Not the opposite of truth

When I was 18 and a member of an evangelical touring choir, we were on a weekend retreat. We’d spent the day rehearsing, having a Bible study or two, and otherwise prepping for an upcoming tour. Of course, there was also time to socialize and otherwise get to know each other. And somehow one of those conversations turned into one of the guys asking me and the other sci fi geek why we liked reading lies.

I think my first response was to talk about the value of imagining what might be possible. I thought his beef was with science fiction specifically, but it soon became clear that he thought all fiction—including things such as Romeo and Juliet—were immoral collections of lies.

“If it isn’t a true story, then it’s a lie; and we shouldn’t listen to lies!”

I called his attention to parables in the Bible, and he became offended. The Bible is true, every single word, he insisted.

“But Jesus told parables. They are made up stories to illustrate a deeper truth,” I argued.

“No,” he said. “Jesus knows everything that has happened and will happen to all the millions of people who ever lived. And he told true stories that had happened.”

I just had to shake my head and walk away. As my great-grandpa, Shorty, was fond of saying, you can’t talk sense with someone who hasn’t got any.

I was reminded of this recently when a writer made a joke about writers and politicians, and how they both tell lies for a living. I’ve always cringed when writers referred to what we do as lying, because it isn’t.

Oxford’s definition of lie begins: “an act of instance of lying; an intentional false statement; an untruth; something that deceives; an imposture.” And if you look up imposture, it’s “a willful and fraudulent deception.”

Some people might say that “fraudulent deception” is a redundant term, but they’re wrong. A lie is intended to mislead or otherwise betray your trust. A story doesn’t do that.

A story may consist of a completely fabricated series of events happening to totally imaginary people, but for a story to work there must be at least a grain of Truth in it. When I create characters in a tale, they won’t resonate with the reader unless they are believable, and a storyteller can’t make them believable without drawing on true things about human nature.

When I tell a story, I am not trying to delude you into believing something that will harm you, or steal from you, or otherwise enrich myself by diminishing you. When I tell a story, I am trying to enrich both of us. I hope, in the process of hearing/reading my tale, that you experience some happiness, and perhaps have an insight or two. I hope that I will experience the joy of creating something and sharing it with you.

This doesn’t mean that when I tell a story I start off with a message that I want to convince you of. I have, foolishly, written some tales like that, and have always regretted it.

The best stories, instead, come from a place of wonder and curiosity. Sometimes, such as in one of the collaborative projects I’ve been involved with, it’s reading someone else’s story and having one of the characters in the tale pop up in my imagination telling me what happened next. Sometimes it’s walking down the street, listening to music, and seeing something on the ground that makes me ask, “How did that get there?” Sometimes it’s two characters springing to life in my head and arguing about something.

I don’t know what alchemy happens in my subconscious to create stories. I do know that when I’m writing the first draft, one of my motivations is to discover how it ends. Sometimes I think I know how it’s going to end when I start. And sometimes I’m even right, but I seldom know exactly how I’m going to get to that ending when I do. Other times I know very precisely how it ends, and all of my writing work is trying to figure out where the story starts, and then how do the characters get to that ending.

It’s exploring and figuring out all mixed up. I often learn something or find myself looking at something which I already knew in a new way during the course of finishing the story. And when everything falls into place I experience a moment of joy. That moment of joy is something which a storyteller feels compelled to share. Which is why we tell the story, or rewrite it until it’s ready to publish, or otherwise put the story out there.

Of course every writer dreams of the day when he can live off his storytelling. If someone is willing to pay me for a story, I will take the money. But hoping to be paid for a job well done is not about taking from the reader. What I hope has happened is that I’ve given them an experience which they enjoyed, found value in, and that they think is well worth the time and expense.

And as a reader, when you pick up a book, or open a web page, or sit down to listen to a storyteller, you are asking the author to tell you a story. You know, going in, that what he or she tells you will not be factually correct and the people she or he describes are not actual specific persons who did those exact things. You know it’s a story. You want the author to make you believe in the story for a little while. You’ve agreed to go on that journey of discovery, together. If it’s a story you enjoy, if it is a story that moves you, if it is a story that made you laugh, or root for one of the characters, or cry when one of them was hurt, then the story contained some kind of truth.

And that isn’t being deceitful. It isn’t manipulating. It sure as heck is not lying.

4 thoughts on “Not the opposite of truth

  1. What I have more than once pointed out in the interfaith Bible study class I attend is, “These are stories. They convey truth differently than an expository piece would.”

  2. My first thought was something my dad told me about Medieval literature. He told me that Medieval stories were believed to be true at the time. People felt, as your acquaintance did, that there was no point to listening to lies. Modern novels are called novels because they are “novel”, new stories, not the same old stories that have been told before.
    My second though has to do with people lying in books. There is no lie involved when someone publishes a novel because there is an explicit understanding that the story is not true. Both the author and reader understand this so there is no deceit. I was very offended by the beginning of the popular novel “Life of Pi” because it begins with a story about the author learning about the incident and interviewing Pi to get the story. The author deliberately blurs the line between truth and fiction in a way I find deceitful and offensive. I shouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia to find out if the author’s introduction is a lie.
    I find SF&F to be particularly honest genres because they make no pretense of representing things that have happened, unlike “realistic” fiction, “true crime” stories, or historical fiction, which blur the line between truth and lies.
    Finally there is something I heard at the UU church one Sunday “History is what happened to specific people at a specific time in the past. Mythology is what happens to everybody all the time.”

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