“Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now? And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman
Last year, I read a short story of mine at Creative Colloquy, a local reading event in Tacoma. The story is about a boy who develops an eating disorder after his father is laid off from his job. Afterward, a woman asked me how long my father was out of work. She seemed a little confused when I explained that nothing in the story had actually happened and that the first person narrator wasn’t me, but a character I invented.
I took it as a compliment. It takes a lot of work to write a good story and even more to infuse enough realism in detail, dialogue and emotion to pass it off as truth. If I’ve hoodwinked you into believing that my fictions are fact, then I have succeeded.
As writers, lies are our business. We’re no-good, rotten liars. Every single one of us. Tricksters and charlatans with pens and laptops. We’re those not-to-be-trusted adults who never quite grew out of their childhood white lie phase. Our craft is the art of fabrication and yet, when done with care, a piece of well-wrought fiction can feel more real than the real world.
Some of my oldest heartbreaks were caused by books. It’s strange that ink, paper, cardboard, and glue can provoke strong emotional reactions and yet it happens every day to almost everyone who picks one up. The lies told between “Once upon a time” and “The End” can hold surprising truths. Because where life falls short, fiction continues to push the boundaries in search of deep, universal truths.
There’s a reason why we root for Stanley Yelnats to break the family curse, why we are disturbed by Hamlet’s madness, why we cry at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows. To us, those things really happened. Great writing uses people that never existed in situations that never occurred to tell us something about ourselves that dry reality can never match. We suspend our disbelief in reading fantastic literature not because we want to escape, but because we want to uncover something hidden in the everyday world. These stories — these utter falsehoods — can be paradoxically more honest than anything you will read in a newspaper.
Writers are the best kinds of liars. We’re liars who seek out and tell the hardest truths.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, filmmaker and photographer in Tacoma, WA. Or is he? You can find half-truths and outright yarns on his Twitter feed or join his mailing list to receive blatant lies delivered straight to your inbox.