We’re All Liars: John Dufresne’s “The Lie That Tells A Truth”

John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth is one of the best craft books I’ve read. The part I found to be the most helpful was the group of exercises at the end of each section. Many other craft books that I’ve read had recommended exercises scattered throughout, but Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth organizes them far better than any other text. If you’re having trouble writing a conversation, it is great to be able to flip to the chapter on dialogue and look through a dozen exercises.  Dufresne’s tone also resonated with me. He was down to Earth and accessible, which is not always the case with craft books.

Out of all the lofty advice and sound bites about how to improve one’s writing found in craft books, I’ve found that nothing helps me improve my writing craft as much as a good exercise. Other craft books have some exercises in them (I believe Gardner’s The Art of Fiction had some), some books don’t have any (Baxter’s Burning Down The House was exercise free), but none have had nearly as comprehensive a library of exercises as Dufresne’s work. When I first read through The Lie That Tells A Truth I didn’t do the exercises immediately. I would read a section then read over all the exercises and mark ones I thought would be most useful or that generated good ideas when I first read them. I would then work on a few exercises throughout the week. Two of the exercises that helped me the most are the interview exercise in the ‘The Method’ section and the talking in bed exercise in the ‘Let’s Talk’ section. The interview helped me understand my main character in a short story I was working on. I had a semi-solid picture of him in my mind, but by forcing him to sit down and answer all the questions I had (and thought an interested reader might have) I learned so much about his back-story and why he is where he is when the story begins. I didn’t know that his parents worked blue collar jobs and that they were poor. I didn’t know the specifics of what his company actually did. These were all things I would have figured out later on anyway, but the specific format of the interview exercise helped me to think about the questions that will actually matter to the reader and focus on those. Once I did that I was free to let the character open up to me. The talking in bed exercise allowed me to explore the relationship between my character and his wife. She isn’t on the page much in the actual story, but their relationship defines much of who he is.  I used the talking in bed exercise to help figure out how the husband and wife’s relationship changed after the death of their daughter. In my mind it wasn’t clear if they were on the verge of splitting up, or if they were able to stay close and help each other through their difficulties. That bedroom scene, which didn’t make it into the story, helped me figure out that it is a bit of both. Not all of the exercises were as useful as the two mentioned above, but by including a lot of exercises on varying topics The Lie That Tells A Truth helped me more than any other craft book I’ve read so far.

Dufresne’s tone in The Lie That Tells A Truth felt less like he was an instructor lecturing but more like a buddy sharing writing tips. This is in part due to the language he uses, and part is simply due to his jovial attitude in the book. Some previous craft books that I’ve read felt very weighty and bogged down in the vocabulary used (Baxter, I’m looking at you). But it isn’t just the vocabulary used in The Lie That Tells A Truth, but also that Dufresne feels like he’s having more fun with the material. That makes it easier to process and more enjoyable for me as both a writer who is trying to put this advice into practice and as a reader who is just trying to get through the book. On page 59 he writes: “The First Commandment of writing fiction is, Sit Your Ass in the Chair. And sit it there daily. Strap on a seat belt if you must, but sit. (Velcro slacks?)” (59). I write because I enjoy it (among other reasons), and it is easier to learn if I feel the craft book treats it in the same way.

No one book on writing is perfect, but The Lie That Tells A Truth is a good place to start for new writers and a welcome refresher for those with more experience. Dufresne is both  comprehensive in his treatment of the material and engaging in its presentation, and he has a terrific collection of writing exercises. The exercises alone would have made the book a worthwhile text, but the pages of The Lie That Tells A Truth are also filled with good ideas and helpful advice.

Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells A Truth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Rusted out floorboards and other important things I thought I had forgotten

A few weeks ago, I attended the North Carolina Writers’ Network fall conference. Besides all of the informative panel discussions, entertaining readings, and workshops, this conference offered something I find it hard to resist: the beach. It was cold that weekend, but I got to walk on the sand. I got to pick up shells formed in slow layers by mysterious creatures and then undone and offered up by the sea. I find the ocean restorative and inspiring, and so it wasn’t surprising to me that among the many moments of clarity from those few days, there was this from poet Peter Makuck: good poetry offers its readers something familiar.

