Sunday, September 15, 2013

Secrets and Storytelling

Thanks to StoryDam for suggesting this prompt!
I was a lousy secret-keeper as a child. One, because public television taught me that lying was bad and that keeping secrets often made people feel hurt. Two because I was a terrible liar. So unfortunately, I have no memory of what my first secret was, the one that I was actually able to keep into my adulthood.

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That said, while I couldn't keep secrets, others were good at keeping secrets from ME. For example, when my dad was sick from cancer, no one mentioned the C-word in my presence. They merely told me that he had stomach pains, and he said that he would get better in September. 

In August of that year, my dad died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I only learned later that he had received cancer, and that my family had not disclosed that information to protect ten-year old me. No one could have anticipated the anger I felt that year in addition to grief, at the feeling of having been deceived.
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A word to parents out there: don't be afraid to talk about cancer with your little ones if they're old enough to understand. Ten-year olds are old enough, and they'd rather know when to say goodbye than to have their dads drop dead suddenly. 

I only learned to keep secrets in college, which I attended eight years after my dad died. They're rather like holding in little buzzing stones that vibrate when you hide them. But they can stay unsaid, buried for long periods of time. 

How can a writer use secrets, especially if a writer has had experience of being a bad liar? Quite simply, to build and destroy relationships between characters. When I think of the year my dad died, I think of a book we read called The GiverThe Giver features a world where people don't lie, everyone has their place, and war has ended. At least, people don't lie in theory; the protagonist Jonas receives permission to lie when he is apprenticed to the titular character. 

Secrets destroy Jonas's relationship with his friends and family, though not for lack of trying. He has to remember events from the past that his best friends cannot comprehend, such as war and colors, and explain why they become meaningful in a gray world with dull-colored grass. He cannot convince his little sister that elephants were larger creatures than her stuffed toy, or ask his parents if they love him. His training isolates him, as he has to keep these secrets from people who cannot understand. Jonas finally gives up when he finds out what his father as a caregiver does to unfortunate babies.

Jonas has learned to feel anger and grief in a world without true feelings, and Lois Lowry only reveals his father's and the society's secret when Jonas can weep, rage, and condemn. He soon has to keep secrets of his own to change society for the better, and to rescue his baby brother. Although he grows as a person, his decision to change means sacrificing his old life and hurting everyone around him.

Honesty is dangerous in real life. When we tell the truth, others take advantage of us, or mock us into keeping our desires secret. In books, however, honesty and secrets have the potential to battle out and build a stronger character, one who will make sacrifices and know when to lie or withhold information. That is how we can use sealed lips when crafting stories.


Matt Anderson said...

It sucks to be lied to, especially something as important as death. So I'm always Honest, about the important things anyway. I only lie if I'm trying to make a point.

But in fiction, lies are essential. In a way, stories are nothing but one big lie (if you're blunt about it), but more than that they help to retain tension, produce drama and influence character.
I recently re-watched the Doctor Who episode "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", & I was reminded of that old fan-quote - "The Doctor Lies".
In the show, the Doctor lies from a mixture of responsibility and fear, and uses that to protect his friends from the darker truth. In his own words:
"Secrets protect us, secrets make us safe."

I find that, in reality, you should only be afraid of (and avoid) the truth as much as you fear (and avoid) the real world. That's all honesty is, after all - talking about how the world really is.

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea. So sad about your family not telling you about your dad's illness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

-- Whortleberry Press

Morgan Dragonwillow said...

Sorry your family kept such an important secret from you. Thanks for writing to the Story Dam Prompt. Peace to you.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Hi Priya! I didnt see your banned book post this morning. Let me know if you are still able to do it- I leave this afternoon for camping ;)