Truth and Lies


“View Above Sky And Clouds” by papaija2008

Yesterday someone asked me if my characters were modeled on specific people. Sometimes they are, but I’ve found that to be a sticky wicket, as they say, because people don’t often understand the difference between fiction and life. Lately this has come up a lot. My wonderful agent, Ashley Grayson, often sends food-for-thought emails to the writers he represents, and one of them recently asked whether a convicted swindler or a deep reader would be more likely to write a best-selling novel. What followed was an argument that a swindler, whose livelihood relies on “making the lie believable,” might be better able to write the best-selling novel.

There’s something in that idea, but I prefer to think of the novel as a way of getting to the deeper truths in life, the nub of things, the universal in the particular. Everything is, in the end, metaphor. One person’s real life, or a character’s fictional experiences, can speak to the greater truths. Which is why, even when a character is based on a real person, it’s not the whole of him or her. As my son wisely said the other day, it’s a particular version of that person, with certain character traits overdrawn for emphasis. So this is the lie even in the dimension of fiction that’s supposed to be true. And yet again, I can’t feel that it’s any kind of lie at all.

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik put this beautifully in his recent article Go Giants (April 2014):

Fiction departs from the truth to intensify it. In Victorian England, there were doubtless no young gentlemen whose great expectations derived from secret funds sent by convicts who had been transported to Australia many years earlier, but Dickens’s vision of a society whose top ranks rested, without knowing it, on the labor of the very bottom one was poetically just right.

If telling the bigger truth means telling lies, then so be it. The newspaper, filled with facts, is anyway only someone’s version of the truth. In the news, we read about people, but we don’t become them. There are too many agendas involved, and we keep wearing our team jerseys while we gather the information. It’s only in fiction that we slough off our own skin for a little bit, dive into someone else’s world, and know it from the inside. The particulars are made up, but maybe that’s what gives us the permission we need to lay aside our team colors. And maybe that’s why I prefer fiction, where in the imagined, we discover the real. 

Reading . . .

I love reading. As in all-capital-letters LOVE reading. Most of the time, I can’t stop myself from doing it. I read the backs of cereal boxes and the bottoms of tissue boxes, the little lettering on signs in the street and on flyers that come to my house. There’s one crucial exception to this rule, and it’s an unfortunate one for my family, because the thing I seem to avoid reading at all costs is directions.

Take cooking. My mother has a saying: “When angels cook, devils will eat.” Well, I’m the angel, and sometimes my food is fit for devils. And I don’t mean this kind:


Devil's food cake -- a delicious concoction of sugar, flour and chocolate.

Devil’s food cake — a delicious concoction of sugar, flour and chocolate.









More like this kind:














It’s not that I don’t like to eat, and sometimes I cook for an army. But I don’t like to think about cooking, at least not when I’m doing it. Too often my head is in that cloudy angel zone, and I forget that I put something in the oven until that familiar ashy smell alerts me.

When I used to teach kids writing, one of my favorite exercises was the old trick of giving them a list of directions to follow, the first of which is “read all steps before beginning the first one” and the last of which is “ignore all the steps.” So often they’d rush to begin adding or subtracting or multiplying complicated strings of numbers because they ignored that crucial first direction. Little did they know how often I fail to read even the first on the list.

So back to cooking. Having just been through a large holiday (Passover) during which the entire family got together for numerous meals, I decided this week, easy food would suffice. So I picked up a container of frozen pierogis and threw them into the oven for a quick warm-up. And then I forgot them for a little bit, per my usual style. Well, I came back to find a tray of hard-shelled little yellow turtles waiting for me. Hmm. Never seen a pierogi look like that before. The front of the box had said “heat and serve.” And they’d been heated. Looking at them, I was less sure about the serving part.

Studying my pierogi turtles, I was finally curious enough to turn the package over. On the other side, the helpful direction writers had told me there were two ways to make these doughy little treats – fry them, or boil them.

Oh. That kind of heat.

And in nice big capital letters, they added the following helpful hints: IMPORTANT: HIGH HEAT TOUGHENS THE DOUGH. IMPORTANT: OVERCOOKING DECREASES QUALITY.