As simple as it sounds, poetry that works is accessible. One of the reasons that many people use strong words like “hate” when referring to poetry is because they don’t get it. There is nothing in the poems that they have been exposed to that is familiar. While scrolling through my Twitter feed today, I found a poem tweeted by the Poetry Foundation (@PoetryFound) that offers a few simple, common experiences put together in such a way that they become more than themselves. You know the phrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”? Kelle Groom’s “Ode to My Toyota” is a perfect example.

The poem opens with the speaker looking down at the road through holes in the rusted out floorboards of his old car. The rest of the car is just as used, just as worn in. Roaches “came / for the mushrooms that grew in the carpet / lush from all the unrestricted rain, the diet of pink / liquid drizzle at the bottom of Pep Power cups / collected on the passenger side” (lines 4-7). Now, I don’t know what Pep Power is, but I don’t really need to. I’ve collected cups on the passenger side of my vehicles. I’ve collected cans, crumpled fast food bags, and other things that shall not be named on the floors of my cars as well. The point is, many people have been in just that type of car, and that makes the opening of the poem inviting. While we may not want to actually sit in that car, we can relate. And that makes the reader want to find out what the poet will do next. What Groom does next is beautiful and sad and oh, how it works.

The car is “finally sold for a hundred dollars to a friend’s husband / after he’d become lost in addiction to sex, contracted / AIDS, a beautiful man with blue jewel eyes” (lines 15-17) who drives it “so far north, / everything froze” (lines 20, 21). The car and the man have been, finally, stopped. The last four lines are haunting. I am familiar with cars that have been “run into the dirt.” I am familiar with people who have done the same thing to themselves. But I don’t know where those cars, or some of those people, are. This poem took me back. It offered up my own memories, layered over and worn down by time.

Read the rest of the poem at the Poetry Foundation website.

Groom, Kelle. “Ode to my Toyota.” Poetry Foundation. 2013. Web. 12 Dec 2013.

Forty-three Ways to Play with Barbie

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For over fifty years, the Barbie fashion doll has been put in the hands of millions of little girls and over time, the doll has become a pop icon that has sparked controversy. Barbie is sometimes charged with promoting an unrealistic standard for beauty, but over the years, she has also inspired many creative works. In Denise Duhamel’s collection of poetry entitled, Kinky, the doll is used in parody. What works about this collection besides its obvious cleverness, is that it gives the reader a myriad of vantage points on the same subject. All forty-three poems connect to Barbie, but each takes you in a different direction to contemplate the history, associations, and implications of what was intended to be simply a teenage fashion doll.
The collection is divided into four parts: Lipstick, Powder Blush, Mascara, and Eye shadow, representing all the things needed to keep Barbie’s face and image beautiful. In the first part, there are poems focused mostly on the cultural history of the doll. Duhamel pokes fun at Mattel’s attempt at cultural and ethnic sensitivity. In “Hispanic Barbie”, she writes: “Born in 1980, Hispanic Barbie looks exactly like Black or White Barbie. You can pretend she’s Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Chilean, or Venezuelan. ..” My favorite poem, “Native American Barbie,” is a one-line poem that acts as a punch line: “There is only one of her left.”
The title poem, “Kinky” begins with Barbie and Ken switching heads in an attempt to “spice-up” their relationship. All the poems are free verse. Some employ dialogue while others employ narration. She uses specific details and word play to bridge the real world to Barbie’s imaginary one. Other titles include: “Anti-Christ Barbie”, “Buddhist Barbie”, “Literary Barbie”, “Barbie’s Molester”, and “Afterlife Barbie.”
In this collection, Duhamel does a comedic critique of society. She uses Barbie to cover topics such as sexism, feminism, racism, war, love, sex, exploitation, and religion. Her cleverness with subject matter and language can lend to deep contemplation and discussion, while other poems are just laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the truth of her observations can be arresting, especially in poems like, “Manifest Barbie” where you learn:
In the Philippines
Women workers in fashion doll factories
Are given cash incentives
For sterilization

Facts like these are hard to swallow, so Duhamel makes sure to add humor. Satire works here along with every other connection to the doll and her well-known moveable and detachable parts. After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at the Barbie doll the same.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky. Alexandria Virginia: Orchises Press: 1997.

