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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories by Bruce Jackson

The Story is True-- by a professor of American Culture at the University of Buffalo--was off my creative writing workshop radar until Charlie Angell, crackerjack-wilderness guide to the Big Bend and contributor to Cenizo Journal, recommended it. I read it, relished it, and, as of today, added it to my workshop page's recommended reading list. 

The essay I found most illuminating is "Bob Dylan and the Legend of Newport 1965." For a long time now I've had in mind an essay on the many legends of Maximilian von Habsburg, Mexico's doomed Emperor, who is a major character in my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Based on the true story, this novel required several years-worth of original archival research, and extensive forays through the ever-growing bibliography on the Habsburgs and Mexico's Second Empire, aka French Intervention. Well, like the legend of Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965-- that he was roundly booed for playing on an electric guitar-- many stories about Maximilian turn out to have a foundation of precisely nada. That doesn't keep Mexicans from telling and retelling them, however, and with each retelling, the stories take on more polish, more of a volume mistaken for solidity. I am thinking in particular of Maximilian's supposed affair with his Indian gardener's daughter in Cuernavaca and the Empress Carlota's illegitimate son. The stories meet a certain need-- as Jackson puts it, "the moment needed a story...Stories are the way we domesticate the world's disorder. Facts are incidental."

"The Story of Chuck" made me chuckle-- and reminded me why I loathe those Nuremburgoid stadium events, watching TV, or spending one purple cent on Coca Cola. But maybe that's just me.

"The True Story of Why Stephen Spender Quit the Civil War" struck me as very Mexican; that one has to parse seventeen times, why, why did he / she / they say that? Change the names and it would be a short story of merengue-like perfection.

Oh, not to go on about it. Read this book. If you're a writer, it will get you thinking more flexibly and creatively about plot; if you're a citizen, it will make you question the stories you're being sold. Turn them upside down. Turn them inside out. Shake out the pockets. Bet you'll find a purple penny in there.

P.S. Read a Q & A with Bruce Jackson here.