Writers Are Liars—And That’s a Good Thing

4101603579_eb62d6d022Writing is about discovering structure. We take streams of events, ideas, and information. Then we present them so that they have a beginning, middle, and end.

The problem is—they actually don’t.

Life, as someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Writers are paid to impose an artificial order on experience.

In other words, writers are liars.

But this is OK. In fact, it is a function of art.

Are you old enough to remember a 1978 movie called “The Tree of Wooden Clogs”? I sat through all 3 hours of it in a theater and walked away saying: This is not art. It’s life.

This film chronicled the mundane events of the characters’ lives, minute by minute. We see them grooming, cleaning, cooking, eating meals, washing dishes, and doing the hundred other things that make up the days of our life.

It was excruciating.

When I go to a theater, I don’t want life. I want the boring parts taken out. I want an extract of life.

More specifically, I want to see what happens when a character—someone I care about—faces a problem that matters (the beginning). I want to see what he does next (the middle). And I want to find out whether the problem is ever resolved (the end).

I have the same basic desire when it comes to bodies of ideas and information. I want a writer to explain a:

  • Problem that matters to me (the beginning)
  • Solution to the problem (the middle)
  • Plan of action for  integrating it into my own life (the end)

Again, our daily lives are not nearly this neat. People experience problem after problem that they never resolve. They run across tons of potential solutions and fail to recognize them. And the tragedy is that they often fail to realize they even have a particular problem in the first place.

The ultimate value writing in any genre is getting a clear grasp of complications, developments, and resolutions. Events and ideas gain some order and organization. For a moment, life stops being one damn thing after another. Of course, it’s a lie. But it’s a useful and compassionate lie.