I Have a Graduate Degree in Lying

The writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth.

Pretend that your first novel, a work of fiction about Podunk, your hometown, just arrived from the presses. You are thrilled to hold the hardbound book, which is so new that it smells like ink. You are weeping tears of joy when your publicist calls.

“I just wanted to let you know that your book received its first bit of press,” she says. “A journalist at the local Podunk newspaper researched parallels between scenes in your book and things that happened to you while you lived there. The journalist interviewed your old teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends.”

“But my book is a work of fiction,” you say. “It’s not meant to be an account of what actually happened to me.”

“Press is press, right?” says your publicist.

The scenario I just described is basically what happened to Ginger Strand, author of the novel Flight.

In class on Tuesday, my students and I discussed an article that Strand wrote for Poets & Writers magazine about her experience being questioned by people from her hometown.

She writes, “The local newspaper had run a feature pointing out some of the similarities between Flight and my life, and that was what people wanted to hear about. I began to sense a creeping frustration. Why were people so interested in the reality behind the fiction? Why weren’t they paying more attention to the craft of what I had done?”

Strand made so much effort to craft a work of fiction, but no one really seemed to care. I’ve felt that before. Once, I gave a close friend one of my short stories to read. When I asked her, “What did you think?”, she responded, “That really happened to you, Laryssa? I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”. Silence. “That didn’t happen to me.” A lot of my fiction is based on life experience, but this story in particular was completely fabricated.

In an interview from Donald Barthelme’s book “Not-Knowing”, William Gass has this to say about truth in writing: “…we ought to abandon truth as an ideal as artists. I think it’s pernicious. I think it gets in the way all the time. That sounds sort of odd to some people but actually you’d say that to a mathematician. Mathematicians aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in formal coherence.”

I really like Gass’ explanation, and I wish more readers could push aside their desire for knowing (for what, really?) and learn to appreciate language, form, and artistic merit.

In good fiction, the writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth. But when you write good fiction, you are obligated to communicate emotional truth.

Sometimes, the police report that describes your wallet being stolen doesn’t accurately represent the emotional truth that you felt when your wallet was stolen.

A better way to convey your emotions would be to write that your wallet was stolen by a snarling monster who rose from a sewer. Because the feeling of being violated was just that frightening and unexpected and ridiculous.

And if the image best describes how you, the victim, felt, how could anyone argue with that?

(Photo by emdot)

4 thoughts on “I Have a Graduate Degree in Lying”

  1. Excellent post. We weave the lie that tells the truth. I recall a woman in a workshop, years ago, arguing over our critique of her story. “But that’s what really happened!” she kept saying. She never quite understood why no one else in the class cared.

  2. I’m writing for NaNoWriMo and of course some of what I’m writing draws on my past, but the actions, characters and situations are all fabricated. I’d be mortified if a journalist did this. Deconstructionism is a puerile activity, and shunts art aside to please our basest, nosiest instincts.
    No wonder J.D. Salinger became a recluse. What does it all mean? Figure it out for yourself, you lazy, lazy reader.

  3. A few comments while reading:
    — I think Gass is on spot when comparing his point to what a mathematician would do. If you look at the foundation of mathematics, Euclid’s “Elements”, the beginning of the book establishes axioms as a foundation for which the rest of mathematics was built. For instance, he assumes that we can “draw a straight line from any point to any point.” What if it’s truly not possible to do that? Then a lot of mathematics would fall apart. I can probably go on a rant about this alone, but I’d rather point out the other major item I liked about this post.

    — I think the main problem is that some people struggle to imagine a world where facts can blend with fiction as they’re reading the work. Were bards infallible? I’m sure they had to fudge a fact here to there to keep people interested in hearing their tale (and to make money). And this bugs me because there are a lot of films out there that are guilty of this fact and ficton blending all the time. Last time I checked, I don’t see people up in arms because some verities were skewed because the movie wins if people are entertained. So I pose the following question for those data miners out there. Why can’t we allow the work of fiction to entertain us first, and then we can add to our initial enjoyment by doing some fact checking?

  4. If I were to write in detail about all that really happened in my life, I would use my real name, and other people’s real names, and call it a memoir, not a novel. Besides, I lived it once, do I need a book about it??

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