Some of my favorite stories are in this article. It began as a formal academic presention for the 1996 International Society for Folk Narrative Research meeting in Bejing. I couldn't get a visa in time to make the meeting, which turned out to be a good thing because while the dreary visa negotiations were going on, Jude Schwemmer talked me into doing a presentation for the "UB at Sunrise" series, which takes place at 7:30 a.m. I said yes, thinking I'd give the Beijing paper, but when I looked at it with the "UB at Sunrise" audience in mind (some academics, and also a lot of intellectually active people from the community) I knew I had to rewrite the piece in English. Academic jargon is dreadful enough in academic contexts, but at 7:30 a.m. before an audience of intelligent normal people it would have been criminal, obscene, or both. There was a vigorous and insightful Q&A after the talk. That night we had dinner with four friends who had been at the morning session, during the course of which one of them told the poignant story included here about being the child of American parents in Mexico. A few months later, Bill Fischer asked me to give the paper to a meeting of UB Distinguished Professors; that group also provided some useful insights and correctives. I tuned the piece and sent it to Warren Bennis, who is cited in it, and he passed it along to the editor of Antioch Review, who published it in the Summer 1997 issue. A much-expanded version is the first chapter of my book of the same title, to be published late next year.
The Stories People Tell
Ordinary life is disorderly, cluttered, and full of things that don't seem to make a great deal of sense. It's in our stories that things make sense. Stories are how we know things and how we remember them. History is a story about the past that filters the endless details of reality through an idea. The idea lets us toss some things out and bring others things into sharp focus.
What historians do for a living the rest of us do all the time. We organize the events of our lives in terms of these narratives. These stories are not just file cabinets or movies of ordinary life; they are also the devices with which we explain and justify ourselves to ourselves and to others.
stephen spender's war
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 60 or 70-minute drive, but what I most remember him talking about is the Spanish Civil War.
At that time I was enamored of the Spanish Civil War. Two of my college teachers had fought in it. I remember one of those teachers in particular, a fellow named John O. McCormick, who whenever he could referred to it in our European Novel class as "the last good war." The Second World War, McCormick said, "was there, you just went and did it. And Korea, well, who understands Korea? But Spain....ah, Spain..." And he'd get wistful and nostalgic.
I wasn't long out of the marines then. I didn't understand Korea either. I envied McCormick the foresight and luck that let him, as a young man, take part in "the last good war."
It wasn't just John McCormick's fond memories. Spain had great songs like "Viva la Quince Brigada" that were part of the repertoire of the Weavers, a musical group that was popular at the time. The Spanish Civil War had occasioned a painting I'd been fascinated by since I was twelve years old: Picasso's "Guernica," which was then in the Museum of Modern Art. "Guernica" is for me the best painting in the world about chaos and disorder and violence.
I didn't tell Spender about my how much I'd liked the Weavers' songs or my fascination with "Guernica" but I did tell him about John O. McCormick and how he always referred to the war in Spain as the "last good war."
"I'm sure it was," Spender said in a voice that was dry and flat. He was silent for a while, then he said in a lower and different voice, "I'll tell you about Spain."
I don't know what I expected: a story about privation or a story about heroism or a story about blood and guts or a story about how the Brits who volunteered for that war were every bit as idealistic and true-hearted as the Americans who had volunteered for it. Whatever it was I expected, I got something else.
A meeting was called by the officers of his unit, Spender said. There was discussion of that day's battle and the casualties inflicted and suffered. That was followed by a description of the engagement planned for the following day. Then someone from a higher level of authority, a man Spender had never seen before, began talking about financial problems. Money, as always, was a problem. Contributions from England had declined significantly. Something had to be done to get the contributions from England coming in again because that money paid for weapons and food and trucks and medical supplies.
Everyone agreed with that.
The British, the speaker said, were a sentimental people so if the right thing moved their hearts they would be stimulated to contribute again.
Everyone, including Spender, agreed with that too, and said so.
"We think," the speaker said, "that they would be deeply moved by the death of a young poet in combat, don't you agree?"
He was looking directly at Spender, so Spender answered him: "I certainly do. They would be very moved by that."
"So," the speaker said, "tomorrow, Stephen, you'll go out with your unit but you won't come back."
