On Writing

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!

Ahem.

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