I once attended a talk by the late novelist and editor Helen Yglesias. She was reading from her novel Family Feeling (Doubleday, 1976), and began by saying that the book was about her family, but that it was a work of fiction. She described the difference between fiction and non-fiction this way. After her sister read the book, she told Helen: “You told the truth about us, and it’s all lies.”
I imagine lies have been with us for as long as we have been us. They’re a necessary part of how we navigate the world. If we answered every “how’s it going?” with what was really inside our minds, we might spend our days weeping and never get to work on time. In that way lies can be a lubricant between our psyches and the world. They make it so that the parts don’t wear out.
Of course, demagogues and advertisers are adept at lying. I call those lies “directed lies.” They are designed to get us to do something in particular—buy what we don’t need or storm the capitol. As harmful and powerful as these lies might be, I would like to believe they ultimately will lose their power because they don’t go deep enough.
The lies that I want to hear are the ones that go beyond what we expect. It’s at the heart of artmaking. Every metaphor is its own kind of lie because it says that one thing is another thing. Not every comparison will fit with our way of seeing the world, but when it succeeds in that moment we can be transformed. Each artistic venture starts with a leap into the unknown. It’s a leap that’s propelled by asking “what if” and seeing where that leads. Every “what if” contains a seed of imagination. Each of these questions leads to another question and each one gets us closer to the truth. Or perhaps I should say a truth instead of the truth, since there are so many paths and so many answers.
In Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Random House, 1970), the poet Kenneth Koch writes about his work with elementary-aged students at PS 61 in one of the first poetry in the schools programs in New York City. One of his strategies was to ask the kids to lie—certainly a classroom taboo. “I asked the children to put a lie in every line,” he writes, “or else just to make up a whole poem in which nothing was true. My students always took the word ‘lie’ in the right spirit: I was asking them to make things up for a poem, not recommending dishonesty in their daily lives.”
This resulted in some astonishing poetry. Reading the poems, you can see the underlying concept—a lie to get things started. But what’s remarkable is if you follow that one lie with another and another, you can go so deep you end up with truth on the other side. In one of the poems in the book, “The Dawn of Me,” fifth-grade poet Jeff Morley begins with the simple lie “I was born nowhere / and I live in a tree.”
The Dawn of Me
I was born nowhere
And I live in a tree
I never leave my tree
It is very crowded
I am stacked up right against a bird
But I won’t leave my tree
Everything is dark
I hear the bird sing
I wish I could sing
My eyes, they open
And all around my house
Slowly I get down in the water
The cool blue water
Oh and the space
I laugh swim and cry for joy
This is my home
From one small lie the poem makes a journey that no one could have anticipated. This is all we could ever want for any work of art. We sense a truth that came from this small poem that began with a lie, this poem that didn’t stand still, but kept moving.
I often read “The Dawn of Me” when I teach writing workshops. I talk about how one gesture, without expectation, can get us started. That it was written by an eleven-year-old boy not thinking about literature but reaching for another lie, one after another. These are lies that found truth along the way.
Image at top: Nora Tryon, If Truth Be Told . . ., mixed media collage, 14 x 11 in., 2021.
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