"Where will I go?" Spender asked.
There was, Spender told me, a curious silence in the tent. He later realized that everybody else had gotten the speaker's point, and some of them no doubt had known of it beforehand. They all waited until Spender got it.
"You were supposed to go out and get killed?" I said.
"I was supposed to go out and get killed. And if I wasn't successful they would kill me."
"To increase British contributions?"
"To increase British contributions."
I said something totally inadequate, like "Wow" or "Gosh." And then I said, "So what happened?" It was obvious that he hadn't gone out and gotten killed by foes or friends.
"That night," Spender said, "after everyone was asleep, I packed my things and I left the camp and I kept going until I got back to England. My war in Spain was over."
I recall our long silence after that--I because I could think of nothing to say after that story other than "wow" or "gosh," which I'd already said, and he maybe because he'd said what he had to say about Spain and now he wanted to think about something else. I drove, the cornfields were replaced by houses and the houses by industrial sheds with corrugated roofs, and soon we were at the Indianapolis airport and that was that. I never saw or talked with Stephen Spender again.
But I held on to his story. I told it and I retold it. At first, I told people that story because it illustrated for me the silliness of politics and the cruelty of the managers of war and the way such people are careless of people of principle and dedication and artistic sensibility. I thought Spender was, in telling me that story, inviting me to join him in that ironic perception.
In time, it occurred to me that perhaps Spender was trying to do something else with that tale: blow a hole in what for me was a very good and romantic war. Maybe he was telling me that what characterized all the other wars also characterized the war in Spain. Words like "glory" and "honor" are not only fragile, but perhaps deceptive. In the moment, no war is romantic--the romance is only before and after but it's in the moment that people suffer mutilation and death, and that bears thought.
And in even more time, I understood that the story wasn't something Spender had spun out to deliver as parable to a graduate student he'd met earlier that day and who in all likelihood he would never see or hear from again. It was his current story about how and why he abandoned the ideal fight, why he had left the last good war. It was a story about how the last good war had failed a young British poet. It was a story about how all our wars, good and bad, ultimately betray all of us. Whatever Spender meant it to mean to me, I now suspect that for Stephen Spender it was a story about how the young poet that long ago was himself came to be practical and cynical about political parties and agents and causes.
If Spender had been with you that day or had a conversation about the same subject with me on another occasion, that story might have been rendered very differently. These stories of ours, these reports of our lives, are living things. They wax and wane in detail and emotional shading depending on when and where and to whom they are being told. Different listeners elicit different versions of the narratives, and the same listener elicits different versions of narratives at different times.
A psychologist friend told me that recent research with court testimony by very young children suggests that before children are capable of telling stories they make very good witnesses; but after they reach the age of narrative ability (six or seven), their reliability as witnesses declines. It's not because they start lying once they know how to tell stories; rather it's because once they understand the idea of story they think events should make sense, so they subconsciously tune their narratives to reconcile irreconcilables or provide links to connect things that would otherwise remain unconnected. They clean up the clutter. Adults do the same thing. In criminal trials for violent events, eyewitness testimony--people telling the story of what they saw--is often inaccurate and untrustworthy. It's not that people lie; rather it's that people are very good at getting things to make sense. That's one of the jobs our stories have: making sense where none may otherwise exist.
what words do
A story is not the sequence of events only; it is also the specific words with which that sequence is given utterance. The plot is only half of the story.
I think I first became aware of this when I tried to deal with a conversation I had thirty years ago in the ward for terminally ill convicts on the top floor of the old state prison hospital in Huntsville, Texas.
A dying old man named Pete McKenzie told me that many years earlier he had received a death sentence. I asked McKenzie what he had gotten the death penalty for.
"There was a gunfight of three, four plainclothes officers and myself. I wasn't committing any crime, though I was on escape from here. I was armed, that's where I violated the law. But I wasn't committing any crime. I wasn't trying to commit any crime. I was attending to my own business, but the 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."
"Did you get any of them?" I asked him.
"A chief of detectives was killed."
I asked him what he had been serving time for when he had escaped from the penitentiary.
"Murder," he said.
"And what were you carrying when the police came up on you?"
"I had a Luger and a .38."
