When Telling Stories Makes You a Liar

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I’ve been collecting quotes for my upcoming story course. Some are fairly alarming.

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First, from Nabokov:

“Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

“Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.”

!Kung San storyteller, 1947

Next, Doctorow:

“But I have since thought about this incident [of being punished in school for inventing a fictional man to interview for an assignment]. It is, I suppose, a novelist’s story. It can stand as a kind of parable of the novelist’s birth. For the practice has taught me that nothing I write will turn out well unless during the course of the writing I feel the same thrill of transgression I felt as I put together from my young life and times the images I needed for the invention of Karl the Stage Doorman at Carnegie Hall. I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something–propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game–without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.”

Whether or not the case is overstated for either of them, it’s not a particularly comforting thought.

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What should we make of this conundrum for Christian writers? And even if you’re writing “true stories,” is that any better? How do you know it’s all true? Don’t you have to invent some bits, condense some things, make composites of several people or scenes?

Maybe we can sidestep this concern by claiming it’s perfectly acceptable and expected to change certain details for the benefit of listeners or the innocent (or because we just can’t remember). After all, that’s the storyteller’s job–to ensure we don’t hold too slavishly to truth that it undermines the story.

And I don’t disagree. But where is the line? And how different is that really from writing complete fiction? Neither is 100% true. And how biblical is this notion of changing and inventing facts? I don’t see anywhere this sticky problem is discussed in the Bible, even by our primary example as he told of prodigals and farmers and Samaritans.

Was he never asked if those stories really happened? Was no one outraged that he was fabricating these things out of thin air?

Maybe the truth lies in the motive (heh heh, I just love entendre).

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Not to contradict Doctorow, but telling a story with the intent to subvert an existing assumption or expectation is not deceit, categorically. Otherwise, Jesus was a liar. It is, however, artful. And just because we tend to associate “telling tales” with lying, and “artfulness” with trickery, that’s no proof that storytelling is inherently sinful.

Words are symbols. They derive their meaning as much from the way they’re used as by what they appear to say. Stories are built of words and they carry the same indeterminate symbolism that’s dependent upon a reader’s interpretation. What a listener brings to a story is as important, if not more, than what a storyteller actually says. There are two participants in every act of storytelling.

And I would suggest that what these two writers seem to bring to the idea of storytelling is a lack of clarity about the moral intent of the teller. Every story is built on the moral intent of its teller, that’s where the “moral of the story” comes from. There can be moral stories and immoral stories. Some lie and some tell the truth.

But truth and fact are not the same thing, are they? And maybe we need to think more broadly than that if we want to understand the value and virtue of storytelling.

More to come…

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2 thoughts on “When Telling Stories Makes You a Liar”

  1. wrangler steve and i both looked up at each other midway through this as i read out loud and sai, “oh no we’re going to have to think now, it’s mick doing his thinking thing.” so there is my comment!! i think you’ve posted something important and that is as far as i can think for now. :-)
    love
    suzee B

    1. That’s so funny! I don’t know what I said but those are two writers I’m not fit to critique and here I am calling them amoral. Probably need the next post to make heads or tails of this one! Thanks so much for hanging in there.

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