(March 21, 1998)
Author Charlotte Boyett-Compo recently sent me this piece on the importance of being a good liar. Keep tongue firmly in cheek while reading, and I think you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
Warning: If you have never told a fib; fudged on your taxes; told a little white lie to get out of trouble; lied about your age; colored your hair; or forged your significant other's signature to a piece of paper (read check), go no further. You are perfect and have no business consorting with the rest of us mortals.
As a child, I sat at the knee of my Cherokee-Irish grandfather and listened with wide-eyed wonder to the glorious stories he could spin. Some made me laugh, but most made me shiver all the way to my curled-up toes and that, after all, had been his intent. He whispered engrossing tales of dark, eerie graveyards and ghostly forms floating above the moss-draped granite tombs; of talking cats who issued dire warnings to human as they carried old Negro women to their rest at the local haunted church; of dead men sitting bolt upright on their cooling boards during the wake. (I shudder even now thinking of that last image because he swore he actually saw that happen! But then again, he said he saw a twenty foot tall goat eating scuppernog in the cemetery late one evening.)
Now, there are those with logical minds who could explain away every tale my PaPa ever told me:
Those wispy specters in the graveyard was simply fog; ground mist hovering over the cold stone.
A dead man's prone body can contract to a sitting position once rigor mortis sets in.
Consumption of enough Southern Comfort can make an inebriated Irishman see leprechauns or hear cats speak.
Logical minds. Truth tellers. Party poopers with no imagination. People who always insist on getting everything down 'just the way it happened without embellishment or exaggeration'. We all know poor, misguided people like that: They are called non-fiction writers. While we, on the other hand, are blessed with the ability to create, to fashion, to write fiction!
(Fiction: A making up of imaginary happenings; something made up or imagined, as a story; literary narratives, collectively, which portray imaginary characters or events; something accepted as fact for the sake of convenience, although not necessarily true.)
Ah, ha! Not necessarily true! What wonderful words are those! And they open up a vast array of powerful images in a writer's mind. They can speed up time or reverse it. They can jump us millions of miles through space or fling us backwards to the days of yore. They can invoke visions of swashbuckling heroes and damsels in distress; of mighty sailing ships and flashing blades; of blazing six-shooters and dark-eyed rogues with deep, whiskey voices.
Not necessarily true = Carte Blanche! Anything goes! Pull out all the stops! Have at it! Let it rip! Just do it! You are only as inhibited as your imagination will allow! Let your thoughts run amok and see what comes popping out of your mind!
That is what I do, dear reader, and I'm told I do it fairly well.
Something accepted as fact for the sake of convenience. (Open mouth here and yawn widely. Roll the eyes. Pop a Prozac.)
Okay. So there really aren't any talking cats hovering around old Black churches in Miller County, Georgia. I knew that, but it wasn't the content of my granddaddy's tales which held me in such enthrallment. It wasn't even that soft, lyrical Southern drawl. It was the sincerity in that whispery voice which said: "Alright, little girl. Believe this if you dare." It was the promise of the tale, itself, that took me beyond the old porch swing where cicada's chirped outside the screen and wisteria scent drifted on the summer breeze. It was the tale, itself, that opened worlds of forbidden wonders to a five year old child. It was sitting there being entertained by PaPa as he fashioned stories of ghosts and goblins and talking felines. I could have sat there forever--and in my dreams I still do for that is the only way I can see or hear him now--and listened as he wove one extraordinary yarn after another. It was his vivid imagination, which he passed on to me, and his talespinning ability, which, thankfully, I inherited, that kept me in thrall. It was the lure of the tale.
And it was the lure of the tale that got my skinny little butt into all kinds of trouble when I was growing up.
