Career Day at school. It reminds me of the movies I’ve seen where there’s always one little boy over in the corner who’s ashamed of his mother or father’s vocation. “No Dad, I don’t want you to come in and explain what you do. Proctology is embarrassing.”
“What does your Mom do?” my son’s friend asked. “She writes fiction.”
“What’s that mean?”
“She makes up stories and writes them down.”
“No, Mom would never do that!”
“Well, if she’s making up stories, it’s the same as lying.”
“Mom, are you a liar?” my distraught son asked.
Not privy to the previous after-school conversation, I dropped the heavy metal spoon in the sink and replied. “Heavens no! Why on earth would you ask that?”
“Well, Raymond asked me what you do, and I said you write fiction. Remember when I asked you and you said that’s what I should say?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I lie,” I scolded.
“Well, then what does it mean?” he asked, completely puzzled by now.
“Well,” I hesitated. “It means I use my imagination to invent stories that I think people would enjoy reading.” There, that wasn’t so bad, I told myself.
“So, as long as you tell people it’s a lie, then it isn’t bad?” he grinned, absolutely aware of the predicament he’d put me in. Little boys love to watch their Mothers squirm. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment, since the role is suddenly reversed.
“Where are we headed with this conversation?” I asked, glaring at him.
“Oh, nowhere in particular,” he reveled. “I just wondered how I was going to explain your vocation on career day.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I’d be glad to come in and talk to your class if you’d like.” There’s always a certain amount of pride when your child wants to ‘show you off.’
“No, no, that won’t be necessary. I think it’d be too confusing,” he stuttered. “Writing fiction is a tricky thing to explain. I guess I understand it, but I don’t think the class would.”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Well, then why don’t you just say I’m an author?”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “No big deal.”
No big deal? Another of the countless times my child originates a conversation, follows it through to his satisfaction, and leaves me hanging in mid air. What do I do? What’s the difference in lying and writing fiction? Maybe there is none. I feel that old familiar chill skim down my spine and explode in a full-body spasm. I shake it off, but stare into space.
My mouth is suddenly dry, but I swallow anyway, - an attempt to destroy the lump that’s found its home in my throat. At once I determine to know the difference. I make sure my son is engulfed in his nightly homework, and then retreat to my office to find my Webster’s Dictionary. It’s a 1987 edition, and the bright blue cover’s corners are turned up and frayed, but I depend on it daily.
I opt to look up the word ‘lie’ first. Its definition is “to utter untruth; to misrepresent; to deceive, to make false statement.” I stare at those words for several minutes, thinking to myself. I don’t utter anything when I write. I don’t intentionally misrepresent or deceive. I just invent characters and happenings. This is good. I don’t think I lie.
Then I flip back to the f section, page 143, and find the word fiction about halfway down on the right hand page, left column. It reads, “literature dealing with imaginary characters and situations; something invented or imagined.”
“That’s it! That’s the difference,” I whisper to myself. “Lies are made up statements representing the truth. Writing fiction is making up characters and situations, and if the characters and situations are made up, then of course the statements are imagined as well. They don’t represent the truth.”
I sit at my desk for a few seconds waiting for the wave of relief to wash over me. It doesn’t come. Do I really want to say my characters and situations don’t represent the truth? This is getting too complicated, I tell myself.
I get up from my desk, sigh, and walk back to my son’s bedroom door. It’s ajar just enough for me to see him playing a video game. His eyes are wide, and his shoulders shrug slightly, but quickly, first to the left, and then the right. I realize that he’s already forgotten the all-important statement he made to me. The one I really can’t explain to my satisfaction.
“I just wondered how I was going to explain your vocation on career day.”