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A curious photo, a touching story, and how lies can be true

I have been in email contact with a number of people pretty much since email existed. Today, one of them sent me the following picture.

Touching, isn’t it? It is certainly a poignant message about the costs of war. The symbolism is clear. The bicycle represents youth and innocence, the condition of it represents how such things are lost and abandoned because of war, and the tree shows how the natural world continues without regard for such conflicts between men and prompts us to reflect on why we continue to engage in such things.

The trouble is that it’s not real. Not entirely. The photo is real. There really is a bike in that tree. The story is made up, though. According to Snopes, a boy by the name of Don Puz from Vashon-Maury Island in Washington State was playing in the woods with some friends in 1954. He was the only one who brought his bike. When his friends left on foot, he joined them, leaving the bike leaning against a tree. He didn’t much care for the old bike, which had been given to him. He owned at least one other, so he never returned for it. The tree grew around it and it became an internet curiosity half a century later.

That’s not as good of a story, though. The one the email came with is better. So which is truer?

Well, the one about Don and his abandoned bike is more factual, but the fictional story about the boy going off to war in 1914 is also true, in a way. The message is true. The theme is meaningful. War really is as disruptive and wasteful as this fictional account implies.

Whereas I resent being lied to, and I don’t appreciate it when people fabricate or misrepresent evidence to make their point, I do appreciate a good story. I am a fiction writer. Telling lies with true meaning is what I do. The story someone pasted onto that photo is a good piece of fiction. I like it. Had it been presented as fiction, it would have been better. If it carried the disclaimer that you often see in front of books (mine included) that all characters and events in them are fictitious, I would have no problems with it at all. However, I am also an advocate of not confusing fact with fiction, even when the fiction is true. Implying something is a fact when it is not is simply a lie no matter how true the message is. I try my best not to do this. Lying to make a valid point is still lying.

With that said, it is time for full disclosure. Nothing in the books I wrote actually happened. None of the people in them is real. Many of the things I say in my stories, however, are completely true. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which those are.

Are You a Storyteller?

    Are you a storyteller? Do you think you might be?

I think almost everyone (and I only say “almost” because I can’t be sure there are no exceptions) is a storyteller. Or at least they were once. Humans are born storytellers. It’s how we make sense of the world. Sometimes the stories are even true. Sometimes they’re not but we pretend they are. That can be dangerous but it’s the price we pay for imagination, which I don’t think we could have progressed so far without. Before anyone ever made a flint knife by banging rocks together, built a fire, or painted pictures on a cave wall, they had to imagine them. They had to envision something that had never happened and create a story of it in their mind before they could make it happen.

I’m pretty sure I have always been a storyteller. Some of my earliest memories are of concocting stories that I played out with toy soldiers and spaceships. There were times when my friends and I would be hanging out or walking down the road and we’d make up stories to tell one another. I wish now I had written some of these down but it seems I could never remember them later. Sometimes I couldn’t remember them right after I told them. It was as if the stories were telling themselves through me.

In high school, I recall an assignment they gave us to keep a journal. (For those of you younger than 30, a journal is sort of like a blog except it’s written down on paper.) Most of the kids in school wrote about their daily activities, their friends, their classes, and things like that. Mine was a serial that followed the adventures of Harvey the Dust Speck. It included a lot of social commentary. As juvenile as it was, I’m sure, my instructor said it was one of the best and certainly the most entertaining. I also wrote editorial articles (humorous of course) for the school newspaper. (A newspaper is like a hardcopy website.)

My leisure writing tapered off in college because I had a full class schedule, a fulltime job, and a family. I did still write occasionally. I even sent a short story to a magazine once and got a very nice rejection letter from them.

But as we grow older, as we become adults with jobs and responsibilities, it seems that many of us feel pressured to abandon fictional stories. I know I did. Stories are for kids. As adults we should be reading the “news.” If we do read books, they should be about something that may help us in our careers to make a little more money, or at least they should be about something real like history, or politics, or economics. Fiction is, at best, an idle pastime. It’s certainly not worth putting a lot of time and effort into.

I think this kind of attitude may be a result of the misplaced values of our society. We assign value to things in terms of money, almost exclusively. The value of a thing is what it costs or what it can be sold for. Unless you are a professional writer, and a fairly popular one at that, stories you create have little value in that equation. Why waste your time making up a story when the same time could be spent much more profitably working extra hours at your paying job, or preparing yourself for a higher paying one, or simply chilling after a hard day at work, work you try to force yourself to believe is somehow important but in rare moments of reflection you suspect you only do because it brings in money? It’s the money that matters, right? Or is money just one of those fictions we believe are real?

This is a question we all must answer for ourselves. I personally have come to believe that I made a mistake when I gave up writing fiction. Not because I could have been a bestselling author. I doubt I could even make a modest living from the stories I like to write. They don’t contain vampires or zombies and they have far too little graphic sex or violence to be terribly popular.

The reason it was a mistake is because the stories I wrote were for me. They weren’t for others and they certainly weren’t to make money. At the time, I thought that also meant they weren’t worth the time and the trouble.

I also had a dark spell when I read only nonfiction and I prided myself in how adult I had become. Giving up reading fiction was like giving up your childhood teddy bear. It was something you had to do to prove you were an adult. Fortunately I got over this flirtation with unimaginative adulthood after only a few years and allowed fiction to creep back into my life; first as a guilty pleasure but eventually I came to terms with my repressed needs, stepped out of the closet, and openly admitted my attraction to fiction.

About ten years ago, I started writing fiction again as a hobby. I figured I had the time for it. The truth is I could always have made the time for it. I just didn’t because it didn’t seem like the kind of hobby an adult professional should have. I excused it by telling myself I was working on a novel and that I might someday try to publish it.

As I got back into it, I slowly realized what it was I had given up. Creating fiction is a rewarding, mind stretching, and enjoyable experience. Creating fictional worlds and fictional characters forces you to think about the real world and real people and leads to a deeper understanding of them. Does this have value? You decide.

This isn’t an advice column but I’m going to offer a few personal opinions. This is my blog, I can do what I want.

  • If you are wondering if you are a storyteller, you are.
  • Fiction has value even if it never helps you earn any money.
  • Fiction is not just for kids.
  • You don’t need an excuse to write.
  • Write for yourself. You can edit what you wrote for others if you wish to share but do that later and as an afterthought.
  • Don’t give up your teddy bear. You’ll never have a better friend. If you’re wondering if you should write, find Teddy, if you are fortunate enough to still have him, and ask him. He was probably one of the first fictional characters you ever created and he may have some valuable insights.
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