Wednesday, August 15, 2012

To Tell the Truth

by Bob Strother

“… and to know a truth, I also had to recognize a lie.”
                                 Eudora Welty

“He lies for a living.”
                                —Doonesbury cartoon character, speaking of another character, a novelist.

I was sitting in a Denny’s on the return leg of a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona, when a song from the fifties came over the restaurant’s speaker system, evoking some memory from my youth. As I recounted the story for my wife, she looked at me with her big baby blues and said, “You really ought to write some of that stuff down. You sound like you grew up in a Neil Simon play.” And, thus, began my career in writing.

I had plenty of material to work with. The product of a broken home, I had four half-brothers, one half-sister, two step-sisters, and one kid who was my father’s second wife’s son from her first marriage. Figure that one out. I also had, and spent a great deal of time with, two sets of wonderful grandparents (one of which revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt, God, Elvis Presley, and rock and roll, in that order), an irascible great grandmother (good German stock), a mean-as-a-snake great grandfather (also German, but from a different gene pool), an aging maiden aunt, and a hypochondriac great uncle. What aspiring writer couldn’t take that bowl of mixed nuts and come up with a great manuscript?

Naturally, my first attempts at creative writing involved capturing the captivating nuances of my childhood for later generations. I had always said that the only thing missing from my life was background music, so I titled my Great American Memoir Southern Soundtrack and began writing in earnest. Fortunately, I also joined the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop about the same time and started attending a critique group regularly while I set about learning the craft.

There I began to realize that my stories, while entertaining and amusing for my family members, might not have quite the same appeal to a mass audience. After listening to a particular recollection from my youth, one critique partner suggested a changing the outcome. My remark at the time (and one I’ve heard numerous times since then from other newbie writers) was, “But that’s not the way it happened.” She gave me a knowing half-smile and left me with a simple pronouncement I’ve never forgotten: “You could always try fiction. That way, you don’t always have to tell the truth.”

In the six or seven years since, I’ve employed that principle religiously, penning over eighty short stories and four novels. Doing so has provided me the license to right past wrongs, deliver clever comebacks I would never have conjured up on the spur of the moment, and, in some cases, exact sweet revenge. Today, while I am often inspired by events in my past, I am no longer restrained by the reality of them. That old memoir is still around somewhere, snugged into an old file cabinet. It’s the truth, and it’s warm and fuzzy, but not as exciting as fiction. The truth may set you free, but a good imagination (and the ability to conjure up nicely packaged and plausible lies) can give you wings.

Pushcart Prize nominee Bob Strother was featured in the November-December issue of Southern Writers Magazine, and was recently awarded  the Hub City Writers/Emrys Foundation 2012 Fiction Prize. His short story collection, Scattered, Smothered, and Covered was released in February, 2011 through Main Street Rag Publishing Company.