Therein Lies a Tale


Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent film Rashomon has affected me deeply. It tells the story of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife, from four different perspectives. Each story is “correct” in the eyes of the person who saw the events, and each telling of the story tells points the finger at a different motive. But this isn’t the point of this post. The post has to do with truth, and moreover, about lies, and the storyteller. Get it? The title of the post is a pun! If that disturbed you, stop reading now, and run away. Now’s your last chance.

I recently heard a very important story told from two people in my life, both from vastly different perspectives.  Are either of them true? Yes. Both of them. Perception is clouded by things we see, and how we understand them. If I sent an email to Judi that said “Come pick me up from right now!” And I was run over by the Liver & Onions Delivery Guy before I got across the street, she might assume any number of things about the intent of my email: that I was sick, or that I was angry with her, or that I was thrilled about something, or… She’ll never know. She could assume: “Poor Brian: he was warning me before took his life by jumping in front of the Liver-Mobile…” None of this was true. I just wanted to leave work, and had just about enough annoyance for one day. Her emotions, the day’s events, even her past, colors her perception of the email and makes her see the “truth” differently.

And sometimes you get two stories. You’ve all seen an afternoon game show like this: the Love Connection depict an awful date from “his” and “hers” point of view. He thought things were just peachy. He was ready to propose marriage after the first handshake. She thought he needed to lay off the Eau de Cabbage, and that his guitar solo with the all-nosehair band wasn’t that attractive. Same date, different “truth.” Truth is foggy, like bad cologne.

What if the person is sometimes a liar? Does this color our perceptions? “Get out of the way!” the liar shouts. “Stampeding herd of carnivorous llamas right behind us!” You believe her? of course not, until the proof of thundering hooves. Even a liar is colored by perceptions. Deceit isn’t always intentional. And llama-derived manpaste is vastly overrated.

So, what is truth? Is there absolute truth? Plato says yes: in the forms. We are just shadows, and there is perfection, an ideal of everything toward which we must strive: perfect justice, truth, beauty. This brings up the idea of the essentialness of God (or not). If something is absolutely true, who (or what) is the keeper of that ideal? Why does bad happen to good people, if there is a Keeper of Perfection? Maybe perfection is just a repository of best practices. Or maybe I’m just talking out my butt again.

My real concern is how this all applies to writing. It’s why I enjoy fiction: fiction allows me to present reality in the way I have created it. It gives me control over an environment. I cannot lie, or deceive the reader, or I lose the reader’s bond of trust that was created as a reader cracks open the first page of my yet-to-be written novel. It may not even be possible to deceive a reader when writing fiction. Deception in writing is bad, faulty, or incomplete thought.  I could have the reader thinking the main character is the hero for the entire novel, but he turns out to be the villain in the last 10 pages. Is that deception? I don’t think so. That’s a story. It’s up to the writer to offer the details, the intrigue, the fullness of the story, to keep the bond between reader and writer moving forward through the written work.

The Trappist monks have a tradition of eating their meals in silence, while a brother reads to the assembled monastery.  Together, they select a work to read. 1/3 of the way through the book, the monks vote on whether to continue reading. The same vote is taken at the 2/3. At either point, the monks can choose to discard the book for something different: that is, give up on the contract between the reader (or, in the Monks’ case, listener) and the writer.

I think I’ve used up the last of the reader’s goodwill Today. I’m going to sign off for now, and try to lie less often, by hopefully recognizing the truth when it is there, and recording it faithfully. Off you go now. Have a biscuit or something..

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