All the Stories of Our Lies… By ‘nother Mike (or someone with a name like that)

*Sorry for delaying the beginning of the novel series, but I came down with the stomach flu and right now I just want to go to bed, and maybe be functional tomorrow.  Right now it hurts to think from one word to the next.  Thank you to ‘Nother Mike for taking up the slack.*

All the Stories of Our Lies…
By ‘nother Mike (or someone with a name like that)

Not too long ago, Sarah made a comment about hoping that her father would forgive her for telling stories, even though he hated lies.

Wait a minute. What’s a lie?

The Oxford dictionary (American English) says:

An intentionally false statement:

Used with reference to a situation involving deception or founded on a mistaken impression:

Synonyms
untruthfulness, fabrication, fibbing, perjury, white lies; falseness, falsity, dishonesty, mendacity, telling stories, invention, misrepresentation, deceit, duplicity

Or the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has:

Noun
A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.

Verb
To present false information with the intention of deceiving.
To convey a false image or impression: Appearances often lie.

Hum… so is telling stories telling a lie? Intentional falsehood — maybe, since we are making it up. But there’s that thread of deception, of making someone believe… well, we do try to encourage the reader in “willing suspension of disbelief.” But darn it, we aren’t really misleading them?

Why do we equate telling stories, writing fiction, with lying. Oh, I’ll admit, I have a copy of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I will also admit that we don’t particularly want to try to claim that stories are true, in the sense that you can go out and point to the actual people, places, and events.

Does this mean they are lies? Are they deliberate deceptions?

Let’s talk about just what a lie is. There is reality, that shared world around us, and that we point to when we want to say something is true. When you eat the cake, and I ask, “Did you eat the cake?” You can say, “No.” That, of course, is a lie. Or maybe you prevaricate and say that “The penguin ate the cake.” This too is a lie, although perhaps a bit less direct. The trick is that all of these lies are false reflections of reality, bent, broken, twisted, the way that reality isn’t, and won’t be.

But let’s take a look at geometry. Actually, any math would do, but geometry makes it relatively easy. Most of us would happily agree that geometry is useful. It’s a nice system for thinking about certain things, you can use it to calculate various bits and pieces, and rather importantly, it’s a lie.

What did I say? Geometry is a lie? Here, take a simple example. What is a line? It’s a straight one-dimensional object (in two-dimensional space, but ignore that for now). Geometry points out that two points define such an object, which often is useful. But that one-dimensional nature means a line has length, but no width or depth.

There is no such thing in the real world.

All lines in our shared reality have thickness and depth. There is no such thing as an actual line. In fact, mathematicians are careful to say that geometry is a self consistent system, but not real. There is actually a group of such geometries, with the one that we usually talk about being called Euclidean geometry, while the others are called the non-Euclidean geometries. These include systems built from making assumptions such as two parallel lines meet in a point, and they turn out to be useful in certain circumstances.

In fact, the non-Euclidean geometries were investigated largely because people were fretting about how to prove that Euclidean geometry was real. Someone had the brilliant notion of taking one of the seven postulates that had been shown to produce Euclidean geometry — such as the idea that two parallel lines never meet — and changing it! They were sure that by starting with a false postulate, somewhere along the line, they would find a clear contradiction, which would then show that the original postulate must be wrong. Kind of a proof by exception — let’s take some postulates, run the deductions, and see where they contradict each other. This will show that there is a problem with the postulates, which would suggest that the original postulates must be true!

Except… when they ran through the inferences and deductions from different postulates, they constructed odd but self-consistent systems! Start with parallel lines meet in a point — and there is a system where that works. Start with parallel lines meet in two points — whoops, that works too. In fact, there was a whole family of non-Euclidean geometries that could be built, just by playing with the basic postulates. And each and every one of them is internally consistent!

Kind of sounds like secondary world fantasy, doesn’t it? It ain’t the world we all know and love, but… it is consistent, and it sure sounds like fun!

In any case, geometry, like fiction, is an elaborate lie, made up of lots of little lies. False reflections of reality, and yet, that system is very, very useful.

For that matter, all the rules of science are similar abstractions. Newtonian mechanics works just fine most of the time, but it is a lie. It is not an accurate reflection of reality.

Wait a minute. Geometry, math, science… it’s all lies? But we like them, we do!

