My entire second grade year was an exercise in extemporaneous fiction. We had “show and tell” every day after lunch. Since I rarely had anything amazing to show, I took the “tell” part literally. Each day, I told an installment of fiction loosely based on events and characters in my family, fleshed out by my very active imagination.
For weeks, I enthralled my fellow students with stories that grew larger and more creative with every installment. Finally, my teacher intervened. My mother was informed of my inventions and that was the end of that. My creative voice was silenced until fifth grade when Mrs. Cochran encouraged us to think big and write accordingly.
The adult response to verbal invention changed my life — even today, I can’t tell lies. I get flustered, my face turns red and I stammer with even the whitest and smallest of lies.
“How does this look?” asks my best friend, modeling a putrid yellow sack dress. She loves it, I can tell, and is eagerly waiting for me to confirm her choice. It’s hideous and should be burned, but do I say this as the good friend that I am? I do not. She does not want me to tell her the truth and I can’t lie, so I hedge around.
“It’s a … uh … a kind of a country dress … be nice with a tan.” What I mean is that an olive-skinned person with a great summer tan might be able to pull it off, but my rail thin, milk-skinned, platinum blond friend should put it back on the hanger and hope that an olive skinned woman with a great tan and a few extra curves will purchase it right away and remove it from temptation.
My stammering indicates that I am lying but my friend hears what she wants to hear and buys the dress from Little House in Uglyville. I feel badly because I can’t lie, except on paper where it’s called fiction and people pay you for it if it’s really good lying. They’ll pay you even if it’s really bad fiction and your name is Dennis Rodman.
I remember thinking at age 9 or 10, that something was wrong because I hadn’t been spanked in a long time. With no recent saintliness under my belt, I figured the not-spanking had to be a fluke. As the oldest child, and the guinea pig of parents who played by Dr. Spock’s rules, each time my wild side ventured out, it was promptly nipped and tucked back into acceptable child behavior. I could have been more wicked and had a lot more fun with my active imagination but I was nipped. Now, I have to practice lying when I write fiction, starting with timid embellishments that I can baby-step into the drama needed to carry a story.
On my dad’s side, I come from a family of major whopper tellers whose stories are never the same from telling to retelling — increasing in drama and imaginary factoids and decreasing in adherence to what actually happened. It’s not a good idea on that side of the family to ask about genealogy. Depending on who or when you ask, we are related to “White Russians,” Prussian aristocracy and a federal spy who built Boulder Dam and the L.A. aqueduct.
My brothers follow my father’s example of filling their stories with specific names and dates as in “Ron Medford, Tom Collins and I went to San Francisco on June 7, 1987 and…” This persuades the uninitiated that what follows is the gospel truth. I remember the event, but not always specific dates and names. My more vague recollections sound like I made them up while my brothers’ stories, delivered in confident voices that allow no interruptions, sound like reality TV. You have to have been there to know how events have been tweaked, skewed and embellished beyond all recognition.
I have a long way to go in the lying with credulity department, although it’s not a skill I want to improve. I am resigned to not being able to tell lies confidently, which is probably for the best, although it would be a useful ability in the event of a speeding ticket or when asked if I like Aunt Marjory’s Brussels sprout aspic. I’m limited to the written word where my face won’t turn red; my eyes won’t stare, trying not to be shifty, and my voice won’t fade away into an embarrassed mumble.
I could wish that more of us were poor liars, especially politicians, so listeners would know where they stand, but thank goodness for fiction-filled libraries.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.