Dec
5
2013

Lying: a Folk Art

A Guest Post by: Justin S. Smith

I didn’t recognize it at the time but looking back I do. The first time I heard someone tell a joke where, instead of just listening and accepting the joke as told, I started editing in my head. I was processing how to make it better. Deciding which details were unnecessarily added and what portions should be drawn out and embellished to make the punch line ever so much sweeter. This is when I became a storyteller.

I was raised with storytellers; my mom’s uncles could spin yarns so brilliantly that fact and fiction blended. They would edit their lives as I edited that joke. I like to call it historical fiction. I write a touch of poetry, allegorical prose, and mostly essays. Where I have the most fun is in crafting historical fiction. It’s the birthplace of good fiction if you can sell it.

Mark Twain said “write what you know.” Obviously the great author didn’t mean to stick with the facts, but that you must have a base of facts to support your lie. I think the art of fiction is in stretching belief as far as you can while keeping this core of truth for the audience to hold onto.  You’ll never get them to believe in dragons; you need them to believe your characters are acting as one might when faced with a dragon.

E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) said, “don’t write about man; write about a man.” Regardless of your environment, the world, the magic, your characters must be real. Kids relate to Wilbur because they understand fear and loneliness and although White’s character is a pig, he is a man. Focus on real personalities responding in real ways then put those personalities in whatever world and bodies you want and your audience can identify. There must be that core of truth though, that realness in the spirit or else we can never relate to a pig or love a spider.

Play with jokes; its good practice for storytelling. If you struggle with fiction, start with the truth. Never start with a flat out lie, nobody will believe it. Now embellish the truth; make it more fun and interesting. Stretch it. Now bend it. Change the environment. Remember that in your world the sky can be fuchsia, but the people under that sky need to be believable.  But maybe the sky should just be blue.

One of my great uncles was late to the family viewing for my grandma. He claimed that he had accidentally walked into the wrong parlor at the funeral home, where he was mistaken for a preacher, and had spent time comforting the family before finding his way over to the right place. It was a brilliant moment of levity at a time that it was greatly needed. To this day I have no idea how much of it is true. To me, this is a high form of folk art, this editing of real world experiences to make the story better. Some people calling it lying; I call it beautiful.

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Justin S. Smith is a Michigan Yankee living in the Lone Star State. He actively pursues teaching the art of lying to his seven children with the help of his lovely wife, a native Texan. He can be found engaging in nonsense, pontification and lying at Thoughts From the Fringe.

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