"So you were carrying two guns, you were escaped from a murder sentence, and you killed one of the cops trying to bring you back to prison."
"That's the way they said it was!"
I maintained my nearly-neutral interviewer's face and we continued with the conversation. Later, when I was working with the transcript, I realized that what was screwy about what he said wasn't in the substance, it was in the diction: . . . the 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.
It's nearly all in the passive voice. Things happen; no one does them; no one is responsible for them. McKenzie wasn't saying he didn't kill anyone or that he was innocent. But neither was he admitting culpability. He was, instead, using the exquisite subtlety of language to cast that shootout and murder of a policeman into a narrative in which he was merely an agency, a prop. It happened, he got the death penalty for it, but he was no more responsible for the event than the two pistols that happened to be in his hands. Pete McKenzie was using the storyteller's art to make the past reasonable and bearable and manageable. He wasn't lying, but he wasn't telling the truth, either.
What Pete McKenzie said to me that day is a special story but the technique isn't at all special. All the detectives and judges I know have versions of it:
"Why did you shoot him?"
"The gun went off."
"Whaddaya mean the gun went off?
"It just went off."
"You mean the gun you took out of your pocket and were pointing at his eye when you were robbing him, that gun?"
"Yeah, that one."
And it's familiar from homelife: one of the kids in embarrassing proximity to a broken plate and asked what happened replies, "It fell on the floor and it broke."
politics & the family
It's not only crooks and poets and kids who tell personal experience stories purposefully and well. They are frequently used by politicians to embody ideas, often in ways that are unchallengeable. It's not that the idea is unchallengeable but the story seems to be, so to get at the idea you have to bully your way through the story and sometimes you just can't do that without appearing heartless.
For example, at the 1996 Democratic Convention, Al Gore justified his recent opposition to the tobacco industry by telling the story of his smoker-sister's painful death by lung cancer. It was a moving and awful and tender story, one that gave reporters real pause before they could bring up the fact that for years after her death he and his family received substantial payments from tobacco companies renting their land to grow tobacco for cigarettes.
In 1990, at the start of the Gulf War, the Bush administration brought before Congress a 15-year-old girl who told of having seen premature babies dumped out of respirators by Iraqi soldiers who then shipped the medical equipment to Baghdad. The girl's name was not given; she had family in Kuwait, it was said, and she feared for their lives and her own were her identity were made public. She was taking a mighty risk in bringing this dastardly truth to the American people. It was one thing for George Bush to say that Iraq was the evil enemy, but quite something else to have the specificity of a young anonymous eyewitness who saw helpless babies left to die by vile men in a fit of lust for hardware. Bush quoted and summarized her testimony in at least five speeches.
The young woman's name was Niyirah al Sabah, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and she had seen nothing. Her story had been manufactured for her by the P.R. firm of Hill & Knowlton, a fact known by the senators who took her testimony. They also knew her identity. Niyirah al Sabah wasn't just telling a story--she was also lying. Some personal stories are true, some are not, and sometimes the difference is all but impossible to discern. You can't tell from a story whether or not it's true; you can only tell whether or not it's a good story.
(The story of children being abused comes up frequently when violent official action is in the works. Britons learned of Germans bayonetting babies in Belgium before they got into World War I, and Americans saw images of Japanese bayonetting babies in Manchuria at the start of World War II. Janet Reno explained the precipitous and disastrous assault on the Waco compound of the Branch Davidian group by citing vague narratives of children being abused within the compound. The FBI, she said at the time, went in to save the children.)
I don't mean to suggest that all political use of personal experience stories to rationalize action is mendacious. It's not. Some political use of personal narratives is true and honest and revealing rather than false and mendacious and concealing. It's just that when I think of examples of this behavior the morally murkier are the first to come to mind. The point is the same in any case: sometimes it's easier to trust a good story than a person. That's because a story that makes sense on its own seems to make sense in its application and that is why politicians are so in love with them.
We all do it. We all use stories to texture and contextualize our worlds. Stories are often the devices by and with which families define themselves. What is this family? Listen to the stories going around the table, that's who and what this family is.
