Okay, then. Getting me arse back into gear with my writing prompts now that I’ve concluded my grand U.S. tour. I had a productive writing/revising day yesterday, though, so hopefully this will help me accomplish even more later today.
I was just watching the film The Invention of Lying last night, and, funny enough, the next prompt in Room to Write is about lies. The movie is about a world in which no one lies until one man discovers the possibilities of doing so, and it’s hilarious the utterly dull impact the inability to lie has on advertising, literature, and film—fiction basically can’t exist! The fact is, everyone at some point tells a lie. Our motivations for doing so can vastly vary—it might be out of kindness to spare someone’s feelings, or it might spring from more ill intentions like self-gain or pridefully covering up that we are not as all that and a bag-o-chips as we’d like to think we are.
In light of the different reasons why a person might choose to tell a “good” or a “bad” lie, our characters’ motivations in doing so can be very telling about them, even more so than the actual lie that they speak. Bonni Goldberg tells us that we can more convincingly portray our characters’ lies by considering our own motivations for lying. So, page 20 asks us to write only lies. We have these options:
1. Write silly lies, like you’re confirmed to pilot the next shuttle to the moon;
2. Write more realistic lies that you have told or would actually tell to yourself and those you know;
3. Write lies you have told and reflect on why you chose not to tell the truth in that instance; and/or,
4. Write a scene in which one of your characters considers telling a lie.
This is one opportunity we have to tell lies without judgment…well, I guess I’m setting myself up for more judgment than if I were privately scrawling these in a journal vs. publishing it in cyberspace. As I’m concerned this might hold me back from revealing certain truths through lies (odd how that does make sense), I’ll do a variation on #4 and share a scene in which my protagonist tells a string of little white lies, and reflect on her motivations thereafter. As in my earlier post, “Dialogues of Destiny“, I’ll call her “Margaret” and likewise alter my other characters’ names. I will also highlight her lies in red font (that’s red, right? Or is it orange? I will not tell a lie and confess that I’m color weak. Not proud of that fact).
To provide some context first, Margaret (an American) is temporarily living in her British friend Ron’s London flat. They have had a recent, inexplicable falling out while standing in the doorway of her room. Afterwards, he goes out for the night with his girlfriend Wendy while Margaret takes a nap. She has just woken up and been writing in her journal when he returns, and this is what happens:
Margaret started when a dull thud on the door sharpened into three knocks of increasing conviction.
She adjusted the dimmer to fill the room in starker light, bracing, and the desk chair answered on her behalf with a creak as she lifted her weight from it to open the door. Dread permeated her heart as she stepped into the threshold with a clammy hand still on the knob. In the silence, it took several seconds before she could raise her meek eyes to his. The face she met was not the darkened, scowling countenance of the Byronic hero she’d imagined; Ron’s visage, perhaps shaded in uncertainty to counteract its enhanced pallor, was otherwise unaltered.
“Are you all right?”
His tone conveyed that he had not analyzed this to remotely the same extreme Margaret had, if he’d even given it more than a second thought before embarking on his planned evening.
“Sure.” Feeling short of breath and sickened by their resumed postures in the doorway, a déja-vu she could control, Margaret suggested they relocate to the living room. Averting an instinct to go to the sofa, she sat timidly on the club chair like a child sent to the Principal’s office. A chair for one could be safe, personal space for her.
“Wendy was here just briefly, then we went for dinner. Pizza—seventy-five centimeters of it. I have the leftovers here for you if you like.”
The simple act of kindness pressed her eyes from behind.
“Oh, that’s so nice of you. I’m fine, though.”
“You did eat, then?”
No. “Yeah. But thanks.” Not wanting the gesture to be thought in vain, she added, “Maybe tomorrow for lunch. Cold pizza’s always been a national favorite.”
“What were you up to tonight?”
“Oh, I just slept. I’ve been really lethargic lately, and just taking advantage of the fact that I can.”
“You have appeared positively knackered. I assume you’ve had some late nights studying. That can take its toll.”
His words sound so sadly strained…forced. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to class in over a week now. I never ditched class in high school or college, but, again, just finally realizing that I can, so I do. It’s nice for a while to just be. Whatever ‘being’ is.”
He rubbed his chin slowly between thumb and forefinger as speculation shadowed his piercing blue eyes. “Well, you’re an adult. I suppose you know what you’re doing.”
Not likely, but she was grateful he did not get didactic on her. Still, she tried to salvage her studious reputation to an extent.
“Well, I’ve still met with my project-mates, so they bring me up to speed. A lot of this stuff is innate, or like something straight out of work experience, so I’m making good headway.” This was half true; she had sporadically returned their phone calls and emailed bare-minimum contributions so at least their credits would’t be sabotaged.
“Interesting project? Challenging?”
Ron didn’t probe further, even though it was an area in which he himself had expertise; Margaret appreciated this in him, that he knew where to draw lines and let her be. To a degree.
“What were you working on just now?”
