Ryan W. Bradley
You probably consider yourself an honest person, but honestly, you lie all the time. It doesn’t make you a bad person, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Humans are conditioned to lie and we lie about everything.
We lie about why we can’t do things we simply don’t want to do. We lie about how our day was, or how the food was, or how great that movie is that all our friends are raving about. We don’t want to hurt feelings or be rude.
We lie in how we present ourselves to the world. We lie by posting nothing but inspirational quotes and our (or our children’s) great accomplishments on social media.
Parents lie to other parents because they don’t want to sound like terrible people. You’ll say things like “I can’t imagine life without my kid” or talk about how amazing it is to have children. You’re a liar. Of course you can imagine life without your kid. No one lacks that much imagination. But you don’t want to sound like a monster. And trust me, people will look at you like a monster when you tell the truth about having a kid. I have a lot of experience doing it, but I will keep on telling people the realities of parenthood because other people need to know.
We lie to our children and tell them they are good at things they are terrible at or that they can be anything they want to be or that they need to learn math because they’ll need that algebra when they’re an adult working an office job where they magically don’t have calculators or spreadsheets that can do math for them.
Lying can be noble. It has its place. But lying is often a disservice. There are constructive lies (telling your nine year old his hastily scribbled stick figure is beautiful) that can help build a foundation for something positive. And there are destructive lies that create false expectations or present impossible “realities” and comparisons. Too often we think the latter are part of the former, which is why we don’t think of them as lies.
A cute thing people like to say about writers of fiction is that they are professional liars. It’s the kind of thing you see on a cheesy t-shirt or coffee mug. But the lies that come with being a writer aren’t the words that we put on the page. Writing of any kind is ultimately about exploring truths, whether it’s through realism, science fiction, or horror. People need some semblance of truth to connect with. The lies writers tell are those we tell other writers and the world at large.
They aren’t malicious lies, they are carefully crafted auto-responses built into being a writer. They are a learned behavior. We say things like “I’ve been writing stories since I was five,” as if that was when we really buckled down and started torturing ourselves with endless revisions and rejections. Every five-year-old I’ve ever been around has written stories. Probably none of them will end up being writers.
We have stories to tell, we say. We can’t not write. Ever tell someone you’re a writer? How many of them tell you a story they think would make a great book? Everyone has stories to tell, most of them just aren’t compelled to do it unless it’s over a beer or a cup of coffee. And you can absolutely not write. It’s really easy. We do it all the time when we jump from our Word document to Twitter or choose to stream the new season of Westworld over working on that new novel.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, we tell these lies because we want to present ourselves a certain way. We don’t publicly discuss the negative aspects of writing or publishing because we worry about the consequences. I’m as guilty as anyone of keeping my bad experiences with editors, publishers, and other writers to myself. The community of writers is small and gossipy, yet there is so much we don’t share because we know the risks of being honest.
We are writers, we must act and sound like writers. We must be diplomatic, we must fit the role. Maybe you do try to write something every day. I used to. Now I try to write when I actually feel like writing, when I don’t feel like shit about myself or the story I’m trying to tell. There is as much value in being honest with ourselves as there is in being honest with everyone else.
Writing is hard work. That’s a truth we are willing to tell. Want to be a writer? Be prepared to do the work. Put in the time reading other writers, put in the sweat and tears that come with constant revisions. This is a truth that sounds good. It is a blue collar, boot-strapping truth that plays well. Discussing our rejections? That, too, is an acceptable transparency. It allows us to believe we are doing something for other writers, we are showing each other that we all struggle.
Our lies and our truths have been market-tested by the many liars who have come before us.
The greatest lie a writer tells is that we write for ourselves, or that writing for ourselves is what we must do. What we mean to say is that we should write the stories we want to tell, but how many people are out there writing stories they don’t want to tell? Even writers whose books are disposable vending machine commodities, churning out a dozen books a year, are telling stories they want to tell.
Writing for ourselves is the opposite of what we do. The very notion is nonsense. If we wrote for ourselves we wouldn’t put in the effort to submit our work to magazines and publishers. We wouldn’t willingly subject ourselves to rejection again and again. We do it because of the potential reward, whether that be publication, attention, notoriety, or any number of things that make us feel good about ourselves and our hard work.
