I recently read Ruth Ware’s great new novel The Lying Game, which I loved, and which brought back memories of a childhood game we used to play to entertain ourselves on the journey to school on a crowded train. It also threw up the age-old question: what is a lie, and what is fiction? Is it ok to embellish the truth for the sake of entertainment? Where would we be without the enjoyment of the great Aussie fishing story about the one that got away (or the one that never even existed)?
Looking for a bit of excitement
Having been a voracious reader as far back as I can remember, I realised very early on that my own sheltered and somewhat uneventful life would need a lot of fictional embellishment to make for interesting reading (or telling). I neither had four intrepid friends and a dog who would join me in catching criminals, nor lived anywhere near a wild and dangerous coastline where I could stumble across a pirates’ treasure or an old skeleton anytime soon. And even though I had suspicions that the strange man living on the first floor might have been a Russian secret agent sent to gather vital intelligence for the Russian space program, I knew that spying on my neighbours through binoculars and recording all my findings in a Harriette-the-Spy worthy notebook freaked my parents out. However, despite being a nerdy kid, I had earned a sort of strange popularity with the other neighbourhood children for organising elaborate fantasy role-playing games, which were so involved they took on the complexity of a filming of Lord of the Rings and added a bit of excitement to our city lives. Until our games came to an abrupt halt when some nosy adult discovered our secret lair, a little forgotten chamber in the cellar of the apartment block, where we had forged our blood-brother bond by branding our skin with a tyre iron heated over a candle flame. I’m not sure if it was the mother of a child presenting to A&E for a coin sized 2nd degree burn on his upper arm or the old lady on the second floor smelling the fumes from molten lead and burnt skin that ratted us out, but a huge padlock was fitted to the little chamber and our days of excitement were over.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story
With life reduced to its normal, boring routine, I had to resort to fiction to add an interesting element to my life. Having been asked to write an essay about our Easter weekend by our third grade teacher, I chewed my pencil for hours, trying to think of something to say. It had rained all Easter and we had spent a lot of time indoors reading books and eating chocolate. How could I fill an entire A4 page with that? Perhaps it was a desperate cry for help of my inner frustrated author or sheer rebellion, but I made up a story of excitement and adventure that must have sounded credible to my teacher, because she asked me to read it out loud in front of the whole school at the next assembly. My initial euphoria and pride soon gave way to abject terror. My parents would be there, and they would know I had lied. Lied! A sin I would have to confess to our scary stern-faced priest at Sunday confessional, and one that a few Hail Mary’s would not be able to fix. I was terrified! Imagining lightning striking me as I stood at the podium reading, I worked myself up into such a state that I was physically sick, until my worried parents waived the usual rule of having to have a temperature of at least 39C before qualifying for a day off school, and sent me back to bed. Phew! That was a narrow escape. And whilst this may have been the beginning and end of my author career, it did teach me the value of a good fishing story. To quote a friend of mine: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Just make sure to tell it when there is no one around to contradict what you are saying.
Adding some journalistic flair
My family have long gotten used to my “journalistic licence” in telling stories around the campfire, snickering quietly into their drinks but thankfully keeping quiet to point out the “slight exaggeration”. Is it a lie if you embellish the truth to make it more interesting? Or is it allowable for the sake of entertainment? There is nothing more boring than a real fishing story – I know this first-hand after having been forced to sit through hours of an uncle’s mind-numbingly boring slide-shows of his boat cruises as a child (they still haunt me in my nightmares!). But add a bit of drama, a shark circling the dark waters, a tornado descending on the beach, the fishing rod quivering under the weight as you landed Mobi the whale himself and dragged him all the way up the beach to the carpark, supplying enough meat to feed a whole village. What would you rather listen to? And in the way of a good fishing story, if you tell it enough times it begins to form its own memory, blends with the truth to take on a kind of realism of its own. Until you almost believe it yourself.
Never underestimate the value of a good fishing story
Fiction or Lie? It’s like one of those impossible moral and ethical dilemmas you read about on the internet. You decide. Just never underestimate the value of a good fishing story.