The Fine Art of Lying

Liar.  It’s a dictionary definition of storyteller. And it’s one of the unkindest things we can call another person. 

I think it was the great French novelist Francoise Sagan who wrote that when someone lies to us, we should consider it a gift, because that person spent the time and effort to create something rather than just fall back on the boring, ready-made truth. Somehow I have never known anyone else who sees it that way. 

Competitions in which storytellers perform tall tales are commonly known as Liar’s Contests. The name always makes me wonder if storytellers make particularly good liars. Certainly we have the imagination for it. We can see all kind of different causes for the same effect. Lipstick on collar? Oh, that was the woman flung against me in the elevator. Short on cash? I saw a homeless mother and child at the Interstate exit, and I couldn’t drive by. And yet. To my mind, there is a certain ethos among storytellers, a certain commitment to doing the right thing. Hey, I’m not suggesting we never falter on our paths. But I believe the reason most of us got into such a low-status, low-paying profession is that we know that storytelling can do much good in the world. Just as there are dishonest teachers and social workers, there are certainly going to be untrustworthy storytellers. I just think the percentage might be a little less.  

The fact that lying and storytelling are considered synonyms speaks volumes about society’s perception of storytellers. In ancient days, the storyteller was the sacred functionary of his/her community, prized for knowledge of the history, genealogy and folklore of a culture. But since the primacy of the written, and then printed word, and the accompanying rise of science and decline of faith, all that has changed. Science became synonymous with truth, and stories with untruth. 

A more accurate understanding of this division is that science is associated with verifiable, documentable truth. The dog either did or did not eat my homework. The politician either did or did not vote a bill into law. But storytelling deals more in the realm of universal truth. So maybe Jason never met Medusa; in fact, Medusa never existed. But what does it mean to experience terror? To face a challenge and emerge victorious through one’s own bravery, wits and strength? To fall in love? These are the kinds of truths the storyteller shares best. Did the stories really happen? No. Are they true? Yes.

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  • Irene Savarese  On November 26, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Another great post. I am used to working with couples and families were we look at different perspectives on same events. For me, there a more than one truth.
    There are also many different types of lies, where the most problematic probably is lying to self seconded by lying to people you love. Does the reason for a lie matter? Often a lie is told to protect self (I am okay, when not) or lying to others to protect them from feeling hurt – does that make it okay?
    Thanks Caren

  • publicstoryteller  On November 26, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    I would love to discuss this in greater depth. There is a whole other matter, too: lies of omission. Am I not lying if I do something I have said I wouldn’t do, just because I haven’t been asked if I’ve done it?

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