What pierogis are supposed to look like.  (image courtesy of "Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

What pierogis are supposed to look like.
(image courtesy of “Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

My pierogis.

My pierogis.











Well, you live and learn. My husband, an inveterate reader of directions, came around and found the box of pierogis. I told him I’d made a little mistake with them.

He knew what that meant.

“I put them in the oven,” I said.

And here’s where years of marriage began to work in my favor.

He had only one question: “With the plastic still on?”

Setting the bar low in these situations seems to be my specialty. Which is good, because as I wrote this blog post, I think I burned the fish.


P.S. Here’s a shout-out to my fellow blogger Xander, a 12-year-old reader/reviewer from Texas whose dream is to get to Book Expo America this year. If you’d like to help him, you can donate to his trip here. Good luck, Xander!

Louise Erdrich’s Work Schedule

Thank you, Keith McGowen, for finding this wonderful poem by Louise Erdrich. She’s inspiring, not least because of the amazing statement that she never has writer’s block. Even her advice to herself is so lyrical I want to hear it over again and again.


Another absolute favorite author of mine talks a little on her writing schedule, partly in poem form. Compare it to Irving’s manner…

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The Endless Now


The endless present. When I try to put my finger on what childhood feels like, those are the words that come to mind. I’m thinking of this now as my oldest daughter, the Book Princess, embarks on the next stage of her life, with her marriage. Some periods of life – childhood, even being the parent of young children – have that sense of being the endless now. And then you move out of that moment, and discover that you were wrong. No now is endless, all moments pass. It’s a strange thing to be at that place where you can see the story of life unfold, with all its ups and downs. But milestones like these tend to bring them on. And I guess that the rhythm of submerging in that endless present and then bobbing to the surface to look across at the waves and dips is why I like writing so much, and specifically writing for a young audience. That feeling of the now, that fragile fantasy of always and forever, brings with it so much pleasure and so much pain. It never ceases to fascinate me. So, to my Book Princess, who has so recently emerged from one endless present herself, congratulations. The story of life is a wonder, and I love watching yours unfold. 

Reading Aloud


Courtesy, “Book with flying text” by digitalart

Last week was World Read Aloud Day, which now that I’ve learned about it has got to rank up there as one of the best of all days. I was read to as a little girl, I read to my own kids, and now everyone in the family reads to each other. What is better than lying in bed and falling asleep to the sound of a good book? What’s better than turning a book into a live, moment-to-moment conversation when you’re reading to a small child and all her questions bubble to the surface sentence by sentence? Kate DiCamillo recently wrote about the pleasure of reading aloud, and the sense of community it gives. When you read a story out loud, reader and listener and writer all share the same room, the same journey, the same highs and lows. When I think about the pleasures I look forward to in life, reading to the next generation is at the top of the list. 

Let it Snow


It’s been a snowy winter in Washington, and a cold one. I often think of the relative connection/disconnection modern people have with nature, but winters like this remind me that no matter how disconnected we think we are, the natural world still makes itself heard – and loudly. And I’m not even talking about all the global-warming-induced weather disasters we’ve had lately, but just something as simple as a big snow.

As a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, I loved reading Isaac Asimov, and in particular days like this remind me of his Caves of Steel, in which Earth has turned into a warren of underground life, so overpopulated that it’s just a series of giant cities in which everything is connected through tubes and tunnels. The main character in that book is a detective who’s almost never been outside, and suffers as a result from severe agoraphobia.  Part of the fascination of that particular novel was the horror it inspired in me when I thought of living without access to sunlight and the outdoors. Another, much more recent book that takes this on for kids is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau. In that one, an entire society lives underground, unaware that there is such a thing as outside.

Part of the genius of those books is taking a facet of modern society (how much time we spend indoors) and expanding it until it becomes something overwhelming and strange. While Asimov made me imagine the future, he also turned my attention to the conventions of my own society, and helped me see those with a new eye. This doubling of vision that science fiction and fantasy gives readers is one of the reasons I’ve always loved those genres. Which takes me back to all this snow, and to being in the midst of yet another snow day.  One thing I love about days like this is that they let your mind wander. The kids are home from school, the schedule is wrecked, and no one’s going anywhere. On my particular street, which is always one of the last to see a plow, we have this sense of the world having shrunk to block size. Everyone else feels miles away and mostly inaccessible. If they call in, it’s like a missive from another world. Meanwhile, the neighbors are all outside, shoveling or just enjoying the pristine view of bushes turned into plush toys and trees that have become charcoal drawings. Last big storm, I fell backward into a huge cushion of snow while talking to my friend across the street. There I was, lying on my back in the center of the road, not at all worried about anything but how long my coat would hold out against the damp. A few snow days a year, I would say, can be good for the soul. 