“You looked like you’d been at the desk writing. In a notebook. Documenting your stay here?”
“Mm, sort of. Just a blurb about something on my mind.”
“What is on your mind, may I ask?”
Shit, I handed him the perfect segue, garnished on a platter.
She was sincerely at a loss for what had come over her, remembering all the actions, but none of the motives, and she didn’t know where to even begin explaining something like that to her friend. But she owed him a try.
“Not much. I don’t know.” She audibly expelled air from her lungs at the point of conceding defeat. “Look…I’m…really, really sorry for my behavior earlier. I don’t pretend to have an excuse. I have reasons—I was tired and starting to feel positively nauseous. But this doesn’t excuse me for my rudeness. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, you were a bit of a prat, weren’t you? Rather unexpected. What made you fancy laughing in hysterics like that? Only to slam the door in my face all in a paddy the next instant?”
So he had thought about it. Just took some classic British passive-aggressive beating around the bush to get down to it. “I’m really embarrassed; I’m not sure. Did Wendy hear?”
His brows elevated. “Quite clearly, yes. I believe that was the point, was it not?”
Fuck. Blame it on my hormones? “At the risk of making you uncomfortable, I think I’m approaching the end of my, you know, ‘cycle,’ so my estrogen levels are outta whack.”
“I comprehend the feminine chemical imbalance that occurs monthly, but, really now.”
This was a male attitude that never failed to royally tick off Margaret. She lifted the tail from between her legs and automatically ignited.
“What the hell is with men being incapable of understanding that! It would save your kind so much trouble if you’d just learn how to track a fucking calendar and know when to stay the hell away.”
Ron laughed through his teeth at the re-flaring of her incomprehensible temper. “And what calendar is that? How am I supposed to know your menstrual cycle, pray tell?”
“You could ask.” Margaret realized this was an idiotic comeback.
“Oh, yes, quite right.” He affected a Californian Valley Girl accent: “So, like, Margaret…when’s, like, your next period? Need to borrow a sanitary towel?”
As funny as it was hearing the phrase “sanitary towel” articulated in an American accent, she was provoked. “Well, hasn’t Wendy trained you to follow hers by now? Or is she just bitchy all the time?”
“You’re out of line.”
“No, you’re not. And according to your own earlier statement, you don’t know Wendy. So where do get off insulting her, offending me in the process?”
“I was just making a joke. I apologize that the humor doesn’t translate.” The arrogant bitterness infusing her reply rendered the value of this apology null and void.
“What has come over you?” She had never heard his voice raised before.
“This is getting all blown out of proportion. I don’t even know where it started. All I know is, I’m sorry for whatever misunderstanding is occurring right now.”
“No, you’re not,” Ron repeated. “Margaret, in just a matter of days, you have become a completely different person.”
And scene…well, to be honest in the midst of all these lies, that isn’t really the end of the scene, I just don’t want to give too much away about the plot and central conflict of the story. In any case, beyond this point, Margaret shifts gears and becomes truthful to a fault, with more jabs below the belt. But I will divulge what is hopefully apparent in this scene—Margaret’s emotions have become more erratic than usual, which, in all fairness to her, is just as perplexing for her as it is for us readers. So, in her defense, when she tells Ron she isn’t sure what came over her earlier when she snapped at him, she really isn’t—nor does she understand why she’s becoming more disorganized and irresponsible. However, she is not secure enough with herself to admit this to anyone just yet. Rather than confront the possibility that there may be something psychologically imbalanced about her, she grasps for a commonplace explanation.
What is evident earlier in the scene is Margaret’s repetitious assurances that she’s “fine.” Her motivations in this case also relate to her insecurity; she wants to hold up a brave face rather than show further vulnerability in front of someone she respects and in whose presence she just recently embarrassed herself. This further explains why she half-lies about her coursework (she is taking a leave of absence to pursue summer professional development studies). What is also going on here, though, is what I mentioned above about Margaret’s own confusion over why she’s acting the way she is lately. In light of this, she is not only lying to Ron in this scene, but to herself.
When her temper begins to flare yet again, she spits out nasty comments (revealing her instability as well as tinge of jealousy over Wendy) and tries to backtrack by lying that she’s sorry; while he might not have noticed her dishonesty earlier, it is at this point Ron is able to call her out on it. He knows she does not regret saying the spiteful things she does, and while it is offensive to him (and, oh boy, does it only get worse when the rest of the scene that is not posted here unfolds), his genuine concern encourages him to try to work through it with her.
One more white lie highlighted above centers on something Margaret wrote in her journal. I’m not going to reveal what that’s all about, just that her deliberately vague response is likewise inhibited by her fear of revealing too much about herself that could be considered strange.
So that’s that for today. I hope this dialogue comes across as natural and that the motivations underlying Margaret’s little lies do indeed say something about her character, regardless of whether it makes her sympathetic or not. In closing, below is a tiny window into what the world might be like if nobody lied. As it will reveal, lying is not an altogether bad thing in certain circumstances!