Storyteller Jack Hitt on ‘Making Up the Truth’

July 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown speaks with master storyteller Jack Hitt about his new solo show and what it's like to be a self-employed writer.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, telling true stories, even while you’re making up the truth.

Jeffrey Brown explains.

JACK HITT, Author, “Bunch of Amateurs”: Well, we all learn it somehow, right? I was 10 sitting on a swing set in my Parker Coleman’s backyard in Charleston, S.C. Parker turned to me with that confidence of his, and he said, you know what you have got to do to have babies?

JEFFREY BROWN: As it happens, Jack Hitt learned a lot of things growing in Charleston, most of all, the art of spinning stories from the mundane and sometimes bizarre reality around him.

He’s done it successfully in books, magazines and on the radio as a regular contributor to “This American Life,” all leading The Atlantic magazine to dub him one of America’s best storytellers.

JACK HITT: When I was 15, I got sent away to a small town in Tenn. All right, it was a reform school. But that’s another story.

Storytelling is the engine of all social life.Jack Hitt

JEFFREY BROWN: And now he’s doing it in a one-man show that not only tells true and sometimes astonishing tales, but also examines the latest brain science that tries to explain what makes him and each of us a storytelling animal.

It’s called “Making Up the Truth.”

JEFFREY BROWN: “Making Up the Truth,” now, you don’t mean literally — you don’t mean it like lying, right? What do you mean?

JACK HITT: It’s more like pre-lying. So…



What happens is — or what I discovered when I was doing some research a few years ago about storytelling and how the brain narrates the stories in our head is that a great deal of sort of pre-editing happens even before ideas arrive in our mouths and we speak them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Subconsciously.

JACK HITT: Subconsciously. It’s not your fault.

The brain is sort of slightly tweaking the edges of what we see and hear all the time. The truth is being conjured, almost conversationally, inside your head all the time.


JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, the brain is constantly asking itself: Did that really happen? Do I want it to have happened? How do I tell this?

JACK HITT: Behold the majesty of what we truly are, self-narrating beasts. What separates us from the other animals? The existence of our stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Making Up the Truth” was part of Charleston’s famed Spoleto Festival this year, 17 days of music, theater, arts of all kinds that take over what is certainly one of the nation’s most charming towns and one where the ability to tell a good story has always been highly prized.

JACK HITT: Storytelling is the engine of all social life.

There were really no restaurants here in those days. Everybody ate at — you know, at people’s houses. The thing that ran through it all was storytelling, sitting on porches like this or hanging out at people’s houses. It almost became a kind of competitive sport.

JACK HITT: He was exotically foreign, everyone said. He was British.


JEFFREY BROWN: The very first story Hitt encountered as a boy in Charleston was a blockbuster: a neighbor of his who underwent one of the first sex-change operations, then married a black man in what became the test case of interracial marriage in South Carolina.

JACK HITT: This was international news. This was on television and newspapers all the time.

So, a lot of people down here resented that. Me? I’m 10 years old, I’m 11 years old. I’m 12. I’m loving this. You know, I’m running up and down the street. I just think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: If you listen to enough of Hitt’s stories, you begin to think that the greatest things that ever happened only happen to him. In fact, he says, great material is all around. It’s just that most of us don’t pick up on it.

JACK HITT: One of the things that these scientists find is that we’re — one of the glories of being Homo sapiens is that we have an amazing ability to blind ourselves to things that are happening right in front of us. And we see this all the time, right?

People — events happen and people say, I didn’t even see it. You know, it turns out we’re very good at not seeing things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hitt’s latest project is a new book titled “Bunch of Amateurs,” in which he teases out a particularly American trait through the stories of famous tinkers from Ben Franklin to computer nerds in garages and lesser-knowns among us, bird-watchers, biologists and backyard astronomers, all who started and many ended as amateurs.

JACK HITT: The word has many meanings in American English, right?


JACK HITT: It can mean everything from like a dilettante to a greenhorn to a fool to almost an expert.

There was just something very American about this idea that you can walk off into your backyard, into your garage, into your cellar, and invent a new future. That is a crazy idea. I’m not sure it exists in the kind of florid way it does here. I think it’s part of our DNA.

JEFFREY BROWN: A self-employed writer who’s taken his tales to the airwaves and the stage, Hitt admits to being himself a kind of amateur, one who still has some explaining to do when he comes home to Charleston.

JACK HITT: The question I get every time I come home from my mom — and I still get it — you know, she’s 94 and still asks me this question — so when are you going to get a job?



JACK HITT: Now, I have been a freelance writer all my life, pretty much, well, since I left college.

JEFFREY BROWN: An amateur in a sense, right?

JACK HITT: An amateur, right.

And this whole idea of inventing this life, right? And I think in some ways, almost everything I do is an attempt to try to answer that question for her. And the answer is, it’s OK, mom. I’m never going to get a job. This is the job.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “Making Up the Truth” on stage and “Bunch of Amateurs” on the page, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Jack Hitt, nice to talk to you.

JACK HITT: Great talking to you. Thanks.