Do Lies Make Better Truths?

Even literary giants like Hemingway embellished all the time. Did it make for better stories or do we simply like embellishments?

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There is no one thing that is true. They’re all true.” Ernest Hemingway

One night at The Algonquin (or Luchow’s), Hemingway was challenged to compose a novel in six words. On a napkin, he wrote: “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” For that, he won a ten-dollar bet and certain bragging rights, which may or may not have been worthy of bragging.

Years later, he admitted it wasn’t his line at all. When he was 7, he’d read in a newspaper’s classified section: “For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office.”

At least Hemingway owned up, but then, literary agent, Peter Miller, claimed he concocted the whole story for his 1991 book: “Get Published, Get Produced: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing.”

Being timely seems to take precedence over fact, which explains why we have so many retractions.

So do lies make better truths? Mickey Mantle once said: “He who has the fastest golf cart never has a bad lie.” That makes a lot of sense and explains why reporters rush to get their stories first. Being timely seems to take precedence over fact, which explains why we have so many retractions.

Not that truth can’t stand on its own. Take the man selling his uncle’s new false teeth online with the title “My Uncle Owed Me Money, So I’m Selling His Teeth.” Obviously, this doesn’t need embellishment, although it does introduce another question: Is the uncle alive or dead?

You could say Hemingway’s example is more definitive. We assume the baby died, although maybe the baby was born with abnormally large feet.

This is where truth opens up numerous possibilities, not to mention more intrigue. We’re faced with a puzzle, and an honest one at that.

In Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” he describes how he got over dry periods in his younger days by creating one true sentence. “It was easy then,” he wrote, “because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

You can’t get more honest or succinct than “Jesus wept.” Hunter followed this example religiously.

Does that mean we should all start with a true sentence? Heaping one lie on top of another is difficult. We have to keep track of our lies, whereas being honest guides us. It’s simply easier placing one true thought after another.

Hunter S. Thompson tended to read the Bible before he wrote. He wasn’t particularly religious. He simply wanted to fill his head with honest writing. You can’t get more honest or succinct than “Jesus wept.” Hunter followed this example religiously.

That’s not to say truth doesn’t allow for embellishment. Thompson often followed his one true sentence with something outlandish, which only made us believe him more. This formed the basis of his “gonzo journalism.”

Whether beef prices had anything to do with Pat Robertson wanting western justice for Khadafy, at least we knew evangelists weren’t afraid to kill and maime in the name of American ideals.

“The market kept rising last week,” he wrote in his article “They Called Him Deep Throat.” “Even preachers felt bullish, and there was talk on The Street about the shooting and butchering of animals. Beef prices plunged, insurance rates soared, and Pat Robertson went on national TV to make a personal appeal for the head of Moamar Khadafy.”

Thompson was a master journalist, but he never let facts interfere with his perception of details. Whether beef prices had anything to do with Pat Robertson wanting frontier justice for Khadafy, at least we knew evangelists weren’t afraid to maime and kill in the name of American ideals.

Somehow we believed Thompson knew the truth. He’d slip it in here and there, often with the occational non-sequetor. That’s not to say he wasn’t reporting responsibly. Even his half-truths were more honest than Pat Robertson’s.

It seems we can’t handle economic setbacks, and rather than talk about our problems, we go off shooting people.

Some writers drop truth altogether or reconfigure it to meet their agenda. Agendas are everywhere these days. They rise like gnats, and fall just as quickly. Gnats are attracted to sweat and writers sweat a lot.

One reporter, writing for Second Nexus, took findings from a religious study called “Gun Culture In Action,” which concluded that white men are the cause of most gun violence. It seems we can’t handle economic setbacks, and rather than talk about our problems, we go off shooting people.

The study further suggested that white men are natural insurrectionalists.

“Perhaps eventually,” the reporter concluded, “policymakers can understand enough about gun culture to better predict who is at risk to commit violent crimes and consider reducing their access to weapons. Of course, this is precisely what those [white men] empowered by their guns fear most.”

She obviously felt she was on firm ground since the study was based on a Gallop poll of 1,572 people. Gallop polls don’t lie. They’re like guns. They don’t shoot people. People shoot people. Guns and polls aren’t libel.

Trouble is, without balance, you have opinion. We all have opinions. That doesn’t make us right or truthsayers. It just makes us like any Joe (or Josephine), sitting at a lunch counter, letting off steam. The reporter seemed to be letting off steam with a certain amount of invective.

That’s not to say responsible white men can’t go out and shoot somebody, but most are too tired to load an air rifle.

On one hand, she was right. White men do see guns as strength. What she didn’t understand is why. American males still fulfill patriarchal roles and feel protective of their families. Responsibility is probably the greatest factor in gun ownership.

Men approach guns the same way they do little league games. The kids have to get there, you have to take them. That’s not to say responsible white men can’t go out and shoot somebody, but most are too tired to load an air rifle.

I’m not defending white men. Some deserve to have their guns taken away, others shouldn’t be allowed in public washrooms. But I wouldn’t do it based on a religious study. Nor would I do it based on an article written by a reporter who believes that study. To write truth, there has to be objectivity and some form of jurisprudence.

As one newscaster pointed out: “They’re only lies if they’re proven to be lies. Otherwise they’re questionable truths.”

Which is the problem with most writing these days. We start out honest, but we’re easily corrupted. Perhaps it’s the material. We report on the world around us. White men use guns, beef is waiting to be butchered, and one day someone takes a set of dentures in lieu of payment.

We like truth and, at times, we expect truth, but we also seem destined to expect embellishments and even fabrication. We like larger than life truths, which often turn out to be lies. As one newscaster pointed out: “They’re only lies if they’re proven to be lies. Otherwise they’re questionable truths.”

As Hemingway said, there’s truth in all of it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, pressed for time, or fighting for the best headline, there are going to be lies. Like dentures, sometimes they’re hard to separate.

The question is whether we really care. We seem to like embellishments, whether they’re truths or lies. Perhaps we’re simply used to both.

Robert Cormack is a novelist, children’s book author and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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