If we wrote for ourselves we wouldn’t do any of the things we do except write. Sure, the more compulsive of us might still revise on an endless loop, but we wouldn’t send it out into the world, track rejections, query agents, do readings, or any of the other things that make up our pursuits beyond the actual extrapolation of words from our brains.
This has been my primary quandary over the last few years. I want to be a published writer, but more than that I want to make a living writing books, just as we all do. It’s not going to happen. I know that. I am fully aware that very few people care about my writing and that is okay. I am humbled by the few readers my work garners, their attention and interest is both touching and baffling. But the question I continually try to come to terms with is whether that is enough for me to continue putting in the time, effort, and pain. I haven’t come to a conclusion, so I keep writing more words, though I rarely finish anything because that question is a constant interruption.
“You have to write for yourself,” people say. The reality is that I don’t. I’ve had writers tell me I’m not a writer if I don’t feel like I have to write, and that’s a destructive misrepresentation of the truth guided by the myth that writers have no choice but to write simply because they have ideas and want to get them out.
So, why do we perpetuate the idea that we write for ourselves? How is it helpful advice?
Write the story you want to tell and then work your ass off to make it the best you can. It will find an audience or it won’t. That’s the reality. If you want to be a writer and not just someone who writes, you are inherently writing for others. That doesn’t mean you have to write about vampires or zombies or a school full of underage wizards. What it does mean is that if you insist on writing something so esoteric that it’s not approachable for people other than yourself, you have to accept that and the ramifications.
One of my biggest faults as a writer is leaving out integral information because I know it, so I shortsightedly forget that a reader doesn’t. It’s not a conscious act and when I revise I make an effort to expound upon these things. I have to write while thinking about a reader who doesn’t have the knowledge I do about the characters, setting, or plot. If I wrote for myself I wouldn’t need to bother.
Writers fall prey to this cliched auto-response because we don’t want to sound like we are concerned with what people might think or like we are trying to pander to an audience. We think it undermines the art behind what we do. But of course we are pandering. And we should. Think about your readers or the ones you hope to have. Think about the books that have informed what you are trying to write. Approach your work considering how those two things can help you be a better writer.
We will never stop being liars. It is impossible to exist in a society and be one hundred percent truthful. But presenting a polished, wartless, false reality is a disservice. No writer will ever be helped by perpetuating the idea that we should write for ourselves, just as no prospective parent will be helped by someone telling them that having a kid is the best thing they will ever do or by telling people who care about you that you had a great day when really it was crap.
How many times a day does someone ask you how you’re doing? How many times have you said something positive and not meant it at all? Understandably, we all say “good” and move on, because the question itself has become a way of saying hello, we’re not actually checking on anyone’s feelings or moods.
I got tired of the auto-response to this question years ago. When people ask me how I’m doing I say, “I’m still breathing”. It catches people off guard, makes them chuckle. For me it is a balance between mindless patter and actually talking about my mental health. It’s okay to get on Facebook and post about having a shitty day instead of sharing that inspirational quote you’ve got loaded in the chamber. It’s okay to tell people that sometimes kids are jerks, because kids are human, too, so of course they are jerks sometimes. It’s okay to say that you put hours and weeks and years into writing something because you want people to read it and like it. Accepting these things and being upfront about them is far more helpful to others than the alternative.
I lie as much as anyone else. I attempt to spare feelings and simplify interactions with the practiced untruthfulness of humanity. But I also want people to know that it’s okay to admit that life is hard, that questioning yourself and your motivations can be healthy, that day jobs suck, and that everyone will see through your Gandhi quote… before reposting it.
Give yourself permission to tell the truth, to be unfiltered. You’ll know when it’s appropriate to fudge the truth, but a better skill is to know the importance of when you can be of more service by stripping away the layers of varnish and get real. You will always be a liar, but you don’t have to be a liar always.
Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and more. He now works in marketing. He is the author of eight books, including Nothing but the Dead and Dying, and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.