When I was a kid, I told lies to gullible baby sitters. "My Dad and Mom are divorced. My real Mom moved to Des Moines and won't tell me what she does. I think she might be an artist, but I'm not sure. I visited her once and she didn't let me see where she lived. She made me stay at a hotel. I think she was embarrassed." The baby sitters may or may not have believed me, but they were fascinated.
The lies I told when I got into trouble were just as inventive. "Rosemary Newman pushed my books in the mud. She always does things like that. During recess she eats mayonnaise sandwiches. And she says she has a pet snake named Tounces. I think she's weird."
Lying is the flip side of truth-telling. It's the 'making it all up' part that gives a story juice. The writer Isaac Bashevis Singer told countless lies when he was a child in Poland. Once, on the first night of Chanukah, he went on a forbidden walk instead of coming home from cheder. He found himself in a strange neighborhood, went into a restaurant, and told a woman an outrageous lie about being an orphan--so outrageous she bought him a meal. "I couldn't keep from telling lies," he once said during a workshop I went to when I began to write. "It was the beginning of becoming a writer."
Lying is often the leap that turns an anecdote into a story. If you embellish, allow yourself to spin a tale, real events become more than 'just so' stories. They highlight some aspect of life and take on resonance. Yet writers often feel they can't change the facts because in real life 'it didn't happen that way'. Once a friend wrote a story modeled after her parents when they first met. A woman settles down for an evening alone, relishing take-out food, and cheap magazines. When her suitor pays an unexpected call, she throws everything away before letting him in the door. After a dramatic beginning, the story bogged down. I suggested she insert some conflict to get the story going again. She said, "But that didn't happen."
Yet you often have to lie in order to tell a good story. The material of your life is yours to claim and use. It's also yours to bend, stretch, mold and change. Part of finding your voice is giving yourself permission to use your life and the lives around you for material--and then to distort that material outrageously. Events of your life can be a starting point. But you need to give your voice permission and range to draw on other events and lives as well as your own imagination.
In Billy Bathgate E. L. Doctorow based his material on something "real"; Billy Bathgate, a fictional character, gets involved with Dutch Schulz--a 'real life' criminal, right up there with Al Capone. If--out of some misguided need to confine himself to just the facts--Doctorow hadn't allowed himself to create this fictional character, his novel would have been stillborn. And indeed this is exactly what happens when writers stick too close to the lap of their lives, or substitute research for writing and imagining. Shelves are filled with leaden products of such research as well as faithful recounting of 'real life stories'--books that never get published because they weren't animated with a little lying.
There are thousands of ways to lie. In his stories, "The Other" and "Borges and I" Jorge Luis Borges speak about meeting a man who is his double. And in her autobiography, Family Sayings, the Italian writer Natalia Ginsberg lies through an act of omission--by telling the reader very little about herself. We hear her mother, father and brothers talking and arguing. We see how they look, where they ski, what they read. But we know almost nothing about Natalia Ginsberg and can only infer her grief when her first husband is killed by Fascists. It's conceivable that she was quiet as a child, and as the youngest in a large Italian family, experienced herself as being effaced, even without a voice in the family setting. But she must have fallen off her bicycle, disliked certain foods, and had private thoughts and opinions. Her absence, however, is an audible presence in the book--one of an invisible recording angel, with great powers of memory and observation. If she'd followed the dictum, "Whenever you write about your life, you have to tell us all about yourself," this book, which is now used in Italian schools to document the rise of Fascism, wouldn't have been nearly as effective.
Lying does something else. It brings the writer into the unknown. Writers are always being told to writer about what they know, but writing is always about the persistence of mystery, even if one knows every detail. The more you know, the less you are likely to invent because you assume the reader knows what you know. The more you know, the less likely you are to use your imagination, because It happened that way. And the more you know, the less likely you are to be surprised--and surprise is that ultimate whirlpool that turns a slender idea or an anecdote into a full-blown story, or a cool idea into a novel .
Surprise is uncomfortable, because the writer no longer knows where the story is going. But you must step into the unknown to create a work of imagination that allows the reader to imagine too.
Once, quite against my wishes, I had to include a novella with two of my collections. The stories were surreal. The novella was loosely-based on family history. Every time I crafted a story based on life experience I had to invent, and each time I invented, I discovered parts of myself in the situation I didn't know existed: When I thought I was vulnerable, I was also tough. When I thought I was angry (and legitimately so), I felt compassion for other people in the situation. Some part of me died to the story and when altered. And I woke up from writing about my life a slightly different person.
The more you invent, the more your fiction expands. This holds true for fiction not based on your life, because the impulse that makes you want to write a story in the first place--the triggering event--always reaches a point where more must happen and the story must generate. Generation pulls the writer into the unknown--the uncomfortable world of literary improvisation--and may produce a story that is different from the story first imagined.
In this sense, the creative lie about one's life may provide a springboard to tolerance for improvisation. The unknown is sometimes exciting, but often uncomfortable. Creative lying develops tolerance for living in some discomfort. If you stick with it, it always produces moments of surprise, when the story takes over, defines its own world, becomes organic, and flies away from your singular ownership.
Sometimes, in the midst of this discomfort, I remember what Robert Frost said:
No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
To use the known as a springboard into unknown, try this:
1. Narrate a short story from your life, but put a different spin on it: make it more tragic, more exciting, more pathetic. Add at least one event that never happened.
2. Imagine that your mother (or your father, or a good friend, or you) had a double life. Write a story in which you describe this other life.
3. Pretend you're a well-known fictional character, or a well-known politician or celebrity. Write about either your life or their life--but from their point of view.
4. Write letters to a double of yourself who lives in a parallel universe. Have the double write back to you.
5. Write a story about a lie you told when you were a child as if that lie were true.
6. Write about an event that you took part in and leave yourself out as a character. Pretend you were never there.
7. Write an acerbic letter to someone you're afraid of about the importance of lying.
8. Take a story from the newspaper. Begin to write about it and start to invent.
9. Do the same thing with a story from your own life or the life of someone you know.
9. What distinctions do you make between lying and inventing? Write letters to (a) trusted friend and (b) a difficult editor (or inner critic) defending your position.
10. Put your childhood into a location that is different from your own: A different part of the world. A group dominated by a different belief system or level of education. Or a group in a different relationship to society than the group you grew up in. Look at the different house. (Books? or not? A TV or not?) Look at the environment. (Flat? Mountainous? Desert?). Look at the customs and how people are dressed. Take a story from your life and write about it.
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