Killed but Nobody Killed Anybody

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pp. 80-83

Remember Pete McKenzie? He’s the man in the Texas prison hospital who said, ‘‘[T]he situation developed to such an extent where there was a gunfight and the gunfight put wounds in my legs and I started shooting after I had been shot. . . . A chief of detectives was killed.’’ I want to spend a little more time with that use of the passive voice (‘‘It is thought that’’) and intransitive...

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6. The Story of Chuck

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pp. 84-89

New York Senator Charles (or ‘‘Chuck’’ as he prefers to be called) Schumer is a relentless performer at college and university commencements. During the May graduation season, he traverses New York State appearing on stages as an announced part of the program or turning up as a surprise visitor. Some days he’ll catch multiple commencements, like a dog hitting every tree and hydrant. He made two commencement...

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7. Commanding the Story

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pp. 90-104

When storytellers are telling stories, they’re active, fit for description: they’re talking, fluttering their hands, moving about. Their listeners aren’t so easy. With few exceptions, a storyteller can get to them only after the narrative moment is over, by which point they are themselves telling a story about an event in...

Part II: Public Stories

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8. Stories That Don't Make Sense

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pp. 107-120

I’ve said several times now that stories are devices we use to make sense of things, or they’re the verbal objects that articulate the sense we’ve made of them. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Not all stories make complete sense, and some stories don’t make any sense...

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9. The Real O. J. Story

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pp. 121-138

Afew evenings after O. J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, a waiter at the Mezzaluna Restaurant in Brentwood, California, my wife Diane and I had dinner with our friends Bruno Freschi and Vaune Ainsworth at Just Pasta, a restaurant on Buffalo’s West Side. Like nearly everyone else around here that summer, we...

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10. Bob Dylan and the Legend of Newport 1965

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pp. 139-150

Perhaps the key legend in twentieth-century-popular culture in the United States is the one about Bob Dylan being booed throughout much of his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The performance and audience response, many cultural historians have argued, stands out as the pivotal moment in the shift from the folk revival to rock. The events...

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11. Silver Bullets

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pp. 151-171

In late August 1972, my son Michael, then ten years old, and I were in a junk store near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The owner pointed to an old pistol in a locked glass case. He said it had once belonged to Billy the Kid, whose grave was nearby. I said that if Billy had owned half the guns people said he owned, he couldn’t have climbed onto a horse. ‘‘Don’t know about that,’’ the...

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12. The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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pp. 172-186

The key problem every storyteller must solve—whether it be someone telling a story at a family gathering, a novelist, a filmmaker, a lawyer in summation, or any other narrator—is finding the correct voice for the narrative. The matter of voice and the matter of story are not separable: the story exists in the voice in...

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13. Words to Kill By

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pp. 187-202

Violence is the name we give to things that disrupt or negate or dissolve or abrogate order. One way we contend with violence is on its own terms, with more violence: you hit me, I hit you; the evil land baron brings in a hired gun dressed in black, the farmer brings in Shane dressed in fringed buckskin; unknown malefactors attack the World Trade Center...

Part III: The Story is True

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14. The Storyteller I Looked for Every Time I Looked for Storytellers

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pp. 205-230

And then there are those killers of men whose violence leaves not a corpse behind, who tell everything they know and are finally guilty of nothing at all. How can they get away with it? Let me tell you about one of them, a man I call Jim Bennett because there is no point...

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15. Farinata's Silence

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pp. 231-234

Warren called from California, gloomy and grim. He’d just finished dinner with an old friend, a man in his nineties, who had always been vigorous, optimistic, involved in projects, dapper, full of stories. Now there were food stains on the Turnbull and Asher shirt, and the projects, optimism, and vigor were gone. ‘‘All he’s got are those stories,’’ Warren said. ‘‘His life...


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pp. 235-238


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pp. 239-244

E-ISBN-13: 9781592136087

Publication Year: 2009