Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing Fiction is Not the Same as Lying

Finger Wag Alert: Level 5

I’ve seen a lot of variations on this theme lately: “I write fiction. I will lie to you and happily sell you my lies.” I don’t know where this sentiment comes from. Wait a minute, yes I do. At least in part, I think this comes from a fundamental insecurity many writers share. We’re told by our parents/siblings/extended family/bus driver that writing fiction is child’s play. It’s something little kids do when they’re bored. Day in and day out, writers hear that they should get a real job and stop playing make believe.

What a load of garbage. Writing fiction has never been more important in the history of the world than it is now. Arts programs are being cut in schools. The economy is not bouncing back. People are getting desperate. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise. People with absolutely no imagination seem to be taking over the world!

As I told a friend once, it's our vitally important job as writers to supply an imagination to people who don't have one. People without an imagination can too easily become sheep, and people who have messed up imaginations can become scary dictators. So we must intervene.

Writers seem to be slipping into a cynical mood of late. The confessional/confrontational meme of “Yeah, I’m a liar, so what?” is all over the Internets. Authors appear on the surface to be brutally leveling with the world about their craft, when in fact they are, ironically, lying. Let me explain.

Writing fiction is not the same as lying. Lying entails deceit. Writing fiction does not. Sure, the characters and locations are made up, the plot points are contrived. But if they don’t all converge into some recognizable truth, then that’s a badly written novel/short story/play. And anyway, readers of fiction know from the word go that they’re not reading journalism. Good fiction tries to get at truth by keeping real life at a distance. It entertains, it thrills, it sometimes breaks the heart, but first and foremost it must tell the truth.

Take the Bible or the Qur'an for instance (or any other prominent holy book). That got your attention, didn’t it?! Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a religious person. I’m way too lazy for that. And I don't think these books are infallible monoliths of pure truth. But think about it for a second: why have they lasted the test of time? Why are they still so visible?

Some would say it’s because they’re the revealed truth of God. But you know what? That’s only a handful of people, relatively, who think that without reservation. Sure there are gobs of people who describe themselves as religious, but I find it hard to believe in my heart of hearts that those billions of people are religious literalists. Call me nuts.

If just the true believers among us touted the value of these two books, the books would’ve faded from the public eye by now. An atheist or agnostic would say they’re still with us because a vocal minority won’t shut up about them. Again, I find this hard to believe. It’s easy enough to shut those people out. Just turn the channel.

No, I think these books are still with us because many of the stories they contain—whether you call them allegories or actual events that really happened—reveal eternal truths about the human condition. Not all of them, of course (indeed, some of the stories are outdated and seem just plain cruel). But others are wonderfully spun tales that educate and enlighten.

Lots of people, for instance, find the Adam and Eve story ridiculous. Talking snakes are usually relegated to cartoons. But you know what? That story reveals an eternal truth about how fallible humans can be, and to me, it doesn’t make a lick of difference whether it really happened or not. Just like I couldn’t care less if Levin from “Anna Karenina” was a flesh-and-blood person, or if Han Solo really shot those TIE fighters, helping Luke destroy the Death Star.

I don’t care.

Because these characters reveal truths that make me a smarter, more compassionate, more well-rounded person. They teach lessons without being preachy. That’s what great fiction does. Yes, I just called “Star Wars” great fiction. Sue me.

So the next time you’re tempted to say, “Bite me, I tell lies. So what?” please think before you talk. That sentiment reflects poorly on the rest of us writers who feel that this is a higher calling, that through our characters we are imparting hard-won wisdom. Not that I think I'm some wise man, that just ain't so. But all of us who have lived a few years can teach the world something valuable. Any journey has within it that potential. And that's a great thing!

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