| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Tell More Lies
Poems and stories are only two sorts of lies, but they’re the ones Steven Duong tells most often. Try out his writing exercise to generate new work.
To quote the venerable Phoebe Bridgers, “I’m a liar who lies ‘cause I’m a liar.” I used to feel bad about this, like some slimy sleeper agent in the poet-to-novelist pipeline, but I’ve since learned to embrace the feeling. Poems and stories are only two sorts of lies, but they’re the ones I tell most often. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s call the poem a lie about what an experience looks and sounds and tastes like, and the story a lie about how it feels in time and space. Even if you don’t buy this, you can hopefully still see them as two forms of compression. The lines of the poem and the pages of the story are bounds we place on the boundless experience of being a person in the world, surrounded by other people doing just the same. In other words, what we have here are containers.
The Great Lie of my writing life is that my poems and stories can depict, within their containers, a world as real or realer than the world outside. Sometimes I believe it and sometimes I don’t. Either way, it’s so damn hard to find a container that can actually hold all the experiences and ideas I want to render. Lineation, plot, meter, character, POV—I could talk about these craft concerns for years, but sometimes it’s easier to think of them as ways to pressurize the contents of the container, to force the lies to implode and reveal something truer, if only for a second, in the dust. That’s the trick: With the right lie, you can get so close to the truth you don’t even need to tell it.
When you sit down to write today, think about your favorite literary liars, from Mr. Rochester to Humbert Humbert to the unnamed hibernation enthusiast in My Year of Rest and Relaxation . Channel their absolutely dismal vibes. Think also of all the lies you’ve told and been told. When a liar lies, they imagine, for a second, a world in which that lie is the truth. What do these liar-worlds actually look like? And what truths do the lies displace? Don’t think too hard about the nature of capital-T truth, lest you get caught up in another tired conversation about autofiction or diaspora poetry or how MFA programs ruined American literature. Instead, try this:
Tell a small lie for a good reason.
Type the lie out at the top of the page. One sentence. Make it simple. For a work of fiction, try something like: Steven tells Rasheeda he’s a Pisces, though he’s actually a Gemini. Now, write a scene in which your character must tell this lie. Is it to avoid a painful memory? To ease someone else’s conscience? To appear more astrologically stable to a potential friend? Allow the other characters to pressure your lying character and make the lie a way of either relieving that pressure or transmuting it into a more manageable form. A friend once said something to me along the lines of, “I’m not gaslighting you, I’m just queering your truth,” which I found hilarious. Also bleak. The best stories are usually both of these things and a good lie can get us where we need to go.
For the poets in the back: Begin a poem in which the speaker tells a small, necessary lie about themselves. Maybe it’s about their spiritual beliefs or their age or their relationship status. For example: On Mother’s Day I tell my mother I’m excited / to be a mother. Have something in the poem—enjambment, tone, imagery—push the speaker away from the truth. The formal elements of, say, a ghazal, force the poet to return again and again to the same words, but how can the speaker slip from those constraints? How can they lie their way out? And what makes a lie the only way forward?
Tell a big lie for no reason.
A lie doesn’t have to be an escape hatch. It can also be a form of play. After the small lie above, make your character tell a big one. Maybe this lie is a sexual fantasy or a coping mechanism or a hallucinatory episode, but don’t worry about the reasons for now. Just have them lie for the sake of lying. Make it big and wild and verifiably stupid. A friend of mine from Somaliland used to introduce herself at college parties as a Somali princess. It was mostly a bit until one day a classmate posted an unflattering picture of her on social media and she told him to take it down or else her mother, the queen, would have a PR scandal on her hands. And it worked. He took it down immediately. Take it from my fake Somali princess friend: a lie is only a lie until it isn’t.
As for the poets: Indulge your sense of play, but keep it divorced from the poem’s internal logic for now. Have the speaker tell a lie with no justification but itself. The sky doesn’t have to be gray because the speaker is grieving their mother. Maybe it’s purple because it’s purple, and now that it’s purple, the speaker finds themselves thinking of Prince, their mother’s favorite artist, and Future, their own favorite artist, and then, all of a sudden, the poem is about sex and drugs and rock and roll. Why not? Allow the lie to be a trampoline for associative leaps. Once you’ve got that first lie rolling, let the poem wheel forward with that momentum into as many lies or truths as you see fit.
At the end of the day, all you need to do today is tell one or two lies. Tell them for the sake of telling them, and also tell them because you have to. Even if you’re writing toward the truth, find the fictions at the heart of it and push them to the forefront. When you tell your lies, tell them slant. It’s bound to take you somewhere. Godspeed, liars and charlatans. <3