The Truth of Lying

—Ron Carlson on fiction

If you grew up like most kids in the world, you learned early in life that lying was a bad thing. And yet you may have grown up with Uncle Sherman's fishing stories. Everyone in the family knew he did not really catch a 12-pound bass. The number of trout Uncle Sherman cooked after a fishing trip never accounted for the bounty he claimed to have caught, but the whole family listened to his stories because they were entertaining.

Your cousin Tito exaggerates every date—embellishing the girl's beauty and the intensity of her attraction to him. Despite your understanding that Tito's stories are not completely true, you listen appreciatively because his stories reflect something of your own longing.

Similarly, your grandmother exaggerates the aches and pains of aging. While you know her suffering is not as great as she imagines, you listen because her stories imply a greater truth—the fear she experiences as her body deteriorates.

The truth for all these storytellers is present in their lies. Their value is different— entertainment, longing, fear—but there is something essentially true to human experience that their stories relate. The lie—a fish too big or a girl too pretty or a pain too intense— is the vehicle for the longing to be bigger than life, for love, or for the fear of aging. Lying well enables creative writing, especially fiction. After all, as Stephen King has been quoted, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."

Writing Practice

You may have encountered this exercise in a class or job orientation. Teachers like to use it as an icebreaker when asking for students to introduce themselves. It's more fun with a group because some pretty fabulous stories emerge. Surprisingly, the best stories are usually the "truths."

1. Write three mini-stories about yourself. Give some information about who you are, something you have done or someone you know. Write these vignettes in one to two paragraphs.

2. One story should be true. The others are lies. Try to write the lies as convincingly as the truth. If you find the lies easier to write than the truth, you may be a fiction writer.

If you are writing with a group, read the stories aloud and try to guess each writer's truth.

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