Remembered that I’d switched everything off last night. Debated going upstairs to switch it all back on again. Nah. Plugged in my iPhone, found that the personal-hotspot slider was already green; found that the laptop couldn’t find the iPhone. And vice-versa. Restarted laptop – no luck. Restarted iPhone – no luck. Thought about … yeah, maybe that’s it. Fix it now? No. Want to write. Made coffee. Did washing up. Returned to laptop and opened a Word document. Wrote “Well, that was fun,” and remembered that I’d been thinking about honesty.
Wasn’t there a writer, recently, who faked a large part of his/her personal history? A journalist, maybe? I don’t remember the details, and I wouldn’t name the person anyway, but there was a serious illness, or an experience of discrimination, or something else, that turned out to be invented. Maybe it was ethnic origin or past employment or a professional qualification; I don’t know. A writer for a high-minded US monthly magazine, I think, or possibly a weekly, although the internet kind of stomps on the idea of a periodical, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t. I like buying physical magazines, actually, because – sorry. Where was I?
Of course, it’s deeply shocking that a writer, a culturally sanctioned purveyor of truth and wisdom, should fabricate any part of a personal history. And not just writers – all artists. I remember the furore that erupted, shortly after I joined the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, when one of the younger choreographers dropped into the conversation that he’d worked with Diaghilev. Oh, the laughter. But also the genuine indignation: how dare this youngster claim to be more than he was! I knew Diaghilev myself, and he’d have laughed at such clumsy name-dropping.
I wouldn’t name the person because we live in a world of illusion anyway, and the best defence is not to vilify the fantasists. A writer invents. Even a writer of facts invents the sentences in which they’re delivered. The craft of “making things up”, if you’ll pardon the inverted commas, applies to fact as well as fiction, and such legitimate building blocks as metaphors, similes, imagery, et cetera, draw on more than just the facts. Whatever those might be. I remember my brief stint as a speechwriter for a past US president who shall remain nameless – realising that the job entailed working up a vision of whatever the situation was, a sense of its historical significance, rather than just a straight retelling of the facts.
We’re all fantasists. It’s in our nature. And our fantasies reveal our vulnerabilities. A choreographer, even a wholly imaginary choreographer, reveals something vulnerable in himself if he claims to have worked with one of the big names of his industry (Sergei Diaghilev, 1872-1929, founded the Ballets Russes in Paris). Something similar applies to writers. It’s in their nature, and it’s in the nature of the job (no, the egg came first), to emphasise the significance of whatever they’re writing. Part of that is to project themselves as writers, of course. I’m okay with the idea that being the exactly-right writer for the story is part of the storytelling. For example - this blog post finally uncovers the startling truth behind whatever it is that I’m on about, and only a writer with my long experience of, I don’t know, blogging about stuff could do the subject justice. That’s the template for a pretty standard claim.
What is the truth, anyway? What are the facts? You may remember the scene in that play I co-wrote with William Shakespeare, in which the characters discuss the difficulty of knowing what the facts are, let alone sticking to them. That writer who falsified a past – yeah, I get that. Just bulking up the story – or even just being human. Some people want to be taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, more attractive, et cetera; some people already believe that they are taller, thinner, good-looking in that outfit, et cetera. Doesn’t matter that you can’t reason with them – it would be a cruelty to be honest with a person who turns up at a big event, for example, in an outfit that makes, um, that bit look big. We all know it and we can all see it, but there are times when the duty to truth comes second to compassion. Honesty is a dish best served tactfully, at home, in advance. With writers – yeah, right, we’ll believe you for now. And maybe get a bit more out of the story by doing so.
And who’s to say that the writer at the top of this blog post wasn’t covering up some personal vulnerability? We rail against fake news, which is one thing, but taking down fantasists can slip over into a kind of mass trolling of the vulnerable. I’ve found it now; I’m being offered the story about the writer as a “sponsored post” on Facebook; a newspaper has paid money to spread it further. Let’s really knock this guy down! Okay, our writer friend (still not naming him) shouldn’t have made that claim, but who are we to cast the first stone? He’s a novelist – an official fantasist – anyway. Phrases such as “no better than she* ought to be” and “ideas above his station” may have dropped out of common usage, but those resentments are still there in our minds. We’re not letting anybody climb out of this hole.
Whatever this hole is. If the absolute cold-light-of-day factual truth is what makes us behave like this, I think I understand why we need fiction, fantasy, self-deception, affirmations, compliments, in whatever order the situation demands. I am uniquely qualified to write this post, and if you’re wondering why, well, I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and once, on a holiday to the Amazon rainforest, I stumbled on a lost tribe of Warrior Women who – it was so disappointing – used me for domestic chores. I gained such insights into the nature of fantasy, and the need for fantasy in situations that could be more exotic and, um, on that trip. I have all the experience and insight I need for this post, and if you want to start researching the evidence for lost tribes of Warrior Women, or Googling lists of principal dancers at the Bolshoi – well, that’s another story, isn’t it?
But be kind when you tell it, why don’t you?
*If you look up “no better than he ought to be” online, it defaults back to “she”. I really wish that surprised me more than it does.
Instincts are great, if you can stick to situations where they apply. A startled baby needs a mother who is practised in the art of swinging from tree to tree to get away; a driver hit from behind by a passing high-speed chase needs an encyclopaedic knowledge of the back streets and the ability to drive on two wheels down narrow alleys and through street markets to overtake the bad guy and get his insurance details. Name, anyway. Other instincts are specific to, for example, keeping population levels up, but we needn’t go into those.
The thing about instincts is that most of the time, we don’t know they’re there. And the other thing about instincts is that they’re completely inappropriate. Babies might grab for a tree-climbing mother; they actually get picked up by a parent of the grounded variety. That driver has to tone down the urge to fight (or run away) for long enough to sustain an intelligent conversation with the driver from the breakdown service. “Don’t get mad, get even” works better as “Don’t get instinctive, get civilised.”
Boringly enough. Instinctive behaviour would be fun, don’t you think, if we could find a way of doing all that without upsetting the neighbours? Or each other? More than fun – all of that cavorting about is how we’re designed to behave. We are those animals. The basic design/evolution principle behind human beings is: we fight, or we climb the trees with our babies. We do a variety of other things that we associate with fun. Adventure playgrounds, for example. And yet we’ve built a civilisation in which very few of our instincts work in our favour, and some of them are downright inconvenient.
We needn’t go into those either, and I’m not saying we’re wrong to be civilised first – but instinctive never? Not even second or third? To what extent do we deny essential traits of ourselves and each other, and what does that do to us? I don’t know the answer to that, but I wonder sometimes.