Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Oh, the Stories We Tell
My father lied. Sort of.
It was the 1980s, and I was out for a visit in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where they'd retired. Dad invited me to go with him to a Rotary meeting in nearby Seaside. Dad had belonged to service clubs (all male, in the early days) for as long as I could remember. He was in the Lions Club in Enid, Oklahoma, and I think he'd been in Kiwanis there, too. He'd joined Rotary while we were living in Hiram, Ohio, and attended the weekly lunches in nearby Garrettsville.
So, sure, I went along. Where Dad introduced me to his fellow Rotarians as a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Actually, I was teaching 8th grade English--and had been teaching middle school kids for about two decades. Yes, I had an occasional op-ed in the Plain Dealer (about ten or so a year), but I was not an employee--never was, never would be. But Dad was proud of my publication, and that pride transformed me into a journalist--at least in public--and Dad into ... a deceiver, if not a liar.
One oddity: Through most of his career, Dad was involved in teacher-education programs. Hiram College. Drake University. But--at least at the Rotary meetings--journalism trumped pedagogy.
And, yes, I gently corrected Dad--informing his friends that I was a teacher and a freelance writer.
I was thinking about this recently because I read a published essay not long ago by a teacher who told a story about a classroom episode, a story that I am virtually positive was a lie. Everything I know about kids and teaching and classrooms (I taught for forty-five years) rose up and shouted Lie! Lie! Lie! when I got to that key portion of the essay.
It was an anecdote intended to make a point, of course, and so why not alter or concoct a story to fit your need? (You know the cliche about the lying fisherman?) After all, we do it all the time, don't we?
We are the storytelling species. The lying species. And when we're telling a story, if we think a lie (or exaggeration or omission or whatever) will improve the effect, well, most of us go with the lie. We spin lies like the miller's daughter spins straw into gold in "Rumpelstiltskin." And that gold--if it's bright enough--will easily fool many listeners, or readers.What's the harm?
Well, ask Brian Williams. And a host of other journalists who have either embellished or fabricated stories. (Google Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke--and see what you find!)
Well, we're also a credulous species. And sometimes our stories persuade others to do things they might not otherwise do. Or give others false ideas about us. Or believe things they shouldn't believe. Or ... you know. Check the memes and quotations on Facebook--many are just outright lies.
I have not the faintest hope that anything will ever change. We love a good story too much--and we even endure, ignore, and forgive lies when they entertain or confirm a bias or soothe.
Think of Hamlet. Queen Gertrude, late in the play, enters to tell Laertes that his beloved sister, Ophelia, has drowned herself. Gertrude tells a long and lovely story about flowers and skirts spreading in the stream. On and on she goes.
And it's clearly a lie.
How would Gertrude even know all these things had happened? Would someone have stood on the shore and watched the flowers and the spreading skirt--and just watched in awe? Or would he or she run have down to the stream to save the young woman?
In all likelihood, someone found the dead Ophelia, gross in the mud, and kind Gertrude, wishing to spare Laertes, crafted a kind story. A lie.
I'll excuse that one.
But I have a hard time excusing writers of nonfiction (supposedly it's nonfiction) who lie on the page. That's what fiction is for. Remember the case of James Frey back in 2006? Some curious folk discovered that some incidents he'd reported as fact in his memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003) were, well, fiction. Oprah, who'd raved about his book, invited him back on the show, where she eviscerated him. (Link to that show.)
A quick story (not a lie!). Years ago, reading a memoir for Kirkus Reviews, I came to believe that the author was lying. He had been careful to keep things fairly vague, but there were enough facts available for me to verify. And many of them failed to pass the lie-detector.
I notified my editor. He notified the publisher, who, at first, defended the writer.
But when the book was eventually published a few months later, it no longer claimed to be a memoir; now, declared the cover, it was a novel.
At last ... the truth.