The truth that tells a lie

Pictured: five pounds of actual candy.
I have never, to my knowledge, met a disciple of Shub-Niggurath.

“But Valerie,” you say, “I never thought you did. Shub-Niggurath is an imaginary cosmic horror invented by a racist white dude. Why would you think you need to clarify that?”

Well, dear reader, we don’t know for sure that the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young isn’t real; have some respect, just in case. But more to the point, writers often run into a little problem called verisimilitude: the appearance of something being true or real.

Most of the time, it’s a feature and not a bug. You want your writing to feel believable, realistic, as close to true as fiction can get. The lie that tells the truth, as the saying goes. However, sometimes that means you’ll end up convincing people the things you’re writing about really happened to you.

And sometimes they have. Sort of. Call it the truth that tells a lie.

To get that tasty verisimilitude, writers pull details from their own lives and tweak them. The sweet old ladies wandering my neighborhood with their umbrellas and pamphlets become acolytes proselytizing for an ancient evil. I take the processed fake sugar center of my story and cover it in an organic handmade coating of stuff that actually exists and is familiar to me, so I can write about it from a place of personal experience. The real bits make the made-up ones easier to swallow.

Unfortunately, this means my friends and family will occasionally worry that I’m talking about them to the whole universe. Sharing Dark Family Secrets or Cherished Childhood Memories for my own nefarious reasons. They’ll recognize something I’ve written about and think, “That’s not how I remember it, what a jerk!” Or they’ll see a story or poem about something awful, brutal, sad, and worry that it happened to me. Worry that the emotions I’m conveying through the characters are ones I was experiencing at the moment I was writing them down.

Sometimes they are. Sort of. But remember that writers are liars, and unlike most lies people feed you, ours have been reworked repeatedly before you see them.

It can be hard to tell which parts of an artwork are the bespoke artisanal coating and which ones are high fructose syrup center. It’s one thing to reasonably assume JK Rowling has never cast spells with wands, or that Narnia isn’t a place you can visit through your closet, or that there are no black monoliths waiting for us on the moon or around Jupiter. (They’re on Pluto, obviously.) It’s another thing to wonder whether that character’s dad is my dad, whether their annoying boss is my boss, whether their depression and anxiety are mine, and so on.

With speculative fiction, the true-ish details usually help ground the fantastic elements, to suspend the reader’s disbelief so they don’t spit out the candy I’m peddling. My time working in a movie theater helped me paint a convincing picture of a man trapped in an endless soul-sucking loop of cleaning up popcorn and spilled soda. Watching my dad lie on a hospital bed in a coma for weeks became one of my characters doing the same in the medical bay of a spaceship. The pain of childbirth became a kidney punch or a wound from a sword. Locations, events, people, feelings… Anything can make it into a story or poem, with varying degrees of similarity to the subjective truth that passes for life experience.

They’re all ingredients. A pinch of how my mom talks, a dash of that cafe I had lunch in, a spoonful of my wry laughter when my son tells a truly awful knock-knock joke. Put them together and you get something that may be completely different from the source, but still tastes like delicious candy.

Maybe don’t take any candy from those ladies wandering around outside with the pamphlets and umbrellas, though. Just to be safe.

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