Creating fiction out of personal experience is bound to get you in trouble with somebody—maybe even a whole tribe of somebodies. Recently, my family gathered all together for the first time in a number of years. We were pushed into a diner booth, our arms crossed, or tearing paper napkins into strips, or anxiously bouncing a knee. Our voices, for the moment, were measured, our words were careful, but a fight loomed, a fight always loomed.
"There's a difference between telling lies and creating fiction," I said.
"Oh yeah?" one asked.
"Listen to this guy," said another.
"Tell," said a third. "This I wanna hear."
So I told them that there are different kinds of truths. I told them that there is an emotional truth that exists independent of the facts, and that fiction distorts the facts, bends them to fit this emotional truth. I gave them lines I had picked up in college and I was met with guffaws, eye rolling, half-angry smirks.
"You know what we call that?" I was asked. "Bullshitting."
"And yes," said another, "you're damn good at it."
But of course, everything I know about bullshitting I learned from them—from arguing with and lying to and loving them. Which is to say, everything I learned about creating fiction, I learned from my family. A good bullshitter equates danger with possibility, folly with wisdom. A good bullshitter manages to squeeze the past—every slight and grievance, every moment of sacrifice, every bit of violence suffered—into the present moment, and to twist that catalogue of suffering into a specific, convincing argument. My parents never lied to us, but damn if they didn't bullshit us, damn if they didn't create fiction. My mother mainly relied on guilt, my father used threats, but beyond the guilt, beyond the threats, implicit in all the stories they told us about our betrayals and about the dangerous consequences that awaited us were we not careful—implicit, was the possibility of redemption. My parents were expert at telling two stories simultaneously, one to scare or shame us into subservience, but another was instructive—we listened to find out how we could be saved from our past transgressions, or our punitive futures. In my opinion, good fiction accomplishes this as well, tells the story of our human suffering, and teaches how to do so with charm and grace.
My approach to fiction is the bullshitter's approach. I aim to squeeze the mythic past into each moment; I aim to push the story beyond the anecdotal and toward the emblematic. Like my parents' stories, like the world I grew up in, my work is permeated with the threat of violence—this propels the story forward. Along the way, a good bullshitter captivates by never forgetting to include the odd poetic detail, the juicy tidbit, and by suppressing the actual argument, hiding it, holding it off until the very end, and when it appears, it must always surprise, it must charm.
For example, back in that diner booth, my family managed to surprise me yet again. We began talking about my fiction, but we quickly veered into the past and even the future. We yelled and slammed our palms on the table; we said raw and uncareful things; we fought over individual memories, over family history; we each fought for verification of our particular version of events. We watched the tears spring up in each other's eyes and we watched as each pushed them back down. When the conversation started, I had been paranoid that my family was calling me a liar, or worse, that my writing had injured them in some way. I was worried they'd misunderstood my motivations for writing, that they thought I was being vengeful or pitiless. And in fact, they were calling me a liar—but at certain point I realized that the argument, hidden from me at first, the great twist, was that by calling me a liar, they were claiming me. You're one of us, they were saying, You're a bullshitter. Who do you think taught you to lie? We made you, don't forget that. That argument came as a surprise, and hit me hard—all they wanted was for me to acknowledge my debt to them, to acknowledge that my success, should I succeed, was theirs as well. More than anything, they were reminding me that I had been cared for. To the best of their abilities, they had cared for me.
In the end, I admitted to lying. Sure, I lie and I cheat and I twist, but like all good bullshitters, I have my justifications. I told them that I lied not just for myself, but for them as well, for my brothers, and my folks, and others like me—those with complicated home lives, complicated heritages, complicated sexualities—I explained that I was attempting to give us a version of our lives we can love.
I was met with silence at first. I looked around the table—four pairs of raised, skeptical eyebrows. Then they all burst into joyous, spontaneous laughter, the kind of laughter that strikes a group like a bowling ball. Everyone fell back in their seats, threw their heads back, and shouted their laughter up to heaven.
"Our boy," they said, "the bullshit artist!"