For any of you who are familiar with the routine actor-comedian Jon Lovitz does, his is the perfect impersonation of what I was like as a child: A pathological liar. Yeah, that's it! That's the ticket! I told the most improbable stories--well actually they were out and out lies--to anyone and everyone who would stand still long enough for me to ensnare. I didn't just invent an imaginary playmate like other kids. I invented entire families of them and most were kin to me in some fashion or another. I even fabricated exciting new continents on which they lived and gave them super hero occupations that were far above the mundane. Habitual pessimist that I was even then, I often killed off those I didn't really like all that well or who had outlived their usefulness to me (I do the same thing now with characters in my books when they piss me off!).
I was so addicted to lying (or storytelling, depending on who you believe), that I couldn't go five minutes without inventing something. From sunup 'til sundown, I wove the most intricate, complex lies my classmates would ever hear and most of the time they would stop and wonder if at least part of it wasn't true because I was just that darn good at it. But which part was true and which wasn't? I would never tell. Not even when a particularly nasty little twerp ripped to shreds my favorite starched crinoline.
But the stories I made up were never meant to hurt other people. What I did, the stories I told, were meant to either: (A. make myself more important than, inside, I really felt or; (B. to entertain and be the center of attention. The latter is a chronic condition from which all fiction writers suffer and, alas, there is no cure.
When I finally grew out of telling blatant whoppers, I began to write. Or was it when I began to write down my tall tales, I no longer felt the need to lie? Whichever it was, the writing cured me of the impossibus lies disease I had contracted as a child from my PaPa. Perhaps if my parents hadn't thought me precocious and adorable (and I was both) and I'd been punished more for my lying, I would not have developed the love of the tale or grown into this being so intensely desirous of entertaining people with those tales. Perhaps not. We'll never know, will we? It is my opinion--and you can take it for whatever you might think it's worth--that every writer ever born was born to write. It's in the generic makeup. It's a talent handed out, in most all cases, to children who could not find the line that day from which logic was being dispensed; they were off somewhere dreaming and lost their way among the knight's keeps and Pike's Peaks.
And that brings us full circle back to those old party-poopers again. People without imaginations are always asking me where I come up with the stories I write; where the characters come from; how I can write dialogue that sounds just like real people talking. Every writer gets that same kind of silly query and not many of us have an adequate answer.
Sometimes you just feel like saying: "Well, blockhead, I really know these people and......" Or "Actually, numskull, I was abducted by aliens and......" (This is an especially good answer if you suffer from migraine headaches--as do many fiction writers, myself included--since it is a scientifically known fact that your ideas come to you while you are in communication with alien life forms. Ask any sci-fi writer if you don't believe me.)
At any rate, no matter how you explain your ability to weave a good tale, most people won't really understand it, anyway, because they aren't really listening to you in the first place. Inane questions like that (and 'what is your book about?'---tell them about 400 pages!) are really meant to patronize you and if you don't realize that, you are as big an idjut as the person asking. So when they do ask, just tell them: "I hear these voices inside my head and........"
That little voice inside your head. How sweet it is! Until it clamors to get out. But even when it does, it comes out in the form of imagination and can you think of a better gift to give the world instead of that boring old logic? Anyone can think logically, but only a fiction writer can dream logic, twist it, and make it entertaining! What better present to give anyone than star-swept shores and ebony-tressed heroines or tall, dark, handsome strangers with flashing eyes and brawny chests? (I'll have two of those and don't call me in the morning!)
So, what have we learned, boys and girls? We have learned that imagination is what makes the world livable. Imagination can turn a gawky little girl into a ballerina or a world-class actress or......a dark fantasy romance writer. The wild tales we have all told may come back to haunt us, but when we write, they will hold us in good stead with the characters we create because they'll believe anything you tell them.
How boring this existence would be without that glorious thing called imagination. How mundane and dreary without the tale spinners. How very sad without the weavers of yarns who create entire tapestries with words and images.
You can keep your old logic. You can keep your totally honest people. There is a place in this world for them, but they don't exist in mine. I am a storyteller and mine is the world where dreams come true.
And to those classmates of mine from Colquitt, Georgia...........
Well, someone once said it far better than I ever could:
"When I was young, they called me a liar;
Now that I am grown, they call me a writer."
The Keeper of the Wind