Writers Are Liars

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My daughter went on a Coming of Age retreat last year and I gifted her with the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith to take with her. Two decades had passed since I read it and I remembered holding the finished book to my chest as if I could absorb it. It ended up that Maya didn’t read it on her vigil. Somehow my endorsement of “It’s about a turn-of-the-century girl named Francie Nolan who is saved by books,” didn’t sell it. So I picked it up myself and started rereading.

The main character of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan, was poor. Francie Nolan was so poor her mother used stale bread as a staple for most meals. Sometimes the bread was kneaded with any meat that could be purchased from the butcher for ten cents and baked for dinner. Other times it was tossed with some sugar and fried for dessert. So it’s no surprise that when Francie’s teacher offered a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie to anyone in the class, she desperately wanted it.

“I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

She was given the pie and on her walk home from school that afternoon she ate it all.

The next Monday the teacher asked how the poor family liked the pie. Francie created an elaborate story about the fictitious family with twins who were saved by the pie. Instead of humiliating Francie for her departure from the truth, her knowing teacher explains the difference between a lie and a story.

“You know, Francie, a lot of people who think that these stories that you’re making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”

I loved that line, “Write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened,” and it opened up writing possibilities for two young writers I conferred with this week.

Kira was a first grader writing about her Kindergarten birthday party.

“I’m stuck because I can’t remember what the theme was,” she said.

“What do you think it probably was?” I asked.

“Well…I would’ve liked My Little Pony,” she admitted.

“So put that down and keep going,” I said.

Her grin showcased a newly missing front tooth.

In the classroom down the hall, Carlos was invited to write about an important person. Ten minutes after everyone had settled down to write, his paper was blank.

“I am not allowed to live with my mom anymore so I live with my grandpa, but he’s not a very nice guy,” said Carlos. “I don’t have anyone to write about.”

As we talked he rejected several possibilities so I said, “Maybe you can write about an important person you’d like to have in your life. One who is a nice guy.”

He looked at me and said, “So is it OK if I lie a little bit about my grandpa?”

I nodded.

Carlos wrote about a grandpa with a big house who shared his ice cream and even read it out loud.

Learning to tell the truth and getting as many details correct as possible on the paper is a noble pursuit. Writing how you wished people and events had turned out can also be a powerful practice.

In Betty Smith’s words as the author closes the chapter, she writes about the effect of the teacher’s advice, “From that time on, she (Francie) wrote little stories about things she saw and felt and did. In time, she got so that she was able to speak the truth but with a slight and instinctive coloring of the facts…If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar.”

When is speaking the truth with a “slight and instinctive coloring of the facts” helpful in writing?

4 thoughts on “Writers Are Liars

  1. We had author Peter Catalonata visit our school a few years ago. He inspired a lot of our young writers with this statement: “Take something ordinary and make it extraordinary.”

  2. This is a really important line of thinking for teachers and students. Sometimes in an effort to “get it right” teachers are very focused on sticking to the self-imposed rules of what characteristics belong in what genre. “Tell the truth and write the lie” can be empowering for teachers as they strive to improve their teaching practices and support their writers. This can also help our writers bridge the gap between what they consider “creative writing” and “school writing.” Finally, thanks for the reminder about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I am going to pass my copy on to my niece; the timing is perfect.

    • Kim, I agree. Writing is a place where some rules can be obstacles to greater learning and enjoyment. I hope your niece likes the book, I think there may be a little of Francie in all of us.

    • Kim,
      This has come up for me recently. It seems that when very young writers write something outside the text type being studied, they are offering us a very big clue about where they are at. I watched a boy create a “creative” piece that was not a personal narrative (what we were working on). He had successfully added emotion, action and dialogue,though-which we had been focusing on. I celebrated this and left him with something I wondered. “Has anything so exciting ever happened to you?” Maybe he doesn’t think anything ever has, or perhaps there’s another reason entirely. Maybe in honoring what he DID create, I’ve supported his future creations.

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