So what about fiction?

In Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Ch. 5 on the strategy of fiction, ends up with quite a bit of discussion of the climax and resolution. As he puts it, the key here is the testing of the character, and the way that acting on principle, doing what is right in the face of disaster, succeeds!

“If the character does right, you give him victory. You let him defeat his private danger. … You reward your character for his display of virtue.”

Or perhaps you prefer “to prove satisfying to a given reader, a story must necessarily reaffirm that reader’s own philosophy of life.”

Or how about “Because man acts on principle, sacrifices self-interest to the larger cause of his own standards, ordinarily he benefits.”

And finally, “The implicit truth of all this is the bedrock upon which our society is erected. Fiction merely epitomizes it . . . Telescopes and condenses the broad picture into capsule form so that it may more easily be digested by the average reader.”

Wait a minute. This is Truth, not lies. Not falsehood. Not deception. Yes, we are unlikely to find a one-for-one relationship between the characters and actions of fiction and the swarm of humanity and the bustle of daily life. But we can’t find a line out here in the world, either! That doesn’t mean geometry is false, it means it is an abstraction, a purified view of the world. Similarly, fiction is not lies, not false — it is life as we wish it was, abstracted and purified. It is the fire casting shadows on the walls of the cave where we live. You can warm yourself at that fire, even as you shiver watching the shadows dance.

We often talk about fiction as thought experiments. In many ways, fiction is an attempt to build models of reality. In fact, in most cases, fiction is exactly what we try to do with process improvement. Build a model of reality, but then add tweaks and adjustments, changes, to develop improvements.

And that’s what I think fiction really is. Improved reflections of reality. Not lies at all, although I suppose they are related. Lies take our shared reality and break it, while fiction takes that same shared reality and builds on it, pointing us towards a better reality. A reflection of reality that is the way we wish it was, the way we want it to be, the way it could be.

What if? That’s one of the building blocks often used when writing fiction. It’s also a clue to what fiction really is. You see, lies are excuses for what has been, while fiction is an image of what it might be.

Fiction is not truth, with a little t. But it may be Truth, with a capital T. Just like mathematics, science, and other abstractions that give us useful ways to think about and manipulate our shared world of reality, fiction gives us role models and meanings, stories in the deepest sense, that let us think about and manipulate not so much our shared world of reality, but those deeply buried secret selves that we have so much trouble with in our shared world.

If fiction is a lie, a deception, then we need more such lies in our lives! Give me a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of daily life go down, please?

Or, just perhaps, fiction is life as we wish it was, as we dream about it, as we try to make it. As the world, in shining imagination, could be.

Which is better than reality, not worse.

All the stories of our lives.

Right?

21 comments

  1. Lovely explanation. I particularly like the description of Euclidean and nonEuclidean geometries. Takes me back to my college days. Those of us who write fiction have always known we are not lying. It’s nice to get validation.

  2. I’m just repeating what my characters tell me. *glances sideways* I’m not certain all of them have tight grips on veracity, though.

  3. Whenever I hear someone talking about non-Euclidean geometry, I expect them to start babbling “Ia! Cthulhu ftaghn!” next. 😉

      1. My wife insists that there are mice who eat things in the middle of the night at our house. I just agree, and suggest that she wipe the frosting off her lip.

          1. Really? I won’t know. Cookies don’t last that long in my apartment for me to find out. [Big Evil Grin]

          2. Yes. Sometimes as I bring the last batch out of the oven, I turn to the cooling rack and the previous two batches have vanished. When I tell the guys, they chuckle!

  4. Excellent post. I’d heard the terms Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry before…never really knew the difference. (I mostly avoided math until I had to catch up for grad school, and then it was calculus.)

    The “what-ifs” in my stories have some of the “way I wish the world would be,” but it also has a lot of “how I’m afraid we’ll wind up.”

    As to the half-life of cookies…sometimes my cookies don’t even make it into the oven, especially if my middle sister is around. Just made a double batch of oatmeal/flax/cherry cookies, which don’t taste nearly as healthy as they sound…which is why I make them. When it comes to cookies, taste is all.

    Although I don’t know if we should be talking cookies, cake and frosting in front of someone with significant intestinal difficulties. Hope you’re feeling better soon, Sarah!

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