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Truth, lies and telling stories

'A writer of fiction is really…a congenital liar.'

Ernest Hemingway.

Today is Honesty Day which, if I’m going to honour it, presents me with a dilemma: should I make stuff up today?

As a child, I learned that truthfulness was my first and absolute duty. Cartoonish fights with Little Sis weren't allowed, but denying them was far worse. My favourite morning assembly hymn, the cool one with the knight in it, told me to set free with my youth, from the castle of darkness, the power of truth. I wanted that righteous adventure.

An unfeasible number of years later, I’m not going to pretend I’ll never fib in a pinch. I’ve devised criteria for when and how I can tweak verity without her making me feel guilty about it. But all the other kinds of lying are over the naughty line. So, my psyche twitches when I hear storytelling being compared to lying.

Luckily, I have a theory, and it goes like this: if somebody tells you something they believe, that feels true to them, it can’t be a lie. Here are some examples I’ve heard:

  • Squirrels hibernate all winter.

  • If you eat more than two bananas in a day, you’ll die.

  • If it doesn’t have a colour, it won’t give you a hangover.

  • If you look in that mirror too often, the devil will look over your shoulder.

They’re not knowing fibs, they’re myths. Compare them with these whoppers I've been told:

  • I’m falling in love with you.

  • To improve your luck, I will need to buy 1000 coconuts.

  • It accidentally fell on the floor, so I had to eat it.

  • But, we’re nearly at the top now.

These are deliberate tricking and dodging, to my disadvantage.

When I’m writing a story, I’m trying to conjure something I believe. Starting with a stranger, in a place and time, faced with a particular situation, I wish to know what would have happened. As my understanding grows, the characters become willful intimates, the setting is just a blink away and their problems become mine. I start to believe that, yes, this is what happened. This is true. It becomes a history I believe, about what they wanted, how they tried. If I don’t see it as an alternate reality, feel its influence on me, I know it isn’t working.

If I’m telling a story I believe, then it's not a lie. It has its own honesty.

So, perhaps I should get on and write today. Perhaps it's the best way I know to be honest.

'But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.'

Ursula K. Le Guin

'The poet is the liar who always speaks the truth.'

Jean Cocteau

Thanks to Tony Gaitskell for the pic

Honesty Day

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