Chickens and Eggs


Courtesy, “hand writing science formulas” by Mr. Lightman


Sometimes it feels like Plato and Aristotle are sitting at my kitchen table, arguing. This happens because where my kids used to bicker over who elbowed whom in the back seat of the car, as they’ve grown up they’ve moved on to better things – debates over ideas. And I have to say that while the squabbling in the back seat used to make me want to scream, the disputations that happen at the kitchen table leave me thinking. Here’s a case in point: the other day, the Rocket Scientist and the Conductor got into an epic talk about whether math is only a product of the human mind, or whether it has some reality in the world. The Rocket Scientist maintained that math is the name we give to things – amounts, shapes – and that, as such, it’s only a human construct. We see a tree outside, and connect the lines of its branches to other lines we see (the horizon, for instance), and come up with this idea we call a line. We see things and call them squares, even though no perfect square exists in the world. Meanwhile, the Conductor argued back that math grows out of physics – things exist in the world, we see them, and so we name them. Therefore, there’s a line because lines exist in the world, we see a bunch of them that look very similar to each other, and the idea of lines is born. To put the question another way, does the abstract grow out of the concrete, or do we pull the abstract out of nothing and lay it over the world we see? Sometimes These are chicken and egg questions that are just interesting to think about, and have been throughout time. As usual, I don’t think about them in terms of math and physics, but in terms of people and the telling of stories. The questions are equally tough in that realm, though, because while you often see that people tell themselves stories about what should be, or what the world is like, and then build their real, lived lives around that made-up story, you’ll just as often see stories that grow out of life. A person will experience kindness or cruelty, and go on to tell stories of the same. This gets writ large all over history – we tell ourselves that the king is born to be petted and obeyed and the serf is born to be abused and commanded, and then we make that story true by making sure everybody lives that way. And yet, that’s not the only way it happens. For a thousand reasons some other idea might develop – the concept that we human beings have inalienable rights, for example – and it works its way in, eventually changing the story for everyone. Chicken and egg, math and physics, reality and story. Is it a seesaw, or does one always lead to the other? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about. 

The Vocabulary for Transcendence

Courtesy, "red autumn forest" by Evgeni Dinev

Courtesy, “red autumn forest” by Evgeni Dinev

Last week’s Washington Post featured a book review on All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Here’s a piece of it that really caught my eye:

“I imagine that most parents will agree with her, too, that the joy is real, if sometimes fleeting and difficult to measure. “Meaning and joy have a way of slipping through the sieve of social science,” she writes. ‘The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive.’”

The vocabulary for aggravation is large. The vocabulary for transcendence is more elusive. Those are great lines. And they made me think about why writing about happiness is such a challenge. I won’t say writing about fun, because fun is neither very interesting nor any kind of goal. Fun is so uninteresting, in fact, that it’s a stereotype – imagine the neighbors inviting you over to view their vacation slides. Fun turns out not to be too great a story topic. I think most people know that instinctively, know that fun, while nice to have, isn’t exactly the richest of experiences. That’s why it seems like such a strange thing to talk about in the context of parenting. Asking if parenting is fun is like asking if schooling is. It deepens you, it challenges you, it enriches you, and it has moments – so many! – of transcendence. But though it might be plenty of fun some days, that’s not exactly part of the job description.

Which all leads back to the difficulty of writing about happiness, and yes, transcendence. The best writers I’ve seen do it by tucking those lovely moments into the midst of the conflict, moments that give the characters space to breathe, and to remember why they fight so hard to survive whatever challenge the story holds for them. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of the fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, whose lyrical writing gives me much to aspire to. And I notice that she does this a lot – slipping in moments of beauty that you just want to hold onto, even as you’re eager to turn the page. The images she comes up with really wow me – a golden wood where leaves flutter past in the wind, a room where a boy makes paper cranes out of his memories. Beauty tucked in amid the hardship, transcendence that rises out of the challenges. Another way in which stories are so much like life.

