64 possible solutions, one with no exit


‘John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama,’ read a subject line in This American Life’s feedback inbox.

Usually it might contain messages about liking or not liking the show, but this message caught producer Brian Reed’s eye, and he opened it up.

John B. had had enough. An assault and murder may have happened in the town he was born in, hated, and never left, and he wanted Brian to investigate it. 

So began a three-year correspondence that became the podcast S-Town.

Brian travelled to Woodstock, Alabama (Shittown) and interviewed the people in John’s life and those he’d moved away from. At some point, however, another story started to appear. “Yeah, there’s a murder,” thought Brian, “but who are you?”

With each interview inconsistencies arose. Each person had a shared world with John B., particular to them. The story began to resemble the elaborate hedge labyrinth he had built with 64 possible solutions – one of which doesn’t have an exit. Like the time he showed Brian the ink on his body.

As Brian recalls it,The entirety of John's chest is tattooed, and his shoulders too, though it's all perfectly covered when he's wearing a t-shirt… It takes me aback, because John has made clear to me how much he loathes tattoos. They're one of the things he hates about Shittown. I believe he once called them "an expression of hopelessness." Doesn't compute.’

Photographer Annie Leibovitz talks about it being impossible to capture a person’s character in a single portrait. How about two? Or how many does it really take?

In S-Town the layered stories create tension, a place where the mind can tingle, looking for patterns. Filmmaker David Lynch refers to this as ‘room to dream’. Connections appear, without them being neat – as life goes.

In the episode ‘You’re beginning to figure it out now, aren’t you?’ it occurred to me that witnessing someone’s stories in all their whatever-they-areness is the highest honour. Who knows what someone will say when asked a question and really listened to?

His life didn’t become a one-line description. The things he said and the stuff he hated and the people he loved have been recorded in detail – a portrait that came to depict a lost world.

Your story is not a one-liner, either. Let us help you expand it.

May your words pour onto the page,

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Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash. Photos of John B. McLemore’s maze can be found here.