Not an Odalisque

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Lies and Fictions

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Readers of this blog might wonder how much of what I write is true. I have a lovely unpublished comment from a time when I criticised someone with a serious following, accusing me of lying to pursue my own ends (unfortunately not elucidating what those ends are, which is a pity, as this blog could do with some ends). More of you will wonder whether I do the things I say I do. I admit that I tweak the truth. Sometimes I rearrange the order of events, more often I omit things to make a post clearer. I guess at the exact wording of conversations, and I play up emotions to give stories tension. Come to think of it, I do that last one in real life.

Telling the truth is easy when I’m the only one involved. With other people, it’s a bit trickier. Different people have different expectations of what is private and what’s public. Many years ago a girlfriend’s father had a spot of trouble after his secretary stole a lot of money and ran away. He had to give up his job, his daughter began to wonder whether he could afford her education. I told my best friend about it; my girlfriend was livid. Family troubles were private. She thought it so obvious that there was no need to tell me that.

In general, I take people’s preferences into account when writing or talking about them. I don’t publicise the address of the play partner who likes to keep his identities separate. I don’t tell you about the Lover’s deep emotional trauma from his stint in the Spanish Inquisition* I will tell you that he has a habit of putting dirty crockery on the draining board, which makes me want to hide forks in his shoes.** People’s preferences can’t, and shouldn’t be the only influence on how they are represented, though. Others seeing who you are and what you do is one of those unfortunate risks you take when leaving the house and interacting with people. If you spend the afternoon telling sexist jokes, I’m afraid it isn’t my job to check that you won’t be hurt when other people hear about it.

And that’s tough, because it applies to me, too. I wrote some time ago about a scene in which I failed to recite a poem I’d boasted about knowing weeks before, and was inordinately upset about my failure. Afterwards I asked the only witness not to tell anyone; I was ashamed, I didn’t want to be judged. He refused to keep my secret. Was I hurt? Yes. Did I dispute his right to tell the world about the incident which showed my arrogance and ignorance? No. I did go over the poem another couple of times, though.

In the blog, I tell the story, usually without the names, and given how few people I know in person read the blog, people’s privacy is relatively safe. It’s much more difficult in fiction, because fiction’s meant to be truthful and fictional.

I don’t know anything except from experience (and Hume). Perhaps you, as Descartes or Plato or Chomsky believe, know the nature of God or geometry or grammar from before birth, but I, sadly, don’t, especially the geometry, as my Maths teachers would testify. So if I’m going to tell you any sort of truth about the world in my writing, it’s going to have to be from experience. That isn’t to say that I’m going to write autobiographically. It’s called fiction for a reason, and I’m looking at you, Martin Amis, because I had to sit through your boring descriptions of Hollywood both in Money and during your long reminiscence at an author talk. Joining the dots between Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and his autobiography, though, was more interesting, because everything had been shifted around and given a new meaning. Books don’t need to spring, fully formed out of your imagination. Down that road lies drafts of poems stuffed in hedges and fabricated persons from Porlock.

In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t write straight from your imagination. The two most boring types of narrative are purely imaginative: dreams and sexual fantasies. Don’t believe me? Go and look at the fantasy-sharing groups on Fetlife. Tell me if you manage to stay awake through three posts. Imagination isn’t bad. If you want to write (or dream, or even fantasise) about interplanetary war between 200 foot cat people and miniaturised mechanical penguins, feel free, but it won’t be interesting until you’ve used your experience to tell us what it feels like to be the 180 foot cat person, or what the penguins are really fighting for. And that’s because it won’t, otherwise, be truthful. Excuse me while I go and pitch that idea.

When you’re writing, though, what are the people around you meant to think? I use your boyfriend’s interesting career choice for a character who turns out to be a lying, cheating bastard. Am I accusing your boyfriend of that? No, it’s not him! So why not take out all the things that are like anyone I’ve ever known? Because the things I know are the only truths I have to share. And because in the case of a few lying, cheating bastards, I don’t mind if they recognise themselves. They aren’t going to sue, I’ve also put in that they have small willies.***

Writing, for me, in blog posts or fiction, is about trying to say something more than, ‘this happened.’ At the very least, I’m aiming at, ‘this happened and it was amusing,’ or even better, ‘this happened and it was a bit like something in your life, seen in a different way.’ That’s why I stand by my right to tell lies about myself, and truths about everyone else.


*Some details have been changed to protect relationships.

**In the interests of balance, I should probably share the fact that I, apparently, have no patience, don’t listen to reason, get crumbs in the bed and then complain about them, and let the plug hole get blocked up with rice.

***This is a lie for the purposes of humour. I haven’t done this at all, but I have admitted that I sometimes tweak the truth in blog posts. If you can believe me.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 11, 2012 at 11:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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