Most families have at least one story about the relative in a prior generation who missed the chance to make a fortune by making a bad choice or by selling out too early or by not buying X when he or she had the opportunity. In my family it was my father's father, a tinsmith, who presumably sold out his company to what became the American Can Company for $25,000, and his wife, who spent the entire amount in less than a year. That story was told, of course, only by my mother, not by my father, and it was a long time before I understood that it was more about my father's inability to make a lot of money than his parent's inability to hold onto it.
At major gatherings of my wife's family someone always tells about the time my nephew Scott, then five or six, dumped a glass of water on my head where I sat having adult talk with other grownups in the dining room, then ran outside and jumped into the middle of the 24-foot-above-ground circular pool. Scott was wearing a bathing suit; I was wearing shoes, jeans, shirt, watch, and wallet. According to the story I pursued young Scott into the pool without removing clothes, watch or wallet and dunked him roundly, and as a result he never again assumed watery invulnerability. Scott is now 26 and the 24-foot-above-ground-pool is long gone, but the story is still told at least once a year. It is one of our dwindling links with a long-ago time that now seems sweet and easy.
When my wife read my notes for that paragraph she said, "There's a lot of things going on in that story: Bruce the wild one, Bruce the kid, Bruce the patriarch acting like a kid, the family as fun, Scott who doesn't have a father getting Bruce to act silly and like a father." I said that was true and very interesting. "What's really very interesting," Diane said, "is nobody has to say any of that. Nobody does say any of that. It's all there, inside the story. You take whichever thing you want that time."
Most families have narratives like that, narratives that seem simple but contain more about the family than anyone could or would ever say overtly. These stories aren't always benign. A friend spoke of an anguished afternoon when she was playing with her very young son and realized that a family story her parents always told with great amusement contained the explanation of why her memories of her own childhood were so confused and difficult:
My family moved to Mexico right after I was born. The story that my parents always told and everyone thought was so funny as I was growing up was that I spoke only Spanish as a child and I would run around speaking Spanish with a Mexican accent. When I was about five and a half years old we moved back to the States and I learned English but spoke it with a heavy Spanish accent. We'd go to the store and my mother would be slightly embarrassed because I'd come running up to her and I'd say, "¿Mamacita, mamacita, como se dice....como tu hablas?" How do you say this the way you talk? And she would tell me. They all thought it was hilarious that here I was this little tow-headed blonde midwestern-looking child who spoke just like a Mexican child. It was the story I heard all the time I was growing up.Her eyes filled with tears as she talked, 23 years after that morning on the stoop with her young son. I asked what in the story her father found so funny. "I don't know," she said, "but he still does. He told it the last time I saw him."
I didn't think that much of it until I had a child of my own. I was sitting on the stoop one day watching him as he explored the world in front of our house. He would go and pick up a bug and bring it back to me saying "bug." Then he would pick up a flower and do the same thing. I realized how important verbal language is as a tether, as a connection. He felt safe as long as he could see me and talk to me. So he would wander a couple of yards away, pick up something, and bring it to me. We verbalized everything. He was learning the world through me.
As I sat there on the stoop this sunny day watching him, I suddenly remembered the story and began to cry. I didn't understand why I was crying until I realized it was because the story meant that my parents had never talked to me. They were both Americans--English-speaking Americans--and I had not even learned their language. This meant that the only people talking to me were the maids. My parents would not have been comfortable speaking to me in Spanish. So they had essentially not talked to me until we came back to the States and there were no maids.
It was a story I had heard all my life but I never interpreted it until then, sitting there on the stoop and talking with my son. I was thirty-one years old.
Family stories tell us who we are in the family that claims us. They also are a device for dealing with newcomers. Family stories indoctrinate the newcomer into the family's image of itself because the presence of that new person at the table provides an occasion for telling family stories in greater detail than usual. They're also a test of the newcomer: do your responses indicate that you understand what these stories are really about, who we really are? The same stories may also exclude newcomers or document their outsiderness. A psychiatrist friend who married a man with three grown children by an earlier wife told me that the first few times her husband and his children got deep into family storytelling she was interested because she felt she was learning about the family she'd joined, but after a time she felt exactly the opposite. The father and children's engaging in energetic "these stories are us" simultaneously said to her, "You, who have not partaken of the reality that was the reality for these stories, are not one of us, nor will you ever be one of us."
