Sunday, November 06, 2011

Lie to Me (Please)

A novelist’s business is lying. – Ursula Le Guin, Preface to The Left Hand of Darkness

What’s the biggest mistake fledgling writers make? They’re afraid to lie. I’ve done this, everybody has. It’s an elephant-sized faux pas in fiction writing.

A great deal of writing is born out of journaling, which is an erudite way of saying keeping a diary. Writing tends to have its roots in psychological therapy and so short stories often spring from journaling. This is fine if only the roots of a story are planted in the dark, murky compost of our actual lives.

But really good fiction is just that: somebody made it up. Only from fiction can we find emotional truth. Shakespeare was never an actual prince in Denmark or any where else, but from Hamlet comes a lot of profound emotional truths about human existence including: grief, guilt and anger. Pretty much everybody with a pulse has experienced these feelings at one time or another. It’s easy to empathize with Hamlet, even if he is a prince, Danish and never really existed.

If you don’t believe me, consider these examples.

Was Annie Proulx ever a gay cowboy living in Wyoming in the 1960s? No, she’s a straight woman who was born in and spent most of her life in New England –- Stephen King’s neck of the woods -- not Ennis’ empty rural waste. But she did an award-winning job convincing us she was a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain.

Never a gay cowboy.

Was there ever a land called Narnia with a giant, Christ-like lion who talked to little English kids? No but Carroll Lewis makes us believe this in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Did an evil spirit cause the death of a family in Amityville, New York? No, but writer Jay Anson did a bang-up job convincing a lot of people that one did in The Amityville Horror. Anson performed the oldest trick in the book: he based a series of lies on a truth. A guy really did kill some family members and, like countless other convicted murderers before him, he alleged for years that the devil made him do it.

Did you go through a tumultuous marriage in your youth? Maybe got married at age 20 and then divorced at 22. Did you and your spouse literally pull each other’s hair out in fights and war over custody rights for years? Do you really want to even hint that you’re writing a story now about that event and risk getting sued? Think up a character, someone NOT like you. Change their hair color, age, height, etc. Now change the setting. If you live in Vermont (like Ms. Proulx) set the divorce story in Wyoming. If you live in Florida, set your story in Nepal.

It’s okay to lie, fellow writers, really it’s just fine. It might even inhibit an angry relative from filing suit. You will never find emotional truth until you learn how to lie about the details that bring your reader to that truth.

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