So this post was originally supposed to be an alternative version of the threesome “how I really met Grand Inquisitor” story. It was going to be charming and witty and have a great twist at the end that turned the whole thing on his head. But I never could think of anything remotely entertaining much less clever and so gave up on the idea. But it started me thinking about the nature of fiction, which is a theme I intend to revisit from time to time. Many great stories are made up, in that the events they describe never took place. But they must be true at the heart of the story or they make no sense and, worse, no one cares. What I mean by that is that the people in every story must be motivated by true feelings that we can all identify with, even if they are fighting dragons or having great sex or doing magic spells at the time. We see ourselves in the characters that way and can laugh and cry and cast magic spells with them to our own heart’s delight. That’s what makes for a good story, in my book (Get it? Book!!) anyway… but what is fiction but a complex lie written down, anyway? Is that what it is?
We all tell lies. Some are necessary if we want to live politely with other people. “Of course your hair looks fine.” or “What an adorable baby!” are harmless enough. Others are slightly more dangerous…”I’d love to join your book club” is not quite as bad as “No, I’m sure you are right...he’s not cheating on you, he just has to work late.” These minor departures from the truth are accepted as unavoidable evils in civil society. We figure they actually improve our relationships rather than harming them and we’re probably right. The one person I ever knew who refused to follow these social niceties was truly terrible to be around. The unfiltered truth is not something any of us are conditioned for. The danger we face is in deciding where to draw that line.
“What she doesn't know wont hurt her.” We all know the phrase and in many ways it is true. Lies can spare other people the pain or anger of finding out something that they wouldn’t like. It seems a kind and merciful thing to do. The problem is that lies eat away at the foundation of friendship or love like a river running underground. And then one day, you take a step and find yourself plunged into a hole that you didn’t see and that is bigger than you ever imagined.
Unlike lies, I maintain that secrets can be maintained without spreading corruption beyond their boundaries. Secrets are thrust upon us sometimes without our signing up for them. Friends tell us things we didn't ever want to know and ask us not to tell. And we keep their secrets if we choose, or we don’t. But problems arise when secrets lead to lies…and the more central a secret is to the heart of a relationship, the more likely that becomes.
After years of living a life in which I’ve probably told more lies than any person should, I've come to a painful conclusion... Lies hurt the teller of them more than the listener. The more lies we tell and the more often we repeat them, the more distance we place between ourselves and the people we lie to. Brick by brick by brick. Lie by lie. We build a bridge away from people. And I’ve yet to learn whether we can cross back over it after we’ve built it. I’m certainly old enough to have learned this lesson earlier, and possibly I’m not very bright, but it seemed worth mentioning to anyone unlucky enough to have read this far. And the bright spot is that it’s a simple (if not an easy) problem to avoid. Telling the truth seems to build foundations quickly and build them strong even in unexpected places. People we haven’t known very long seem to become essential to survival when they know the truth about us. And the more truths we tell the stronger that bond is. Like a rope thrown to a drowning man, the truth can pull us to dry land.
I was hoping that by the time I'd gotten this far, I'd have figured out how to tie this all back in with what makes for good storytelling. I’m not sure i have except for this… that, whether that truth be a real event or a real emotion or even just a real idea, only a story with truth as the foundation is worth telling. I will take a quote from one of my very favorite movies to end with... "Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust, but they cannot make it true." And just like the character in the movie, I think playwrights, book authors, poets, and yes, the odd blogger or two can occasionally come up with the truth. It's just a little more difficult than many of us had hoped.