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Spin. Weave. Fabricate. They’re perfect storytelling metaphors. I stumbled
across this ancient one. Thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of
yarns – but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver.
It’s not a stretch to say storytelling is akin to making clothing – or
knitting. Pattern, repetition, threading the needle through to weave all the
separate threads together. Maybe its why writing is called a craft. When we’re
telling a story we are crafting a narrative, pulling together the many strands into a whole cloth.
In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst, puts it like this: “If
thought can be seen as a thread of consciousness, then the storyteller is
spinning long threads together into yarn, which is spun thread.”
I admit to being a consummate liar. Although I prefer to frame it as a fertile
imagination rather than a troubling character flaw.
Lying has a bad rep. The reasons people lie aren’t necessarily for nefarious or
cruel. Intent is everything in a lie. When Trump insists he won the last election, the consequence of the lie is far greater than when a parent tells their child there’s a Tooth Fairy.
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But this is about my lies and how, why, and where I learned to create them.
My mother, a control freak, was determined to mold me and my future. In
creating me, however, she unwittingly, met her match. I was equally, if not
more, determined for her mission to fail. The more my mother pushed me, the
more I pushed back. She wanted to raise a “lady.” To this day, the hairs on my
neck stand up when I hear that word. I wanted to a rebel with a dash of
delinquent. My friends were scrutinized, “birds of a feather.” She always had
lists of people, male and female, she didn’t approve of and forbade to see.
Fortunately, I lived in the pre-historic 60’s, so no cell phones were tracking me.
Still, when telling a lie, it had to be ironclad. My manic-depressive mother
(“bipolar” hadn’t been coined yet), could sniff out any holes in my story. If she
had any doubts, she’d make a call to a minor player, a friend or their mother, to
verify the facts. I lived in terror of triggering an interrogation of some poor
unsuspecting player I creatively wove into my drama.
I also needed a lie that allowed room for unanticipated twists.
What made it particularly difficult was I never knew how much intel she already
had. I had my origin story, but I had to think on my feet when caught in a lie. In
other words, improv. (Later in life, when I started working in Hollywood, it
served me well. If I pitched a story with a detail the executive or their assistant
bumped up against, I could quickly retool it in the meeting).
Once I laid out a detail, it had to fit into the overall narrative. Preparation was
impossible. Lying, like writing or stand-up comedy, demands thinking on your
feet. No time to Google an answer on your cell phone. You need an “origin
story”. A good one is the heart of your lie. First you choose a plausible thread
and weave it into a narrative. Too many steps and you can trip yourself up.
You’re far more likely to achieve success if you don’t think about it as your
speaking. Stay in the moment of your story. No flashbacks. And don’t flash
forward. Most importantly, don’t think. When you start thinking, you over think.
Overthinking kills creativity.
That’s why you need to construct a strong origin story, aka the core lie, that
allows for flexibility. When my mother caught me off guard, which happened on
occasion, there was no time for a rewrite. I made sure my origin story left me
wiggle room. It allowed me to be quick on my feet.
One of the best lessons I learned from lying is believing my own bullshit. It’s
essential to buy into your own story, whether fact or fiction. Wear it. Own it.
Maybe it makes us uncomfortable to think how easy it is to lie. We all
learned the bible says thou shall not lie. Yet, you may have discovered, the bible is filled with lies. How many burning bushes speak?!
I’m not trying to transform you into a sociopath, rather attempting to wake up a dormant piece of your psyche and put it to creative use. We’ve been turned
against our own imaginations because there’s no profit in living in a “fantasy.”
But storytelling requires fantasy. Even memoir indulges in “fantasy” although it
doesn’t use that term. It’s called creative license.
I rarely read memoirs, but when I lived in NYC, I read The Liars Club by Mary
Carr. It received great reviews and tweaked my curiosity. It tells the story of
Karr's childhood in the 1960s in a small industrial town in rural Texas. The title refers to her father and his friends who’d get together to drink and tell stories after a day’s work at a local oil refinery or chemical plant. I was awed by her detailed recollections of her childhood. I thought I had a good memory until I read it. Later in adulthood, long after I’d became a professional writer, it
dawned on me that unless Carr, (or other memoirists) kept copious notes as an eight-year-old, how many specifics could she possibly accurately remember? More importantly, does it matter? NO. The book isn’t any less powerful because of the questionable truth of some facts. What matters are the vivid impressions indelibly etched in her memory and recalled for the benefit of telling her story.
I just finished “Hamnet,” an ideal illustration of how a grain of truth or even
rumor can seed the imagination of a clever writer.
Stories are fiction. “Fiction” is a polite word for “lie.” Whether consciously
or not, all of us make mental notes and observations about the people in our
lives. But if we write about them, they become characters, embellished by our
imaginations. They exist in an alternate reality called make-believe and are
intended as vehicles through we discover a larger truth about ourselves or the
world around us. As acclaimed Italian author Elena Ferrante says, “Lying is a
creative act, not unlike writing.”
The next time you tell a lie, take time to craft it. It may become the best story
you ever told.