story-telling

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i’m slowly coming around to the idea that every problem in academia, writing, biography, life, etc. is, in the end, a problem with story-telling. either we’re telling stories or we’re telling them badly or we don’t know how to tell them or we think we’re not allowed to. 

stories are what we, as readers, latch on to and yet there seems to be a general resistance to seeing what we do in the humanities as telling stories and a pervasive feeling that we are doomed to write things that people will not have the fortitude to read.

the answer is- quite obviously, to me- stories. but then stories are tricky too.

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i’ve been grappling a lot lately about the unreliability of sources and of ‘facts’, and about the need, in storytelling, to constantly interrogate everything we think we know. so this is an issue that’s been on my radar, particularly in regards to the idea that jackie and RFK had a love affair, but it’s surprisingly easy to ignore your radar when a story is aligning with the way you want to tell it.

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in the chapter i’m writing now, i’m casting jackie in terms of the broader violence of the 1960s, drawing explicit connections where it intersects with her own life and, where it doesn’t, using the events to create a general ‘mood of the time.’ because if we’re going to say ‘something happened between her and the decade,’ as doris kearns goodwin did, then we need to talk about the decade to try to figure that out.

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for a time, it was looking like there was a clear way to put her near the watts riots. not physically, but story-wise. the riots are a part of the story of the time and there was an anecdote of how she’d gone to a benefit for watts and toured the neighborhood after the riots. huzzah!

(just writing that i realize this is probably what it felt like to be a screenwriter of forrest gump.)

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an interview i conducted confirmed this. her friend said he had taken her on a tour of the neighborhood, though he couldn’t remember the date, and he told this bizarro story about how, at the benefit, ray charles was strangled.

for months now, i’ve been trying to find some corroberation of this. because it made no sense that, in the mid-60s (presumably 66 or 67), jackie would’ve gone to a benefit for watts and not been photographed. or, furthermore, that ray charles would’ve been strangled at that event and there wouldn’t be a single news report.

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today, in a hail mary pass, the googling of the wife of the publisher of the LA times led to the discovery she’d written jackie in 1962 about a cultural center for LA, which led to an article on the 25th anniversary of that cultural center, which mentioned that it opened 28 june 1968, which meant this couldn’t have been the benefit because it was weeks after RFK was killed, but which led to a googling of their other benefits, which led to a biography of ray charles that mentioned an incident where a man rushed him on stage at a show in 1977, where jackie was in the audience.

1977.

there were no reports of a benefit in 1966 or 67 where ray charles was strangled and jackie was in the audience because it happened a full decade later.

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the trick is remembering that the instant a story fits together well enough that you think, wow, that is a good story, you’ve often got it wrong.

i wanted jackie to have gone to watts in 1967. that it took her 10 years to get there is a truer story and an interesting one in its own right but, sadly, it’s a different story. it doesn’t belong in mine.

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