So at the private level, just as at the public level, stories are strategic. They're told for reasons overt and covert, understood and not understood, articulated and not articulated.
I said that stories are devices with which families characterize themselves. Individuals use them the same way. I'll give you two examples, one having to do with William M. Kunstler, the late civil rights attorney, and other with the management theorist and consultant Warren G. Bennis.
In 1969, a few hours after we had been tear-gassed in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration, Bennis told me that as a young lieutenant in the Second World War he had expressed despair at what seemed to him an astonishing number of logistical screwups within the American army. "What I don't understand," he told his captain, "is why we're winning the war."
The captain, Warren said, "spat out a few drops of Red Man tobacco, looked at me, like a beagle dog might look at a foolish human, and said--these are his exact words: 'Shit kid, they've got an army, too.'"
I always liked that story and I was pleasantly reminded of it a year ago when one man among a group of businessmen at a restaurant table next to ours told it to his companions and his voice got so loud at the punchline that I heard him over the room noise and the conversation at my own table. As his group was leaving I asked him if he'd read that story in one of Warren's books. "No," the man said, "I've heard him tell it!" He didn't say how recently but I assumed it was fairly, which meant that 26 years after Warren told me that story and 51 years after the event, Warren was still telling it. I asked him about it recently and he said he loves that story because it expresses perfectly the stupidity of the bureaucratic mentality.
Warren's work through his professional career has focussed on the ways organizations behave and how people can perform rationally and excellently within them. But Warren knows full well that always at the edge of the bounded discussions of organizational behavior is the disorder and irrationality of the real world. Warren's story of what his captain said to him contains what is maybe one of the deepest and darkest organizational secrets he's got to tell: that at a certain point you can't whip or even cope with the idiocy within or the chaos at the edges, so just go ahead and do what you know how to do as well as you can; if the law of averages is working today the clutters will neutralize one another because "they've got an army too." The story is maybe Warren's way of saying to corporations asking him for sophisticated management advice just what his captain was saying to him a half-century ago: "Beyond this point of explanation I don't know. Keep walking." It's also Warren saying the same thing to himself.
At a 1976 conference on heroism I heard Kunstler tell what in subsequent years I decided was his most important personal story. When he was a young man, he had wandered through the Academia in Florence and had stopped briefly before Michelangelo's "David." He started to move on when an elderly man standing nearby told him to pause a while. This statue, the old man said, was the only depiction of David in the critical moment before he became a hero. All the others showed David triumphant; Michaelangelo's depicts a shepherd boy, not the warrior who would soon be king. Some time later, Kunstler said, he learned that the elderly man had been Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian.
Kunstler told that anecdote whenever he could--at graduations, conferences, meetings. He particularly liked telling it to groups of young people. Toward the end of his life, Kunstler dropped Berenson from the narrative and the unique aspect of Michaelangelo's David moved into his own voice. The last time I heard him tell it was at the 1995 University of Buffalo School of Architecture commencement, just a few months before he died. His subject was ethics and the erosion of the Bill of Rights in recent years. He ended with Arthur Hugh Clough's "Say not the struggle nought availeth," a poem about the critical significance of the individual in large battles. Just before he read that poem he told them about David:
...the people I really talk to and really look for are those who are like the David of Michelangelo's statue (which you have in the Delaware Park here). Michelangelo's David is a good example for all of you. This is the only representation in art of David before he kills Goliath. All the rest-- Donatello's bronze, the paintings--show him holding up the severed head of Goliath. Michelangelo is saying, across these four centuries, that every person's life has a moment when you are thinking of doing something that will jeopardize yourself. And if you don't do it, no one will be the wiser that you even thought of it. So, it's easy to get out of it. And that's what David is doing right there. He's got the rock in the right hand, the sling over the left shoulder, and he's saying like Prufrock, "Do I dare, do I dare?" I hope many of you, or at least a significant few, will dare when the time comes, if it hasn't come already.
