Thursday, 19 March 2015

I'm really unreliable - and you can rely on that

Just a little warning to anybody arriving at my site for the first time. Don't believe everything I say.

So how do you know which stuff I say you can believe and which stuff you can't? Well to be honest I have no idea. I'm not even sure if you can believe me when I say that you can't believe me.

That's the tricky bit. As a writer, I am in the business of making stuff up. I'm a professional storyteller, an inveterate and incorrigible fabricator. Everything that comes into my head, no matter how correct and verifiable in the beginning, inevitably ends up getting twisted and turned until it ends up being something completely different.

Did I just say that? Then maybe it's not even true. Maybe it's just something else that I've imagined.

This lack of clarity about where the truth lies can make life very interesting for a writer. Often, I'll use autobiographical details as the inspiration for a story. But as the reality of events gradually begins to be converted into the fiction of a story, the line between what actually happened and what I imagined happened starts to get very blurry indeed. After a while, I start to have no idea where the distinction between fiction and reality lies. I begin to exist in a strange nether world between the two.

Or maybe I don't. Maybe I just made that up too.

In the end, does it really matter? If the essential truth is retained, even if the details become substantially different, does that not mean that I'm still a faithful compiler of events?

Part of me says yes. I'm the sort of person who is very much into solid facts. If something happened, then it had to happen. The last thing we want to do is find ourselves down some kind of post-modern rabbit hole where fact and fiction become meaningless.

But another part of me disagrees. We can never be sure exactly what is fact and what is fiction. Memory is unreliable, and all our experiences are somehow mediated by our senses and influenced by our prejudices and expectations.

In the end, I'm not sure I can believe either of those parts of me.

So where does that leave me? I have no idea. If I'm stuck down some kind of post-modern rabbit hole, then I guess I better learn how to dig. Quickly.

All I can say is don't rely on anything that you've just read. And that's something you can rely on.


  1. Preaching to the choir. I wrote this poem back in 1996. In fact it’s the title of my new collection:


          Writers are all liars. We all are.
          But at least they are honest liars.

          They write down those necessary lies,
          the kind that move men to leaps of faith
          or excuse us when we fail to jump.

          In the end it doesn't matter that
          they let us down in the cruellest ways.

    The book I’m editing just now is about a writer and there’s a lot of talk about the nature of truth. I think truth is a nice idea and I’m not saying it doesn’t exist but communicating its existence is far from easy. Two things get in the way: 1) words are poor quality containers for meaning and 2) people have to interpret those words and never get it quite right. My favourite whipping boy is “I love you.” We say it and we mean it but how do we know we’ve fully conveyed the way or the degree to which we love that person? Which is why we have the old adage: Actions speak louder than words. Why on earth do so many people want to be writers? It really is an impossible task.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Sometimes I get the feeling we're in each other's choir.

      Have a good week.