Out of the mouths of babes! Isn’t it great how children can point out the obvious to us, things so fundamental that we no longer give them a moment’s thought and then suddenly – bam – we see them again with the clarity of a child?
I was a guest at a local school talking to a class of eight-year-olds about my books; about the day to day life of an author. A girl put up her hand and asked one of those questions, ‘So you tell lies and people pay you money for it?’
She wasn’t being smart, she was even a little timid. She had been listening carefully and couldn’t quite get her head around the fact that this grown man stayed home all day making up lies on paper and other adults paid me good money for doing it. The teacher beamed at me, delighted that someone else was fielding this question. But how to answer it?
I could see the kids all going home that night and telling their parents it was okay to tell lies. Martin Baynton came to school and said so; he even gets paid for it. The next 20 minutes became a debate as we tried to define when a story was a lie, when it was a fib and when it was fable.
Their definition of a lie was that it was a fib that nobody enjoyed, that it was not about telling a story, but just about getting out of trouble. But that definition fell over when we decided that creative lies like, ‘the dog ate my homework,’ could be entertaining to the teacher. The debate ended with a description the whole class agreed on: stories were designed to entertain, and lies were designed to avoid trouble, but both could be entertaining.
But what was a fable? It was the kids who got us there, slowly but surely and on their own terms. A fable was a truth dressed up inside a fib. The story the fable was telling was a fib, but it was a way of explaining something that was true. I have never forgotten this simple and delightful description. It defines great story telling.
As an audience we respond to truth, we recognize it. Sometimes in their need to avoid cliché a writer will discard the truth, they will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps a writer’s craft is simply the ability to package truth in new and interesting ways.