The Lies we writers tell

It was a stuffy afternoon in the summer of 2001. I was traveling by train- a journey that lasted 22 hours- to meet my husband in another city, where he’d gone on assignment.

Books have always been such lifesavers for me and this time was no exception. Tuning out all the excited chatter from a large family of travelers in my coach, I settled down with my copy of  Jeffrey Archer’s A Quiver Full of Arrows. It wasn’t long before the teenager in the family bunch broke away and proceeded to stare inquisitively at the bright cover of the book I was reading. Her stare was long enough to compel me to lower the book a few inches and smile, hoping that she would now leave me in peace.

Fat chance of that happening.

‘Why are you reading that?’ came barreling out of her, in the classic open manner that teenagers ask questions.

“Well, I think he writes rather well. Have you read any of his books?” I queried in return.

‘No way! And I wouldn’t either! He’s a liar! He was sent to jail last month. For perjury! You shouldn’t be reading his book.’

Delighted at the chance to engage in a debate, my eyes looked at her eager face, filled with the idealism and righteousness that comes from childhood, before experience snatches them away. I had just started a job, training students to appear for competitive exams and the fire that burns in their chests, the one of enquiry, is something that positively encouraged me to seek out people and engage in non-confrontational discussions.

In a discussion that lasted a little over thirty minutes, the girl and I spoke about how books are judged by their writers, their personal lives, the things that they say in public or the actions that they undertake. At the end of it, she was grudgingly willing to concede that perhaps a writer could be judged on the quality of his work alone. She wasn’t entirely convinced by my reasoning, but it was a pleasure to see that a young mind was open to other points of view.


This incident came to mind a few days ago, when I was reading  posts by various writers on the Web. It struck me that all writers/bloggers are, in fact, liars. Not consciously so, perhaps, but we certainly choose to reveal that part of ourselves that we are most comfortable exposing to the world at large.

We read a post. If we love it, we gush over it. If we dislike it, we are not too sure what to say about it. Some may say a non-committal, ‘Good post’, which is about as useful as hearing that the sun rose this morning. If we completely loathe it (or perhaps the writer, due to personal reasons), we turn our noses up at it.

It also brought home the harsh truth that great writing may go unnoticed because the writer is not very ‘nice’ in reality.

The truth of the matter is this: We all lie. Some of us are better liars than others. As writers, though, there is a fine line we need to address- that boundary between blurring the truth for a story and masking it completely for personal reasons. Ideally, though, this ought not to affect the way your work is perceived in the public domain. For, the people we are in reality and the ones we profess to be through our work are, in fact, diametrically opposite beings.


29 thoughts on “The Lies we writers tell

  1. Yes, we all experience lying, even for just once in our lives. But with regards to your post…A lie, for me, is something you deliberately say about yourself that is not true, which comes with an intent to deceive. Anybody can do that, and not everyone does that. Writers could be “anybody” and are part of “everyone”, so it does not necessarily mean that he is or is not a liar. A person need not tell everything because he is an individual, first and foremost, who has rights to privacy.

    Writing fiction is a different story. While fiction is supposedly not real, it is not a lie either, rather just a product of a creative imagination. It does not pretend to be real, unless the writer says it is non-fiction. Now, if he says that a character or characters is/are based on him or somebody else/others, we’ll have to ask just how closely based. Because it is true that somehow, we get ideas from ourselves, people, things and places when we write. The intent is to make the stories believable without the actual intent to deceive. Even fantasies need to have some believable aspects. If he does not say which parts, it is still his right to not divulge certain things about his life especially if they are sensitive stuff.

    I agree that writers/artists’ talents should not be judged by their personal lives (e.g., drunk, has mental issues, jailed but have done a complete turnaround), especially if things remain to be rumors. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. But I do think that if what he does is something way off the morality compass (e.g., continuing drug dealer, active pedophile, serial rapist, outspoken racist, ISIS sympathizer), I don’t care about his work. Patronizing his work would be like saying, “Hey, you can do whatever you want even if it ruins lives as long as you churn out great works.”

    All I’m saying is I can judge something as a good read, why not? But if the writer is anything like the kind of people I mentioned, I sure would immediately lose interest. I am a human first before a book/art lover…These are just my personal opinions. I hope nobody takes offense.

  2. I believe every writer brings out his personality in what he writes…sometimes knowingly , sometime unknowingly. And intelligent readers often spot this. Yes.. Lying comes as a part of it because not many writers are able to accept disapproval / negative remark from their readers… So masking themselves with a lie is the easiest thing to do.

    It takes a lot to write without inhibitions, a story one wants to tell and then boldly leaving it to the readers to judge it… I recently encountered one such incident where a best selling author couldnt accept a review and wanted to sort of challenge the readers review.

  3. Interesting post Shailaja ji :).

    I am not exactly sure that a writer’s work should be judged based on his personal life. If I like a writer, I like him or her for his writing, don’t I? Though yes, if he or she is convicted for some reason or the other, I would surely feel disappointed.

