Sunday, October 19, 2008

When a Fiction Is Not a Lie

One day I was in the computer store here in town buying some new gadget or other for my system and in walks this guy I know called Pedro. His name isn’t really Pedro but if I used his real name some of you might recognize him and this is a story about truth, not accuracy.

So anyway, in walks Pedro. Now, I don’t know Pedro from here. I know him from Buenos Aires, where we both worked in the newspaper business for many years. It seems that at a certain point in our careers, both of us made a similar decision, to leave that crazy 24-hour-a-day, up-to-the-minute life behind and seek a happier, healthier, more contemplative life in this mountain community. So we met up here once by accident, when I first came here fifteen years ago, and had coffee together and talked about old times, and talked about maybe doing something together some time, and that was that, as far as any relationship went. We’d bump into each other now and again on the main drag (Calle Mitre) or on the only other main street in town (Calle Moreno) and nod or shake hands and say hello, but nothing more.

But on this particular day, Pedro came into the computer store where I was sitting talking to the owner’s wife, Laura, and was all but effusive in greeting me. So much and so uncharacteristically so that I stood to shake hands with him but then sat back down, thinking he would walk on by to go down to the repair shop to see Laura’s husband, Toto, because that’s whom he had asked for when he came in. But instead, he hovered there beside my chair, trying to make conversation so that I finally felt a little uncomfortable to remain seated and stood up. It seemed odd to me, because, as I say, it wasn't like we had ever been close or anything. But it was like he had something on his mind.

Finally I realized what it was when he said, “So, are you writing, Dan?”

“Always trying, Pedrocito,” I said. “You?” There’s a saying that it’s hard to find journalist that isn't a frustrated novelist and we had talked, that time over coffee, about our aspirations in that direction.

“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “I’m a novel.”

“Great! What’s it about?”

He looked a little apologetic and said, “Well, I don’t exactly know yet.”

I didn’t say anything but gave him a look like...huh???

“See, the thing is,” he went on, “I’ve started it several times and never seem to get to the end.”

“What’s wrong,” I asked, “don’t you have it worked out in your head?”

“Not that, exactly,” he said slowly, pondering the question. “See, it’s more like I know what my theme is and I know the scenes I want in the story, but mostly what I want to do is write a good piece of juicy fiction that’s exciting and fun to read. I mean, the kind of novel I like to read.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, I’m not sure I can make it convincing?”

“Why’s that?”

“It's like, after so many years of journalism, I can't lie.”

My eyes opened up wide as saucers and I looked at him like asking what the heck he was talking about, but bit my tongue instead.

“I mean, don’t you feel like that?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t know if I can be convincing because, after all, you have to lie when you write fiction. I just can’t seem to do it convincingly.”

I couldn’t take it anymore and said, “Whoa, wait, stop right there. Didn’t you work for a major mass circulation daily?” He nodded. “And didn’t you often have to write from the angle the editor told you to write?” He flushed a little and nodded again. “And were you always in agreement with that angle.”

“Well, uh, yes, I was. That's why I worked for that paper.”

I rolled my eyes and looked at him dubiously.

“Well, maybe not always in complete agreement.”

“And writing what you weren’t in agreement with, wasn’t that lying?”

“Well...I mean not really lying...”

“Come on, Pedro...and how about when you worked in that politician’s press office?”

“Oh I agreed with that guy.”



“So you mostly didn’t lie when you wrote his press releases.”

Pedro got redder but I think it was because he was repressing a desire to bust me one in the nose.

“So what’s your point?” he asked.

“The point is,” I said, “that fiction isn’t lying.”

“But it's all made up.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it a lie. In fact, fiction, good fiction, speaks to the very heart of truth. Nowhere should you lie less than when you’re in complete control of the content of what you say and in fiction, good fiction, there are no intermediaries. It's just you and the blank page. And if what you put down there doesn’t convince you, of all people, then the only person you’re lying to is yourself. See what I mean?”

“I suppose, but still...”

“Look, Pedro,” I went on, “I got out of mainstream journalism because I was tire of lying. Or at least of not telling the whole truth, of telling stories that were conditioned to the medium, to the editor, to the publisher, to the readership. Fiction is the only place where I can tell a reasonable facsimile of 'the whole truth', if such a thing exists.”

“Interesting,” he said. “But hey, look at the time! I’ve got to run. Laura, okay if I nip down and see Toto? Good! Here, Dan, here’s my card. Let’s get together and talk more about this over coffee some day.” And with that he hustled past and down to the shop in the basement of the store, as if he were fleeing from a dread disease.

He hasn’t called. Neither have I. I doubt he really has any interest in talking any more about this. You either get it or you don't.

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