Saturday, October 25, 2014

Confessions of an Honest Liar

If you write fiction, chances are you’re a fantastic liar. But that’s okay; it’s the job, and I won’t judge you for it, so long as you don’t judge me. Who knows? Maybe one day people will even pay you to lie to them, if you do it well enough, of course.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, touched on the subject of being a liar. He tells a true story about once being mistaken for Francis Ford Coppola in Boston circa the 1970’s (or maybe it was Connecticut), and instead of telling the misguided fan that he was not in fact the famous film director, he played along with it and had some fun lying to the guy, eventually signing a fake autograph for him. In the end, King’s reasoning was simple (and I am paraphrasing and recalling from memory, so I may be off a little or maybe even making it up, although I don’t think I am): He said he is a writer of fiction, which by default made him susceptible to telling the occasional white lie, if for no other reason than to just have a little fun. That is, after all, precisely what his fans have paid him millions of dollars to do for the last three and a half decades—lie to them. Old habits die hard, it would seem.

In my opinion, if you ever really expect to tell a good story, being a liar is less a side-effect of writing fiction and more a requirement. And not only do you need to be able to spin one hell of a yarn, you need to make your lies honest. Honesty is the most important thing. Of all the rules I’ve stumbled upon in books on writing and blog posts over the last few years, it is the one rule I will never (nor should any writer) break. If I do, you have my permission to break into my house in the middle of the night while I slumber away and subject me to whatever painful torture you see fit for such an egregious misdeed. I only ask you leave my fingers intact so that I may have the opportunity to redeem myself at some future date.

Honesty, in case I haven’t been clear enough, is important to me, as it should be for any writer. It is why my blog is titled The Honest Scrivener, and it is why Stephen King’s quote about truthfulness in writing is on my home page. The quote (which I will now allow you ten seconds to go back and read…Done? Okay, good) sums up the importance of the unspoken promise the writer makes to the reader to tell a story as truthfully as possible, expressing with honesty—which can sometimes be brutal and painful, and sometimes beautiful and enlightening—how humans act and talk.

It is in honesty that truly great writing lives. Readers can smell it and feel it. Hell, if it’s good enough, they can almost reach out and touch it when they encounter it. It is the thing that makes a person stop reading for that brief moment and crack the spine of the book open across their chest, simply so they can appreciate what they’ve just experienced. It is a little, secret moment of gratitude—a head nod to the author for not pulling any punches. If a character is an asshole, don’t call them a jerk . . . call them a goddamned asshole. That’s what they are, so why try to sugarcoat it? It’s disrespectful to the reader, shameful for the writer to do, and, in my very humble opinion, degrades the craft. Simply put: Dishonest lies are bad fiction. People appreciate honesty, in life and in art. Perhaps it’s because it creates an unspoken sense of connection, a feeling that we are not alone, especially when we read an idea or a thought we assumed was solely unique to us. When we find that someone else out there in this great big world shares our sentiment about something we have always only been able to feel but never fully understand, and then that thing is illuminated in a way you’ve never seen before, and it is defined in a way that allows you to see its true form, well, I don’t know about you, but I think that is a very magical thing. It is like a lost puzzle piece has been slid into place, and life—the world, even—seems to make a little more sense, even if only in a minute way. Honesty is the foundation that healthy, lasting relationships are built upon. And isn’t that what writing is—a relationship between author and reader?

We exist for far too brief a time on earth to be lied to poorly, so find someone whose deceit is born in truth and honesty and let them lie to you properly. And hey, maybe throw them a few bucks every now and again for their troubles. I’m sure they’d appreciate that. Deception is hard work.