We’ve moved past national Pickle Day and Potato Day and all the other auspicious days of great import to… yep, National Tell-A-Lie Day. (Couldn’t have been a congressional decision, or we would have 365 of them each year!)
No, no, I’m not going to suggest you tell a lie today. I’m going to make a Writers Liar’s Day award, which I will follow up with a suggestion.
First the Award:
Pulitzer Prize winner
for her September 29, 1980, Washington Post article,
This heart-wrenching tale circles around a horrific life as described by a little boy, just eight years old. Thanks to his mother’s live-in boyfriend, Jimmy, “a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms” lived a life defined by heroin addiction, violence, and hopelessness. What did the child want to be when he grew up? A dope dealer. And he was already well on his way.
If Janet Cooke wanted to move hearts, she surely succeeded. The Washington Post was flooded with offers to help Jimmy. But Janet refused to divulge his whereabouts. “Too dangerous,” she insisted. She and her bosses figured the excitement would soon die down. Instead, Janet was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for the article. And then her bosses made a shocking discovery: she had made up some of the achievements listed on her resume. Uh-oh!
Finally, the truth came out. There was no Jimmy. Janet Cooke had made him up. His addiction, his sandy hair and velvety brown eyes, his hopelessness, his career dreams… all of it.
Now the suggestion:
Writers, this National Tell-A-Lie day is a good time for all of us to soberly reassess the characters that people our own writing. Let us vow to let fiction be fiction and non-fiction be truly true. That’s not to say we cannot change identifying points—names, descriptions, hometowns, occupations and so forth. But if we build composites, we owe it to our readers to say so. And if we want to write about poor little Jimmy, but when we go to look for him he is not to be found, let us vow to write something else.
“Jimmy prefers this atmosphere to school, where only one subject seems relevant to fulfilling his dreams. ‘I want to have me a bad car and dress good and also have me a good place to live,’ he says. ‘So, I pretty much pay attention to math because I know I got to keep up when I finally get me something [heroin] to sell.’”
Janet Cooke, “Jimmy’s World”