  4. You’re quite right; we do tell little lies as we tell our stories, sometimes to make the story fit our point, sometimes because we shy away from the truth. I find those pieces through which I have bared my soul and really thrown caution to the wind have left me with a sense of release and relief, and often they are the ones that get more traffic, not that I ever really notice that (I’m just surprised when I do). But maybe this is because I always struggle with lying, I always try to tell so much truth that it can bog down my storytelling.

    I enjoyed your philosophy here, and especially liked the openness of the teenager who approached you.

  5. I like to say that I capture the spirit of the story. Of course the dialogue that I use is probably never what was actually said, but it is a recreation. You may call it lying, but I call it my version of the truth. 🙂

  6. There is a thin line between lies and fantasy. A master of fantasy, that’s a writer, will undoubtedly be good at lying. They’re imaginative people, right? – exactly what’s needed to lie successfully. As for bloggers – that’s ever more true. The real person behind the blog may be entirely different from what he/she comes across from their writing. I admit I am. I find myself much more forthcoming in my writing than I am in person. Besides, what you see is just my perspective of me – not the real me at all.

  7. That must have been an interesting debate. We very often judge people by their personal lives. I agree with you on judging a writer by the quality of his work alone. The point is that given our opinionated and often prejudiced minds, it can get difficult.

    I still remember relating a lot of Agatha Christie and Sylvia Plath’s work by stuff I had read about their personal lives. Moreover, what affects us in person can certainly affect the subjects we choose to write about, or the way we write about them. Never took away from enjoyment of their work though. 😀

  8. Writers need to have that ability to lie too in some proportions. Stories are born out of constructive lies and exaggerated imagination. And the personal life of a writer is never one to influence his/her book if the book is good. A book should be judged by how it is and not by how the writer is. The writer as a person can be judged on how he is in his life.

  9. My point is if we always wanted to read about reality and the truth, why would we even turn to novels? Aren’t these gems a gateway to escape and believe and imagine? Well said Shailaja! Judge a writer by their work. It is enough.

  10. I agree that good writing is good writing, no matter what the author has done. But I have to admit, If he or she has done something really bad, I would probably choose not to support them or read anything else by them.

    1. Interesting perspective, Stacie. I used to feel that way, but with more people in the creative field (books, art, film) I notice that there are many skeletons in the closet that come stumbling out when you probe deep enough. Does that mean that I should boycott their writing because I disagree with what they have done in their personal lives? I am not talking about murder/ slaughter, but say, perjury or embezzlement. Would that count?

      1. On one hand, I agree that we shouldn’t necessarily judge writers/actors/others by their personal actions but I also have to agree with Stacie. Most of the time, the only voice we have as consumers is spoken through a currency changer. We have a choice as to whether or not we refuse to purchase a novel or watch a movie or attend a comedy event or support a sports team because of personal actions of the people involved. We will always run the risk of missing out on experiences which could have deeply benefited us, but if we don’t exercise the voice we have, then we are saying that we support the wrong doings committed.

        Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer to this conundrum. All we can do is debate and stay true to our own personal beliefs.

  11. Oh yeah! I think most writers hide the truth a little bit. Sort of ‘flex’ the truth, so to speak.. Be it fiction or non fiction. And I suppose even in blogging we know of people who never practice what they preach 🙂 interesting post, Shy

    1. The ones who don’t practice what they preach, I am not even going there right now. This is more to do with how we mask what we want to say under the garb of story-telling. I tend to do that- fictionalise my hurt and anger. Just wondering if it is always the right thing to do. Or will I be judged by my actions offline and not be read for what I write?

      1. If I remember correctly, you’d written about it once previously. I think it’s okay to fictionalise your hurt, anger and any other feelings. People will always judge others – not much we can do about that.

  12. it is true we are judged but then in a shallow or maybe wrong way I also agree to it .. if one is famous then they have a moral duty as people are looking up to them ..

    there was a example here a footballer who earns hundred thousand pounds a WEEK, was jailed or arrested in a Rape case .. although the court has not found him guilty yet, he says he is innocent .. YET in my eyes he SHOULD not be earning that much money as he is a public figure he should never have put himself in a situation where he could be pointed at ..

    there was a big uproar because a club wanted to sign him when he came out of jail, again he did what he did his time in the jail.. and i am all for rehabiliation and all.. but still I dont want him earning as he is a public figure what will kids think oh its ok to rape and still live a luxury life..

    Same way Mr. archer , no matter how good he is , I have read his books yet he should have never got himself into that situation ever.. he has some responsibility

    maybe I am totally out of my mind

    1. Agree with you, Bikram, that a person in the public eye has a responsibility. No question. But, if you were to judge everything he writes by his actions, would we not miss out some classic works of his? No, you are not out of your mind. You have your opinion, which is wonderful 🙂

  13. I have never read that book but I believe I need to find it now. I don’t know exactly when I ran out of time to ‘read’ but I have and I admit I miss it. I am glad she was willing to talk and reason, a task that seems so difficult for many of today’s teens.

  14. Hi Shailaja, I am also a fan of Jeffrey Archer and love his books. I was definitely disappointed that he was jailed. But, he came out even better by writing a prison book. And as you say, ‘lying’ is important for writing.. we will call it ‘creativity’.

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