I was walking by the river today, and I decided to take some pictures of the wild clematis that grows there. It’s all in bloom now, and it grows over the bushes and shrubs at the edge of the water like a scattering of white stars. Its common name is Traveler’s Joy, which I have always liked.
Walking beside the river, with the honey-sweet smell of the Traveler’s Joy in the air, I was thinking of the lies we tell, and of one central truth: Most people lie most of the time.
They don’t necessarily know that they’re lying. And it’s not necessarily verbal. You can see people walking down the street, and without saying a word they’re conveying the message “I’m normal. I’m just like you.” The older I get, and the more I know about people, the more I realize that no one is normal. As soon as you catch a glimpse beneath the surface, you realize that everyone has secret places. Everyone is hiding something. Perhaps I’m talking about this because recently I’ve been writing more, and going more deeply into my writing. And one thing you have to do, as a writer — at least the sort of writer I want to be — is tell the truth. To do that, you need to know the truth, to understand how people lie to each other and to themselves — in ways even they don’t see. Two stories I worked on this summer are first-person, which means that I’m speaking from the perspective of the character. The most important thing to know about your first-person characters is what lies they’re telling themselves — often about themselves.
Once, I met a woman who seemed to have the perfect life: beautiful suburban house; tall, handsome, wealthy husband; three beautiful children. Several years later, she walked out of her house, got into her car, and shot herself in the head. Lies are deadly, I think. Especially the ones that go “I’m normal. I’m just like you. Everything is fine.”
The people who lie least often, in my experience, are artists and writers. If you are trying to capture some sort of truth, it’s very hard to lie, even to yourself. And about yourself — artists and writers are not very good at pretending to be normal, and most of the time they don’t even try.
One reason I’m thinking about this now is that it’s a political season, and politicians seem to lie more than most people. They are the masters of saying “I’m just like you” in convincing ways. And they tap into something that I’m going to call societal lies — these are our clichés. The distinguishing feature of a cliché is self-congratulation. It is a cliché, for example, that all babies are beautiful. Of course most babies are not beautiful most of the time — babies are going through so much, it’s unfair to expect them to be beautiful as well, as though they lived in a perpetual soap commercial. But the societal lie, the cliché, works like this: “All babies are beautiful. It is good to think that babies are beautiful. Therefore, I am a good person.” You can substitute any number of phrases.
I don’t think I’m explaining this particular well, in part because I’m trying to say something complicated. When I create a character, I have to build in these levels of complication. That woman I knew: how long did she tell herself that she was happy? That she loved her house and her husband and her children? Perhaps she did, but if so, that truth was partial — there was a hidden place, a secret in the darkness.
I have met people who achieve a kind of normalcy, who live and believe the clichés. I always find them frightening, because there is so much they have had to not see in order to get there. They have often had to insist on normalcy, in themselves and others. They are not creative — they can be difficult even to talk to, because one does not know what to say. There is only so long one can talk about the latest television shows.