A couple of months ago, I read an excerpt from one of my stories at an open mic. It was well received, and afterwards a man asked me if my story was true. “True?” I had answered, “Well … it’s fiction.” “I know,” he said, “so did that really happen to you??”
One of my favorite quotes is by master horror writer Stephen King, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
It’s a quote I used often when I was teaching “Intro to Creative Writing” classes to generate discussion about process, inspiration, perspective, and honesty. Most of my students were new to writing, and their fiction tended toward thinly veiled autobiography. It’s common to do; I did it myself as a young writer. But there is a world of difference between a story that is true and a true story.
Stories do contain truth and honesty, but a fictional story is basically a web of lies. When I first was introduced to storytelling as a method of lying, I was a bit taken aback. It’s not nice to lie. Morally, most people, including myself, feel that lies are negative and bad. Nevertheless, every single thing in a story can be made up, and it can still retain elements of truth.
One way made-up stories retain truth is through the basic elements of plot. A plot is the skeleton of a story – the story stripped down and presented in a universal way. The plot is not the story. One can look at any hollywood movie and find the same plot over and over. Joseph Campbell talks about “the hero’s journey” which has its early roots in mythology, and speaks directly the idea of storytelling using classic plots that we as a society respond to.
Sometimes writers do use real things to flesh out and augment a story. It is impossible to fully detach from our experiences, whether they be personal, politcal, environmental, etc. Stephen King, the progenitor of the quote that fiction is the truth in the lie, writes most of his stories set in Maine, a real place, where he actually lives. His characters have been created in fiction, but more likely than not, they are also based on people he has come across.
In King’s stories, fantastic and weird things happen – things that are completely and totally fabricated. However, people still respond to his stories because of the universal plot lines he tends to use and his infusion of elements of truth and emotional honesty.
The emotions we feel when we are scared, the real things in a story that we attach to, things that we identify with on some level and bring us further into the story make it feel real, even as we know it is fiction. We feel the seed of truth within the lie.
This is always an interesting idea to think about and talk about, because it becomes a circular thing. In the act of writing, we create worlds that have never really existed; yet, now they do exist, if only in the mind, or in the mind of someone else. If we write from a place of naked emotional honesty, people respond. Even if “the story” is something they have never experienced in real life, even if it is something the writer has never experienced in real life, it becomes true – as experienced in the mind.
Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that these lines between truth and lies blur or sharpen depending on the genre of writing as well. In poetry, I almost always use the first person. Right there, “I” am telling the story. Who is I? The reader sees the narrator of the story often as the author of the story. However, the “I” telling the story is not necessarily the “I” who wakes up in the morning, drinks coffee, gets the children off to school, and so on.
But … poetry as a genre blurs those lines a lot. Sometimes it is -me- and sometimes it is a character or a voice that I have taken on in order to express an image or an emotion or a situation that really resonates with me, that speaks to me as a truth I recognize and want to share.
The other genres I mainly write in tend to keep a sharper boundary between truth and lies. My gothic fiction and erotica are similar in nature, with the exception that my erotic stories are explicitly sexual. In both types of stories, I tend to be more experimental and to see how far I can stretch these imaginary worlds. I play with how the story is told, twist traditional plot lines, and allow my mind to search dark and edgy places. And even so, there are elements of truth. In fact, most of the time I know a story is done when I believe it, when I am so involved in the story that at the ending, I have tears in my eyes.
A friend who also writes erotica recently said “you’d think that being an erotica writer would mean I have a lot of sex!” It is funny because some of her stories have left me breathless and thinking that she must have the most amazing sex. And maybe she does (when she does!) But I think it is more a testament to her excellence as a writer. Her lies are emotional, mental, and physical truths; she taps into things that we recognize, things that we desire or fear or both, and leaves us with that essential element of what happens when you create a world in fiction, the truth inside the lie.