I am pretty comfortable saying I’m a lousy liar. To say I never lie would be, well, a lie, but I think I do it so rarely as to be in the group that could honestly say, “I don’t lie.” I tried it out when I was younger and I sucked. Pitted against a younger brother who was a natural, I never had a chance to develop any level of skill in even the normal, every-day kid deceptions necessary for survival to adulthood.
The “I didn’t break it, eat it, lose it, put it in the dryer” excuses (lies) were never convincing enough for my stepmother, and I even began to take credit for things I really didn’t do because she didn’t believe me anyway.
So, no positive reinforcement for lying was ever received and I’ve gotten along just fine without it.
However, writing fiction and poetry – telling stories – is essentially lying. This came into stark relief the other day when a reviewer asked me if something I had written was true. Part of it is true, the tiny grain of an idea that begins the story (or in this case a poem), and I certainly want it to have enough impact as to feel true, but I don’t really want to throw myself under the bus either. So I told the truth, said some of it was true, and left it at that. Perhaps my real challenge is not truth versus lie, but knowing when to STOP TALKING.
Do you remember the TV commercial where the old woman has fallen and she uses her alert thingy to summon rescuers with “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”? My son uses that to make fun of me and mid-lecture will say “Help! I’m talking and I can’t shut up!” I know I should be parent-like and get mad at him, but I laugh every time because it’s so me.
I should not feel like I have a duty to explain my writing, or classify it as truth or lie – it is fiction and it is poetry. That is all. It’s my prerogative to use my life experiences in any way I see fit. But my life hasn’t happened to just me, and if I write about an interaction with someone, they may know it’s about them and maybe at some level I want them to know, but my intent is never to lay bare all of the truth. That would be memoir and frankly, my life hasn’t been that interesting. There is no one in my past or present that I aim to hurt - even the wicked step-monsters (except for calling them that – which pleases me to no end).
Maybe no one else thinks of it, but I’ve begun to wonder if people really get the difference between fiction and the truth. In my job it is imperative that I am truthful, and there is no question as to that benchmark. In real life and in writing, there is room to hedge. If you ask me a question, I will tell you the truth - to the point where you might want to carefully consider the question and if you really want the answer. If the question is never asked, I probably will not seek you out to tell you how I feel, or what I did, or what you didn’t know. This can’t be much different than how most people view the truth. For civility and to be considerate, we don’t go around saying exactly what we think all the time.
And yet, I am not angered or annoyed by this question about something I’ve written. I take it as a compliment that my writing seems real. I just have angst about responding, because I don’t want to lie. Communicating to someone cryptically through story or poetry has certainly been done. It’s just not something I do. If I really have something to say to you, I will track you down. This does not mean that there are not experiences that I now understand more fully (because I am older) and want to revisit in this artistic way. I think there is real value in evaluating life and not just living it. That someone reading my work can commiserate or see their own experiences through my analytic lens makes me happy.
If I choose to see the lies of storytelling as metaphorical truth, perhaps I won’t feel so compelled to defend or explain this kind of lying. It is the greater truth of a situation, not the particular truth, which teaches us. Becoming skilled at writing fiction demands skill at creating something that did not exist before – lying - but the intent is often (for me) to illuminate some truth. So I will lie. And that’s the truth.