That's a fine parable for young men and women about to enter employment in which they will be frequently confronted with ethical choices. But I have no doubt that it was also Bill Kunstler talking about himself. It was him reflecting a little bit on defendants early in his career who were nice people with cases that were morally clear--the Freedom bus riders, Martin Luther King, the American Indians at Wounded Knee; and it was him reflecting far more on recent defendants who weren't at all nice and whose cases weren't at all clear, like the World Trade Center bombers and Larry Davis the Bronx cop-shooter, cases for which he'd gotten flak not just from the old foes of the right but also from old friends of the left.
Kunstler often made general statements about who in American society benefitted before the law from social position and power and who did not, and why he thought the most unsavory defendants were most in need of excellent legal counsel. That was his public explanation for taking those unsavory clients and cases. What he never discussed publicly was the personal cost of making such choices. Kunstler was boisterous and public about his cases, but not about his private self; it would have been unseemly for him to talk about the personal aspect of silent moral choice. But he could talk about the boy David standing there, looking at the giant Goliath, pondering his options.
There was another secret part to the David story. Kunstler was very much aware of it and I think it's the reason he needed to tell it so often and for so many years. The Biblical David met one Goliath one time. Kunstler knew that in real life you meet Goliath again and again, and though it gets familiar it never gets easier. When he was telling those kids to remind themselves of David's choice, he was telling the story to himself as well. After he left whatever podium gave him that occasion for telling about Michelangelo's David, he went home where the tape on the message machine was always full of pleas from desperate people asking him to take their case. And he would, one more time, choose.
Each of those stories is grounded in a key long-ago understanding that continued to have current importance and current resonance. The meanings and use of both stories may have changed over time, but the stories continued to fit the tellers, like an old tweed jacket or a good pair of boots. Such stories aren't just vessels containing advice for others; they're also articulations of the tellers' deepest perceptions about themselves. Stories like these are the way we tell people who we are and they are the way we express what we are. "Character," Bennis said in a recent conversation about the stories I've been recounting for you here, "character is so hard to define. Maybe it's in stories like these where character is defined: You want to know who I really am? I am the person who tells a story like this one."
george beto's mare
The last thing about personal narrative I would tell you is this: We don't only tell stories that make sense of things past; we also imagine stories that help direct us through current events. It's not just Hollywood scriptwriters who make up stories and actors who act in them; we all do it, only we get to be writer, actor, director and, later, when we're looking back on it, editor or historian. That is, our stories aren't only our histories, our version of what happened; sometimes they're our scripts, our map of what's going on now and what's going to happen next.
I was visiting my friend George Beto at his ranch, Wit's End, a few miles out of Huntsville, Texas. It was a place George went to think. He walked a lot and tended his small herds of Black Angus cattle and Nubian goats.
That day, we were sitting on the porch talking when George became quiet and looked off into space. At first I thought he was thinking about something serious, then I realized he was looking at something in the distance. I followed his gaze and saw a slanted plume of dust moving our way along the road from town.
The road was not paved, not even the part that went through a stream a mile or two toward town that sometimes got hubcap deep. Every few years the Huntsville city fathers offered to pave the road and even build it up over the stream, but George always talked them out of it. He told me his reason: "If there's a good road people will come out here, and the reason I have this place is to get away from people."
It wasn't long before we made out a white Ford pickup at the head of the plume of dust. It stopped at the road coming into George's place, a few hundred yards from the house. The driver got out, opened the gate, drove up a few yards, stopped, got out again, closed the gate, then got back into the cab and drove the rest of the way up to the house.
He was a tall man, older than I and younger than George. He wore rancher's work clothes, but it was a Saturday and around there a lot of men wore rancher's clothes on Saturday who wore business suits or doctor's coats or judge's robes on weekdays. George stood up to greet him. The man said he was out this way and thought he'd stop by to say hello. George said he'd have been insulted if he hadn't. George introduced us, then invited the man to join us for a beer. The man said that would be nice, because it was a hot day and the drive had been dusty. He sat in a chair next to me and George took the chair the other side of him and the three of us then looked out into the east Texas afternoon.
We talked about the dust, the lack of recent rain, the recent election. The man asked me what it was like this time of year in Buffalo; I told him. I said this weather was very hot for me; he said as hot as it was today, it was very hot for anybody. George provided another round of longnecks. There was some talk about Austin politicians. The man complimented George on his Nubians, several of which had just trotted into sight in the pasture. George loved those goats.
