Writers are Liars

I like writing. I like the process of writing. It makes my brain feel good. But sometimes I get discouraged about writing, especially descriptions, because I feel like I never know what the hell I’m talking about.

I read really great pieces by authors who describe everything in so. much. detail. They talk about the subtle shades of juniper berries and the composition of concrete sidewalks. They describe the veins in beech tree leaves and the faint crows feet around their mothers’ eyes. They write raw and real things about blood and sex and history. But they’re making it all up.

I realized it the other day as I walked down 14th Avenue. I was thinking about how I would write about my walk, and the more I composed the story in my head, the more frustrated I became. What gives me the right to express my opinion about the beauty of the trees I pass by when I have absolutely no clue what kind of trees they are? I just know they are blooming yellow right now and they smell good and I’m probably going to take a picture on my phone and upload it to Facebook and ask people what kind of tree it is. And then, when I find out, do I pretend I knew it all along? Who wants to hear what I have to say about a tree when I obviously just Googled, “colorado tree with yellow blooms that smell good.” (FYI, that search results in nothing. I still have no idea what this tree is called.) If my life depended on being able to identify a beech tree or a juniper berry, I would be dead. Probably because I think juniper berries are poisonous, but there’s another one I’d have to Google.

But it doesn’t matter. I mean, unless you are Wendell Berry or Annie Dillard, you probably don’t actually know how to both identify and write eloquently about the plants you are encountering any more than I do. And that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that we don’t know things. It bothers me that we write like we do know things. I want the things I write to be honest, even if they aren’t beautiful.

This afternoon, I put my iPod on shuffle for the drive home. I heard two songs with lyrics I wish I wrote. The first was “Eagle on a Pole” by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. The opening lyrics go:

I saw an eagle on a pole

I think it was an eagle

Now that eagle has flown

And I’ll never know.

Could have been a rotten apple

Full of holes

Could have been an open wine bottle

Ready to go

Or it could have been an eagle on a pole

He wrote an entire song, title included, about something he thinks he saw. And the song is damn good. It’s not about the eagle , it’s about the meaning behind the eagle. In fact, if it had been firmly established that the eagle was on the pole, there would be no questions and therefore, no song. So thank goodness the Mystic Valley Band doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The other song was “Your Song” by Elton John. This song used to really irritate me. Elton says he wrote the music for it in ten minutes, and I’m guessing Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics in about ten seconds, because they include gems like these lines:

I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss

Well, a few of the verses, well, 

They’ve got me quite cross

 Yeah, me and you both, Bernie. Oh, and then there’s these lyrics:

So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do

You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean

Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen

“Your Song” used to piss me off because I thought that if you were going to make millions off of a song, you should at least know the eye color of the person whose song is “Your Song.” It all felt a little half-assed. But that was back when I still bought into the lie that writers know what they are talking about. The best writers, the brave ones like Bernie, are those who can admit that they don’t know what is true, yet still tell a beautiful story.

I lie all the time. Probably most of the things I write are false in varying degrees. I change names. I make up dialogue. I smooth out connections and relationships and backstories because the truth is too complicated. I invent scenes to give my stories the poignant endings I think they need. I completely write people out of the story. One of the only things I took away from a creative nonfiction class I took once was when the professor said, “It doesn’t have to be true, but it has to be honest.” I’m just trying to be honest.

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6 responses to “Writers are Liars

  1. To be perfectly honest….you are brilliant! These blog posts are way too few and far between….we want more…

  2. Love this post. There is a beauty in complete honesty.

    However, there are subtle differences in writing that make a big difference. Let’s say a writer passes a tree, and he had no idea what kind it is. There is a difference between him saying, “I passed an oak tree yesterday that was pretty,” and “I passed a pretty tree yesterday and was happy it was an oak tree.”

    In the first, he isn’t admitting to knowing the type of tree as he passed it. Research is prevalent in all nonfiction.

    As far as your professor’s advice, I would say that if every single thing in a piece is true, that’s nonfiction. But if any of it is made up, then the piece would be “inspired by true events.”

  3. Mary Dannaldson

    It doesn’t matter if you know what kind of tree you are writing about. If you see beauty in it, write what you see. Was it tall? Did the leaves form a canopy over the sidewalk? Were the branches white, dark, light? And then add the lovely yellow blossoms, you have described a lovely tree. Remember the poem, “I think that I shall never see
    a poem lovely as a tree?”

  4. your 2nd favorite Aunt, Linda

    I agree with all of these eloquent comments, but to be honest, I don’t even care what kind of tree it was. I just like to read your blog! So keep on embellishing for our pleasure, please!

  5. Writing is like weaving a dream, and dreams are lies—but only to the waking mind; a good writer can seduce readers, drawing them into a dream and keeping them there, unaware of the fiction.

  6. its lovely when you write three paragraphs about something and then the internet deletes it for you without saving it: well anyways heres my blurb, in music i want to believe its nonfiction because i want to relate to it. whether that be some sappy romance song or the party rock anthem of the summer. writing in those connecting lines to involve the listener or reader is essential. im okay with being lied to for the most part. we were all fine with ol’gregy boy painting pictures in our hearts and minds about helping school children in central asia. the truth will out if it matters enough: three cups of deceit by Jon Krakauer

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