On Writing

THE ART OF THE LIE (Or the Lie as Art)


-lie (lai) n. – an intentionally false statement or impression; A purposeful deception.

Any creative process, painting, song writing, poetry, or the fabrication of a story harkens to a certain fiction, a deception, an attempt to provide the reader, the listener or viewer with an illusory experience. Therefor, one way to look at writing fiction is that it is essentially the act of relating a lie – an elaborate and manufactured whopper at the least, an artistic pretense at best.


In his book, The Divided Self, the late Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, deals primarily with schizophrenia and madness. But there is a passage in that tome that resonated with me.


We may remember how in childhood, adults were able to at first look right through us and into us. And what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie, and in doing so made the discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects, and know that within the territory of ourselves, there can be no other footprints.”


When I came across that passage, I marveled at Laing’s insight into such a universal human experience –  the territory of ourselves -our interior landscape.  At the time I came across that quote I was early in the writing of my novel STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS, and was conjuring my characters’ history and personality, and it made me realize how a simple deceit , a secret, can sometimes create and define a character and their inner landscape.


People deceive and keep secrets for many reasons. Often times they are afraid truth will reveal a certain vulnerability or something shameful.  They lie out of weakness and sometimes out of strength. Or one lies because they are a sociopath (much like one of our former presidents).  We keep secrets from our friends, our enemies, our partners, our children, the IRS, and sometimes to our detriment, we lie to ourselves. No doubt, all of us have lied on some occasion. White lies mostly, and perhaps the occasional black lie. Lies you may have told because the situation simply required it. At the very least, you’ve kept secrets. There are good secrets, the kind you take from the shelf of your mind from time to time for further reflection Perhaps, you welcome them like you would an old friend . Those kind of secrets can be delicious, exhilarating, at times even liberating. And then there are the kind that are painful. The ones that scar and defeat us. The kind of secrets that shouldn’t be kept secret and never see the light of day..


There is a Willie Nelson lyric that goes… “a thought is just a word that’s unspoken.” You might say that on some level secrets are nothing more than unspoken lies. But no matter how you think of these secrets, they allow us to retreat into the territory of ourselves, a place for things that can remain unspoken if one is so inclined.


Many of my characters lie or have secrets. They lie to avoid facing up to truths. They lie to protect. They lie to deceive an adversary. In my novel STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS, the character Ray lies because he is unable to face his complicity in the death of his friend Sonny’s lover, and he fears that revealing that secret will destroy their friendship. The character Aminta lives a life full of duplicity, lying out of love for her country. This secret life and love of country eventually results in her losing a chance at a different kind of love.


I suspect that most writers of fiction fish out of the pond of their experiences. In other words, writers cultivate memories from their past, echoes of certain experiences, all of which color and bleed into the stories they write. I am no exception. We all probably shade our memories and impressions about events and people in our past, especially as one becomes older. Hemingway was quoted as saying, “Rightly or wrongly all remembrance of things past is fiction.”  In other words, it might be wise to occasionally question the veracity of your memories.


Probably one of the main reasons I like to tell stories is that it  allows me to vicariously live a lie – to travel to far off places; to experience love, loss, the entire gamut of emotions – some that are foreign to me, some familiar. It allows me to live in someone else’s skin. And hopefully, it is much the same for the reader.


None of my stories are based on actual occurrences in my life. At least I don’t think so. What was I just saying about our memories become colored by the past? That being said, a good lie always contains an element of truth which makes the fiction of the lie more credible. Thus, the flip side of writing fiction lies in relating certain existential truths, ones the writer may have experienced or observed first hand. The inspiration for pretty much all of my stories emanate from real events, historical or current, or the lives of actual people, several of whom I discovered from reading their obituaries. It is surprising how much one can learn about life from reading obituaries. And there are a few characters I have used that are almost wholly based on a real person that I’ve known.


And thus many of my characters’ motivations and actions owe as much to my imagination as to what these real people might do in a particular situation. Many of my settings – hotels, bars, beaches, houses, etc-  are actual locales based upon my memories and experiences. And other locales I use were researched using the Google God. It is surprising how much knowledge and detail you can glean from a satellite image of a neighborhood in Guatemala City down to the trees in front of a certain house. Or the fact that I was able to view a video taken by someone walking through an obscure village on the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Or the good fortune of finding a photograph of a dirt airstrip in some back water in Honduras that figures into the book STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS.


So in order to create that imaginary world, I need to provide some degree of detail and authenticity -an illusion of reality in order to transport you, the reader to that place, to that situation or to elicit a certain emotion – to create a territory for the reader. So I welcome you into this territory I have created. Hopefully, it harkens to your own territory, be it imaginary or real.  


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