Then the man got up, said it was good to have had this chance to say hello to George, it was nice having met me. We shook hands. He stepped back into the cab of his white pickup.
We watched him reverse his arrival: he drove to the gate, stopped a few yards our side of it, got out and opened the gate, got back into the truck and drove out to the road, got out and walked back to close the gate, got into his truck and drove toward town, followed by a moving slanted plume of dust. Soon we couldn't see the truck any more, just the plume, and after a while we couldn't even see that.
When the noise of the truck had attenuated to nothing and the dust had dissipated, George said, "He's not going to get that mare for what he thinks he's going to get her for."
"What mare?" I said. "I don't remember him saying anything about a mare."
"He didn't," George said. "He won't get around to saying anything about her until next time, or more likely the time after that. But he's still not going to get her for what he thinks he's going to get her for."
What I like about that story is, it shows how people see themselves in a narrative. It's not like the story of a car crash or what happened in the hospital. It's a story happening. Both George and his friend are looking forward and backward, weaving their narrative in their daily life. Both are looking back at scenes already played and ahead to scenes as yet mapped out only in general terms, and heading toward a denouement both almost know. The mare will be sold, but at what price neither is certain. There will be other encounters leading up to the first mention of the sale and there will, after that, be discussions of the sale itself. When or where those will occur neither man knows, nor does either man know exactly what will be said on those occasions. The human script will be written on the fly, but in terms of a plot very much in place.
It's not rigid. It's not that kind of script. The mare might die. Someone else might come along and make an offer to George that cannot be refused. The man I met might happen upon another mare he wants more. The story will play out as both men expect it to only if it plays out the way they expect. This is real life, not Shakespeare. In real life, the last act of any story isn't written until after it's been played.
I told a few people what I've just told you, and hearing myself tell it I began to wonder if I maybe wasn't reading more into how much those guys dramatized the ongoing story of their lives. Then I happened to meet that man in the white Ford pickup once again. It was five years ago when I went down to Austin for George's funeral. It was a big formal affair with a herd of politicians and ranchers and state officials and people from the university where George taught the last 15 years of his life. A man came up to me after the service and said hello. It was obvious that I didn't remember him. "I met you at Wit's End twelve or thirteen years ago," he said, "the day I went up there to buy George's mare."
the point of all this
I used the word "parable" earlier when I was writing about one possible interpretation of the story Stephen Spender told me. The wonderful thing about a parable is this: its message isn't exhausted all at once. You hear it and you think or ask "What does that mean?" And you come up with an answer that makes wonderful sense. Then you hear it again or remember it and ask again "What does that mean?" And you once again come up with an answer that makes wonderful sense, only it's not the same answer you came up with last time. I think parables serve best when the situation demands more that one idea or point of view at once, like the story of young Scott getting me into the 24-foot-above-ground pool fully clothed. Speech is linear and one dimensional, but the meanings of our stories are neither linear nor one-dimensional.
Tellers may not even know they're telling parables when they're telling you amusing or interesting stories about themselves. Stephen Spender was a very intelligent and sophisticated man, but I doubt that he thought through the levels of meaning and applicability of the story he told me in that car moving north on Indiana state road 37 in 1962. I doubt that Pete McKenzie gave consideration to which narrative voice he used to tell me exactly what happened on the day he earned his death sentence. And I doubt that George Beto thought of himself as writer and director and actor in a personal narrative that hot and dusty afternoon we sat on his porch drinking beer and talking about the world.
Professional dream weavers--like trial lawyers and politicians and men of the cloth--spin stories deliberately and consciously, seeking to manipulate us. Professional reporters link up facts deliberately and consciously, seeking to inform us. We all know that. At least as important is the fact that we all, all of us, do the same thing all the time. We are more skilled than we know. While doing one thing deliberately, we do another subconsciously; no matter, we can do both. A story that serves one end today serves another tomorrow; no matter, the story is protean, living. We've learned how to do it by a lifetime of managing language without conscious thought, just as we know that a plural subject takes a plural verb, just as we know without thinking that right now is the right time to say, there was a gunfight in which "a chief of detectives was killed" or "the plate fell on the floor and it broke" or "they've got an army too" or "he's not going to get that mare for what he thinks he's going to get her for."