Make up Your Own Mind: Letting the Reader Write

by Rhonda Browning White

During my MFA days, I kept a journal of important suggestions and bits of advice passed down to me by professors, instructors, visiting writers and my cohorts; epiphanies, ah-ha moments, words to live by, definitely words to write by. I still turn to these one-liners, these brief explanations, these light-bulb statements that point me in the right direction when I feel lost or need inspiration. One such statement came from my mentor, author Robert Olmstead, who said to my workshop peers and me, “It’s not about what you write, it’s what you don’t write. Make the reader do some of the writing. Invoke, invoke, invoke. Make the reader conjoin A and C. Leave out B. Don’t burn words.”

For years, I had spelled out everything for the reader. I wanted her to understand. I wanted to explain. In that moment, I realized that the best fiction—stories I love and re-read, are the stories that allow me to draw my own conclusions. And sometimes, in the re-reading, my opinion and conclusion changes. These stories become, for me, timeless.

Since then, I’ve sought short stories in which the narrative and its elements are not spoon-fed to us, stories where we are allowed to develop a relationship with the characters and draw reflective meaning from their experiences. Here are two examples I’ve found in The Best American Short Stories 2010, which we can examine and learn from to prevent ourselves from burning words.

In her story “All Boy,” Lori Ostlund writes of Harold, a studious and introverted child who is audience to the breakdown of his parents’ marriage (Ostlund 263-78). His father is gay. We know, without being specifically told, that Harold’s mother fears their son may have homosexual tendencies, so she protects him from being ostracized by teachers and classmates by telling them, “I guess Harold’s just all boy” (Ostlund 275). Ostlund never points out these things directly, but lets the reader reach this conclusion and determine for herself if Harold’s mother is in denial of her husband’s and son’s tendencies, or if she’s merely operating in the protective role of mother. Ostlund never tells us until the last paragraphs that Harold’s father is gay. We are allowed to experience this revelation as Harold experienced it; gradually, by applying our own knowledge and societal frames of reference to what is taking place. We experience for ourselves what Harold is thinking and feeling, so much so that at the end of the story, we want to usher him back into the safety of the womb-like closet, where he is protected from the harsh realities of the world.

We suspect from the opening line of Tea Obreht’s “The Laugh” that the darkest part of the story is over. “They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out” (Obreht 246). Still, suspense builds throughout as we learn that Neal, our narrator, feels guilty over some instance that occurred between him and best friend Roland’s late wife, Femi. He loved her, I inferred, though no steamy affair ever made print. Throughout the story, Neal does everything he can to protect Roland; physically, when he follows him into a pack of wildebeests without a loaded gun; and emotionally, when he places heavy sacks of flour into Femi’s empty casket to keep Roland from discovering that hyenas stole her body. Neal came face-to-face with one of these hyenas, though a pane of glass separated them. But the hyenas’ laugh, not their vile golden eyes, was what tormented him. “It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth” (Obreht 257). Yet, when the story ends, it isn’t the hyenas’ laugh that haunts him, it is Femi’s laugh. Again, the reader is left to her own inference, her own conclusion, based on her knowledge—not of hyenas, but of humans and human nature.

It is what we leave out, then, not what we put into a story, that provides the reader with a satisfying, poignant or devastating twist. Leave out the B parts. Let your reader reveal what has been hidden, let him write what is missing.

 Works Cited

Obreht, Tea. “The Laugh.” Russo 246-62.

Ostlund, Lori. “All Boy.” Russo 263-278.

Russo, Richard, ed. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2010. New York: Houghton,   2010. Print.