I wrote this essay in 2007 for an Opinion Writing class at College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina (Thank you, Chris Lamb.) Today I reread it for some reason and the only thing I had to change was to switch a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope reference for an Online Submission Manager reference. Otherwise, nothing has changed in the essay or in real life, apparently. Looking forward to 2013.
I often find myself telling lies when I am riding in the back of a taxi cab. I’ve always done it, ever since I’ve ridden in cabs, as long as I remember.
When the driver asks me a question, or sometimes when he doesn’t, I like to make up a story about myself and see if he’ll believe me. I’ll construct a tale about how I have come east from Oregon where my parents are hippies that belong to a coven of new age witches but I want to be an investment banker in “the big city.” Or that my uncle is British actor Peter O’Toole. Or that I used to raise manatees on a manatee farm, then release them into the wild to mate wearing little GPS nose rings. I’ve even told a bus driver that I suffer from narcolepsy and that he had to speak continuously during the ride so I wouldn’t pass out and miss my stop. I don’t know why I do these things. I can’t help myself.
I was an avid practitioner of the prank phone call when I was a kid. Okay, sometimes I still make them. But everyone screens their calls these days, so what’s the point?
I’ve been like this forever. Anything one can imagine is real, at least as a product of the imagination. And that’s usually good enough for me.
Despite this aspect of my personality, I’ve never considered myself a dishonest person. I try not to lie in important situations, or to people I know well, or even to people I am just barely acquainted with. It’s mostly when I get around absolute strangers that I can’t hold my tongue. It’s pathological. The need to make up stories. Not only do I construct these fantasies but for some reason I feel compelled to share them. Somehow that makes a lie more real, I think. To utter it out loud, especially in public.
Somehow, I have been very lucky through the years and have managed to end up with the right kind of teachers. Teachers who guided this passion for bullshit in a more supposedly constructive direction: writing fiction.
Everyone should have a legitimate outlet for all the good lies they want to tell but know they shouldn’t. If you don’t have one, get one. Or make one up. Nobody calls a comedian bogus when their real-life mother-in-law turns out to be a sweetheart and not some haggard beast. There is a thin line between art and artifice sometimes. That line works as a kind of protective casing for our lies, in the same way a plastic box does for Barbie. I needed that kind of shield because there is no way I am going to stop telling lies.
By making up fictional characters and putting their lives down on paper, I get the chance to really hone my skills as a liar. I am able to sit alone at my keyboard and create the most wonderfully entertaining lie I can possibly think of, then revise and revise and revise to my heart’s content until my lie is as perfect as I can get it.
Sometimes I start to believe it myself at this point. Then I submit the lie via an online submission manager. I wait a month or two while it sits in a big pile on some editor’s desk until eventually that editor, or someone who works for them, writes back to tell me whether or not they like the lie, all the while knowing it’s fake. It’s a whole process.
So I still find myself telling lies in taxis. I yearn for the spontaneity, I guess. Or maybe it’s the physical contact, the immediate reaction of another human being. The other day for instance, a young African-American cab driver picked me up at Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C.. Before I knew it, I had told him that I was the World’s Most Famous Unpublished Novelist, on my way home from a talk show appearance. I think he believed me.
“How’d you get so famous without publishing anything?” he asked.
“People kept talking about me on the internet,” I said. “It was weird. But I like it.”
“Are you ever going to publish anything?”
“I hope so,” I told him, pretending to consider the option. “Although I might just ride this thing out for awhile. Being unpublished seems to be working out pretty well so far.”
Then he asked me my name.
“Richard Speck,” I told him. It was the first thing that came into my head.
Was this wrong? Did this man go home and tell his family he met me, Richard Speck, the World’s Most Famous Unpublished Novelist?
And on top of everything, I was broke and could not afford a real tip, so I just gave him a few dishonest quarters.
Is it possible that I gave Richard Speck a bad name?
Sometimes I wonder how I should feel about these things.
Am I a bad person? Or mentally ill? Or both? I am sure there is something wrong with me. I try to make up a cure.
Anything is possible. Maybe that entire anecdote was an elaborate ruse for my own entertainment. Why not? My credibility is shot by this point in the essay.
Although, to tell the truth, I’m not sure that it matters.