My children and I are studying Picasso at the moment, and I learned that he famously said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” (Everyone else in the world may well have known this already, but I’d never heard that quotation before). He wasn’t talking about novels, specifically, but nonetheless, it struck me as one of the most apt descriptions of a well-crafted novel that I’ve ever heard; the essence of what I’m trying to accomplish with every book I write. But actually, those aren’t the kind of writerly lies I wanted to talk about today, at least not directly. I’m talking about the writerly lies, white and otherwise, that we tell ourselves while we’re in the throes of the writing process.
Here’s mine, my biggest one, the lie I tell myself every single time I start a new book: Maybe this time I’ll get it right on the first try. I never do, of course. For me– and for most if not all of the other authors I know– getting the first draft of a novel perfectly sparkling and correct is impossible. Every chapter– every paragraph and sentence, even– that I write teaches me something new about my characters and the journey they’re on. Which means that no matter how much I plan and outline in advance (and I do quite a bit, and not that it’s not helpful) I don’t fully understand my characters or their journey until I’ve written them through it– sometimes all the way through it, right up to the very end.
And that means that the opening chapters of my book get written and re-written and written again as I understand more fully what the book is all about. It’s inevitable. Even the books that have come to me the most easily and the most quickly, I’ve re-written the opening chapters at least . . . I don’t know . . . I’d say a minimum of 3 times.
But I don’t let myself think about that when I’m actually writing those opening pages of my very first draft. If I did, if I let myself dwell on the fact that in all likelihood 90% of what I was writing was doomed to end up on the cutting room floor . . . I won’t say I’d never start another book again, but it would definitely be harder to sit down and take that giant first leap of putting the first words on the page. So instead I let myself believe the little white writerly lie, Maybe this time will be easier– maybe this time I’ll get it right on the first try.
[pullquote]Here’s mine, my biggest one, the lie I tell myself every single time I start a new book: Maybe this time I’ll get it right on the first try. [/pullquote]
I’m okay with that. I think those kind of lies– the ones that make it just a little bit easier to sit down at the computer each day– are perfectly acceptable, the writerly equivalent of telling your mother-in-law that her homemade tomato sauce is delicious. (No reflection on my own lovely mother-in-law, whose tomato sauce really is delicious!) On the other hand, I think we do always have to be careful that we don’t cross the line into another kind of writerly lie entirely– the kind that aren’t so white at all.
It’s one thing to tell myself that I may get it right on the first try, and a very different thing to write that first draft and actually try to persuade myself that I have. The first draft doesn’t need to be revised, it’s perfect as it is. This scene may not advance the plot, but it still doesn’t need to be cut. Those kinds of lies can hold our stories back from reaching their full potential– because telling them to ourselves stops us from seeing our stories with clear eyes.
White lies that make it just a little bit easier to keep advancing along the often long and uphill journey of writing a novel– in my experience, at least, those are fine, helpful even. Just as long as we ultimately do our utmost to see our stories with the most unbiased, objective eyes we can– whether that means re-reading our books as dispassionately as possible, or listening to the constructive criticism of others with an open mind. How else can we achieve every good novel’s aim: to present to the reader a lie, a fictional world, that still manages to convey an essence of human truth?
What about you? Do you tell yourself writerly lies, white or otherwise, while you write?