The Lily and the Beetle

File:Victoria amazonica edit 1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Sometimes inspiration is so feather-light you don’t really know you’ve had a solid idea unless you catch it. It could come as a passing thought, or a what if that drifts into mind, or the intriguing sound of someone’s voice. Years ago, when I was teaching business writing, I was often asked about the role of brainstorming in writing. Most people seem to understand that brainstorming is a big part of the writing process, and they know it is somehow related to inspiration, they just don’t exactly know how the two connect and how one can stimulate the other.At the time, the focus of my teaching wasn’t on either one. I was trying to show people how to gain a different skill they frequently lacked — that of organizing and giving force to ideas. Writing structure was my favorite topic.

But of course there’s always a place for brainstorming, because before you can organize your thoughts, you have to have one or two of them to work with. So here’s what I wrote, back then, about brainstorming:

Twyla Tharp, the master choreographer, has a wonderful book on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of my favorite pieces of advice in it is her discussion of how to start anything – a dance, a book, or a piece of music. To begin, she says, you don’t have to start at the actual opening of the piece. Dive into a part that interests you, begin brainstorming there, and you can build the piece outward, in any direction. This is a good piece of advice for writers in the earliest part of the process, long before it’s time to structure a piece of writing, when you’re only just developing the idea of what to write about. If a topic interests you, begin brainstorming about what caught your attention. The initial idea should blossom from there – leading outward to other topics, into greater detail or out, into the broader context of your topic. Either direction works.

Say you’re interested in the topic of symbiosis in the rainforest. You read about a certain water lily – bright white – that attracts a very specific beetle. At night, it closes, trapping the beetle and covering it in pollen. In the morning, it frees the beetle to go pollinate other lilies, and changes color – to pink – to avoid attracting the same beetle over again. Interesting topic, right? How could you work from there? You could either choose to move more deeply into the topic – examining the beetle, the flower, and their mutual life cycles, or you could move outward – out into other symbiotic relationships in the rainforest, to the algae that grows on the sloth’s fur to get closer to the sunlight, for example. You could even move out to the rainforest itself and other topics relevant to it. Either way, the initial idea – the lily and the beetle – doesn’t have to be the beginning of the piece you eventually write. If it turns out to be a wonderful hook into the piece – great. But in the end, it may become merely a footnote. It doesn’t matter. The lily and the beetle worked, because they were the spark that started the brainstorming engine.

Brainstorming is obviously a big part of writing fiction, and that’s so because brainstorming is what gives some weight to that initial moment of inspiration. People often ask me now how I start a story, or how I started a particular story. The answer is pretty much back to the lily and the beetle, because work on a piece begins with whatever inspired me, and that’s a different thing each time. Sometimes it’s the voice that gets me. I hear something in my head, and I like the sound of it, and then I find a story to put it in. Sometimes I’m fascinated with an idea, and wonder how it would look in the world if it were to play out. What would a world without gender look like, for example? Or a world where people didn’t age? Or could record their dreams and then step in and live inside them?

So I play that inspired moment out on paper in a brainstorming session or two. That means asking myself question after question about the initial idea, building it into something that has some weight, some reality. When it does, I begin working on the pieces I’ve missed – if I’ve got character, that means plot, and setting. If I’ve got plot, that means character. And those questions keep getting asked at every stage: what kind of place is this, and what kind of culture does it produce? What kind of person is this and where would he or she get the ideas/way of speaking/difficulties he or she has?

When I think of this messy, unpredictable process, all of it flowing out of that initial, fleeting moment of inspiration, I think the lily and beetle metaphor becomes that much more apt. The moment of inspiration comes out of nowhere. But if you open up your hand (or petals) to catch it, a process begins. Coat the thing with pollen, hold it there, until you know it will help you grow. And then, when you do let it go, you’re changed. No more white lily, now it’s pink, and looking for the next thing it will need, to continue to be fertile. Inspiration is nothing without brainstorming to build on that initial, easy-come idea. But of course first you have to catch the beetle.