Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mendacity Schmendacity

Sometimes my mind works on and niggles at odd things. This can be anything from the small, inconsequential though baffling hot dog-hot dog bun packaging disparity, to larger, more lofty odd questions regarding life and the universe. Most of the time, the things I ask myself about are somewhere between.

When I was very young, I was taught that you did one of two things in any given communication. You were truthful, or you lied. As I got older, of course, I discovered that things were not so simple or black and white as that. During my teenage years, this discovery was the Fort Knox of Ways To Get Away With Things. However, just as Fort Knox is not easy pickings, lying in any or all shades of variation was not a very successful venture for me. I never could figure out how to short circuit that flashing neon sign over my head that screamed “LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!” Every part of me gave my dissembling away. Unless I was playing a joke on someone. Then I was as smooth, unruffled and believable as they come.

I've been thinking a great deal in recent months about the role of a fiction writer as artist, scribe, interpreter and teller of tales. Because the word fiction is tacked right on at the front, this would seem to indicate that we are not necessarily truthful. One writer I know said we are unashamed, bald-faced liars. “But we do it for a really good cause” he said, and I wondered why it sounded like justification and why justification should be needed.

A short time later, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with the actor/singer Terrence Howard. He talked about acting and truth. He said that actors have to work to be as true as they can because the audience wants that truth. A performance that isn't truthful fails. To me that sounded closer to what I felt to be true not only about my own work as a writer, but also regarding the books that had meant the most to me over time. Not literal truth, but something deeper, shared between writer and reader, between reader and reader. Common experience from just being human and alive. From the earliest times when our ancestors told stories beneath the summer moon or in a smoky shelter in the midst of winter, the absolute literal truth of those tales has never been important. The underlying, inner truth is.

My friend Nichole, who is also a writer said “We tell the truth in a funny (i.e. strange or indirect) way.” She's right, too. Between the lines and layers of those things we as fiction writers fabricate is interwoven human experience, our own as well as the greater depth of it.

I have come to terms with the dichotomy of lie vs. truth in fiction writing and see it not as a dichotomy at all but more of a reflexive, complimentary practice in the expression of common human experience.

The novelist Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), summed it up very elegantly by saying: “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth”. While I was musing on the question about lies and truth and deciding how to approach it in my writing this week, I came across that quote on a writing community site that I belong to ( I grinned at the synchronicity of it all.

I am in good company.

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