Sweet Little Lies

Years ago, while making the rounds with my very first children’s book manuscript, Easter Tortoise’s Big Idea, I was lucky enough to attract the enthusiastic attention of an editor at Albert Whitman and Company. Though this manuscript was ultimately not accepted, Easter Tortoise did give me a great connection with a wonderful person. From that point forward, whenever I had a story, I would first send it to her – someone who I knew liked my stuff.

At some point this professional relationship moved to the next level. By that I mean the editor would occasionally call or email me with leads. “We’re on the lookout for a new Mother’s Day book,” she’d tell me. Or “We want to publish a book about how a family copes after a parent loses a job.”

Receiving such information gladdened my heart. I wasn’t yet published, but I was in the loop – and it was awesome. I always did my best to take advantage of every tiny kernel of inside knowledge.

On one occasion she called to say that Albert Whitman was now looking for a new Thanksgiving title. “Do you have any Thanksgiving stories?” she asked.

In response to that question two things happened:

1. My mouth said, “Yes I do!”

2. My brain said, “YOU DO NOT!”

My brain was the honest one, but, fortunately, it was also the one that couldn’t be heard outside of my head. So you can imagine my brain’s dismay when my mouth took the fib and ran with it.

“Actually I have two Thanksgiving stories,” I told her. “They both need a little work. One is a silly turkey story and the other is more serious. Which one should I work on?”

“I think the serious one,” the editor said.

And that was that.

Okay, typewriter. Time to make an honest man outta me!

Now let me pause here to emphasize that I really hate lying. I really, really hate it. Lying makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty and immoral. I make a conscious effort to avoid doing it under almost any circumstance.

But there are exceptions, of course. In my case, it’s when someone asks me one of two questions about my writing.

1. Can you write _____?

2. Do you have _____?

Sometimes the honest answer to the first question is “I don’t know.”  Frequently the honest answer to the second question is “No.”

My answer for both, however, is always “Yes!”

I say “yes” without hesitation or discomfort. I say “yes” without guilt. I say “yes” with a smile. I can even say “yes” so convincingly and sincerely that, if it wasn’t for that wet blanket of a brain, I’d even believe it.

Then, after all that yessing, I hang up the phone and, with a new sense of purpose, work like mad to turn my lie into a belated truth. I suspect this is how a lot of books get written. At least it’s how my book was written ­– and I regret nothing. In fact, I would advise every writer to do the same thing.

Experience has shown me that with a bit of effort, I can almost always turn the answer to question number one from an “I don’t know” into a “Yes.” And, if given enough time, I can turn the answer to question number two from a “No” into an “I do now!”

And here’s the best part: not only do these little fibs open up business opportunities, they also allow me to stretch my creative muscles in ways I never would have done otherwise. Saying “Yes” helps me to grow and evolve as a writer.

I recently told an actor friend of mine the above story. In response, he nodded and said in his deep baritone, “Mm. Like improv.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but he’s absolutely right. As any graduate of The Groundlings or Second City can assert, the one Cardinal rule of improvisation is to never ever dismiss anything another improviser tells you – no matter how absurd or ludicrous. Your job is to build on it.

It is called the rule of “Yes, and…”

That was pretty much what I was doing on that phone call. The editor threw something out there and I built upon it, asserting that YES, I had a Thanksgiving book. AND I really have two Thanksgiving books!

See? I wasn’t lying at all, I was acting!


So let me open up the comments section: What are a few of the more memorable whoppers you have told in your day?

21 Replies to “Sweet Little Lies”

  1. I love this! In the Neil Gaiman video I just posted, he said he did the same thing to get his first freelance jobs. 🙂 Sounds like you’re in good company!

  2. Actually, one of my friends just pitched at a conference with no story. She made it up as she sat there and they asked for a full. She went home, after completely freaking out, and she’s writing it. It’s an awesome story, so I guess it worked for her. 🙂

  3. I am a TERRIBLE liar. Atrocious. So I rarely take the opportunity to do something like this. I think the closest would be telling a magazine editor that I am sure I will have a story done on a given deadline when I have no such assurances myself.

    1. As a magazine editor myself, I can smell those lies from my freelancers a mile away.

      Never bothers me, though. I know my freelancers are using their fibs as a form of personal motivation. The articles I receive are almost always on time and almost always impress.

  4. This was interesting about how you have an “insider” relationship w/the editor at Albert Whitman. And your upcoming book looks neat. Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday. Hmmm, haven’t told any lies today that I know of. Maybe that’s my first!

  5. Hmmm… I told my mom I was headed to summer school when in fact I was bee-lining to a local music store to buy Beatles posters. Somehow (ok I know how) that led to my friend and I getting picked up by the cops.

    1. Good one. My only brush with the law was at the age of 9 when I was caught with fireworks (they are illegal in New Jersey). As I sat in the back seat of the police cruiser, I imagined what prison would be like.

      What are ya in for?” the hardened criminals would ask me.

      “Bottlerockets,” I’d reply.

  6. Chutzpah at its very best! I’m likin’ what I see here, so I’ll be returning the follow. I spent quite a bit of my youth lying–not to anyone I knew–only to strangers. So it seems perfectly normal to continue this act of deceit via fiction and the ether.

  7. Along these lines, I offer you inspiration from Dan Yaccarino, who is cited today (7/30/12) at the fun blog entitled True Tales & A Cherry on Top” (aka http://jeannewalkerharvey.blogspot.com/)

    “I heard a wonderful talk, titled “Yes!” by Dan Yaccarino at the Asilomar writer’s conference this past spring. He said that many moments of success during his career came from his willingness to say YES! even when the new opportunity seemed overwhelming or beyond his current capability. The power of positive thinking!”

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