The Thief’s Mentality: A Preview


The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on my part. Her charges were so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself. I’ve also encountered compulsive liars who used such tactics on me, so often, that I never managed to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized their accusations said more about them and their worldview than it ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.

Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. He spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.

Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.

The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny person can disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.

Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.

One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either

The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”

To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his interpretation of her desires.

Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his act of rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that for the rest of us, we have had this inherent part of our makeup denied so long, by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently, that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it’s not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anythingEver? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.

When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from the shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good lesson because he refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.

I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”

I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.

“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”

It was an invitation into a world I had never known, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.

Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”

He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.

Soon after recovering from that awe, I began to wonder how one might acquire such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief prefers to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires either a defeat of that sense of shame or the ability to manage it.

Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.

I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those that consider this a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.

If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceive to be so harmless it’s almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out. Our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. Some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.

The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive the thief to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation. 

The thief’s mentality is deflection, by way of subterfuge, a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve as to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see past the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.

In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we begin to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.

Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to a thief’s need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, all theory is autobiography.

Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.

Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:

“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.

With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most banal arenas of life. These worried friends said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredemable.” My friends are insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wonder what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.

“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends have consigned themselves to some sort of relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it, also suggests to them that someone has had similar experiences so often that they developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.

The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere on the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the other side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms our parents and mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

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How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining


authenticity_strengthIn a previous post, I wrote that being entertaining is far more important than being honest when writing fiction. {1} That thesis has recently been challenged in a blog written by Diane McKinnon called Writing Authentically.  In her blog, Ms. McKinnon suggests that: “It’s better to write it as authentically as possible, and decide not to share it, than to write a sanitized version of it and have it move no one, not even me.” {2} Ms. McKinnon writes that those that have read her “sanitized” versions have found something lacking.  “The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it,” one commenter said.  “How did you feel?  We want to know,” said another.  The insinuation that Ms. McKinnon leaves with these comments is that she wasn’t able to achieve an emotional truth in her piece without, first, writing the total truth of the matter in an original version.  She writes that she would never publish the unvarnished truth, for she wouldn’t want to hurt those involved in the truth, but she felt the need to write the truth, so that she could get to the inner core of the matter, before eventually revising the truth out in the final, published, and sanitized version.

How does a fiction writer avoid the truth, is a question I would ask her, even in a sanitized version?  If you’ve been a writer for an amount of time, and you’ve mined your soul for depth, I don’t know how you avoid the truth.  I do know my truth, I would argue, and I probably know it better than those that experienced it with me.  I feel it incumbent upon me to know the truth, and to study it from every possible angle I can think of, if I ever hope to embellish upon it properly, and I don’t think I need to first create an “authentic” version first to know it better.

My job as a writer, as I see it, is to take the experiences of my life that I’ve found entertaining, and combine them with a degree of creativity to create a fascinating story.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, some of the best writers I’ve ever read were also some of the best liars, and for a liar to become a really good liar they have to know the truth, and for a really good liar to become a writer they have to know the truth better than anyone else involved.  If a liar is just an outrageous liar, with no fundamental basis of truth, they’ll get called out on it, and most of us have, so we adapt and evolve, and we become intimate with the truth before moving onto the lie, and then the eventual fabricated story about it. For a liar to become a really good liar, they have to take the truth, combine it with their fabrication, and twist it around so that even those that shared the experience with us begin to question their memory of it.  If the liar is going to achieve this optimum level of confusion and believability, they will have to eventually reach a point where they twist the truth around so often, and so artfully, and with such conviction, that they accidentally convinced themselves of the story about it.  After doing this for a significant amount of time, the really good liar learns to channel that gift for lying into something that doesn’t cause embarrassing ramifications or harm to those affected by the lies.  They learn that writers tell lies that make people laugh, and it’s usually the reason why they became a writer in the first place.

The lies of our character.  When writers write characters we want to write the most entertaining characters that have ever graced an 8 X 11, but for these characters to achieve life-like qualities, we’ve learned that they can never stray so far away from our core that we feel lost within the characterization.  Even when we write bad guys, we may achieve some distance, but if that character strays too far from who we are, we lose touch with him.  That character may be based on that surprisingly uncaring friend we have that is capable of causing some people harm without conscience, and we may even take our characterization of him out to a limb that that even he couldn’t contemplate, but for those characters to move us, and others, we will eventually run into some element of our truth.

Larry David (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life.  The difference, says Mr. David, is that the character says and does things that the real Larry David wishes he could’ve said or done.  Larry David is writing a character that is the complete opposite of him in these given situations, but that character still has a truth about him that Larry can identify with.  He has his character do things that tick people off, he has him do things that are occasionally immoral and spiteful, but he also has this character do things that entertain him, and in doing so he may be saying more about his personal character than the real life Larry David that couches his personality to be polite.

If you’re a writer that has written at any length, or with any measure of depth, I don’t know how you can avoid the truth of who you are.  I don’t know how you can write a sanitized version of the truth without complete exploration of that truth.  I don’t know how you can write a complete character, a decent setting, or a captivating conflict without exhaustive reflection of the way you see the world, or your truth, and I don’t think you have to write a “true” version and an “embellished” version to achieve it.

{1}https://rilaly.com/2012/05/10/how-to-succeed-in-writing-part-ii-the-search-for-the-great-story/

{2} http://nhwn.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/writing-authentically/

The Thief’s Mentality


The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on my part. Her charges were so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself. I’ve also encountered compulsive liars who used such tactics on me, so often, that I never managed to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized their accusations said more about them and their worldview than it ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.

Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. He spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.

Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.

The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny person can disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.

Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.

One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either

The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”

To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his interpretation of her desires.

Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his act of rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that for the rest of us, we have had this inherent part of our makeup denied so long, by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently, that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it’s not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anythingEver? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.

When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from the shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good lesson because he refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.

I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”

I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.

“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”

It was an invitation into a world I had never known, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.

Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”

He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.

Soon after recovering from that awe, I began to wonder how one might acquire such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief prefers to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires either a defeat of that sense of shame or the ability to manage it.

Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.

I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those that consider this a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.

If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceive to be so harmless it’s almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out. Our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. Some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.

The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive the thief to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation. 

The thief’s mentality is deflection, by way of subterfuge, a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve as to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see past the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.

In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we begin to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.

Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to a thief’s need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, all theory is autobiography.

Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.

Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:

“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.

With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most banal arenas of life. These worried friends said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredemable.” My friends are insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wonder what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.

“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends have consigned themselves to some sort of relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it, also suggests to them that someone has had similar experiences so often that they developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.

The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere on the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the other side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms our parents and mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

How to Succeed in Writing Part II: The Search for the Great Story


Being Entertaining is More Important Than Being Honest

Do you have a great story to tell? Is it good? Is it great? Do your friends find your stories mildly amusing, somewhat clever, a little sad, and really good in parts, or do they find them great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories right out of the gate, and aspiring writers are a dime a dozen. Great stories litter our libraries and bookstores. Do you have a great story to tell? Most people do. There’s nothing special about you, or your “great American” story, not yet.

“I hear you want to be a writer,” a friend of mine said. “One thing about young writers (which I was at the time) is that they have not accumulated interesting stories. I don’t mean to be insulting, but at your age you just haven’t lived enough life to have interesting stories.” After a back and forth in which he asked me to tell him one of my stories, he offered me his own. His story was “part John Grisham and part Ludlum”. The story was not as great as he thought, but the two points he made about material stuck with me.  

The first was his point that the continental divide between great writers and great storytellers is entertaining material. A writer can craft a fine tale, but if it’s not entertaining, it may not make it past the sites that adore a great story. The second point he made, perhaps incidentally, was that there’s nothing wrong with embellishing, if it makes the story better.

But you are a great writer with excellent material. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others don’t and amazement is directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you may have enough material to entertain your Aunt Clara, because she knows you and she knows the characters in your life, but you don’t have the type of material that will entertain a wider audience. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.

It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some people have natural gifts that lead them to be better at basketball and football than others. Some would say that the ability to tell a story is a gift, but I’m more inclined to believe that some people just enjoy it more, and when one enjoys something more, they work harder at it. The fascinated storyteller studies it, finesses it, and learns from those around them who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us learn how to tell a story better than others, because we want to tell a story better. We mimic those that tell stories better than us, and we correct the mistakes we see in others’ attempts.

One thing I learned, through the course of my life, was to trim the fat. I used to believe that my audience needed all of the details to appreciate a story. I then learned that all of those details harmed the most crucial element of storytelling, pace. Pace is crucial for we must treat our audience as if they have a five-year-old’s attention span. Storytellers then learn, through trial and error, that if we focus on pace too much, we leave crucial nuggets out. Achieving the hybrid involved a never-ending learning process.

Before entering into these stories we tell our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that when a room full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults gather they spend so much time obsessing over pets and children. When we’re done obsessing over our kids and pets, we share memories. It’s in these moments that a true storyteller is separated from those who struggle with  details, timing, the proper emphasis, and the number of syllables to use to  punctuate a punch line. It’s in these moments that we learn the art of presentation.

Lan 1283On the art of presentation, comedian Steve Martin once compared comedy to  music: “There is a harmony to comedy,” he said, “in that three beats are always funnier than two and four beats is a bit too much.” Only someone that gets off on telling stories, and trying to make people laugh, would focus on the minutiae of presentation so much that he focuses on beats. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve changed a word, a phrase, or a paragraph to get the rhythm right, or the beat down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve changed an infinitive in a sentence because the alternative just didn’t feel right to the harmony of a paragraph. It’s that attention to detail, that Martin alluded to, that makes storytelling an art form we all enjoy so much.

Once we gain a feel for presentation, and all of the related and inter-related minutiae, the next question is how do we come up with that material that reaches that wider audience and eventually lands you on the best-seller list? Having never achieved the best-seller list, I must admit I have only one super secret, decoder ring answer to all that: hard work. Unless you find a genie in a bottle, or steal an idea from someone else, I can think of no better way to give birth to an idea than through writing a ton of material.

Creative Writing teachers say, “write what you know”, and that is an essential activity in getting us to point A. How many of us have written those “What I did on my summer vacation” stories for our English Composition teachers? How many of those of us who wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these exercises pointless? “Get me to the meat!” we mentally scream. I want it all, and I want it now! Those exercises weren’t entirely pointless, however, they got us thinking, writing, and spring boarding to that something something we considered magic.

That springboard launched those of us that wanted it to take that pointless exercise to the idea that we could write something fantastic … if we honed that artistic muscle in our brain. If we wanted that something fantastic, we learned that the best way to springboard to it was to read some of the masters that sprang from their own springboards. If we wanted it bad enough, we learned that the best way to achieve it was to launch ourselves into more writing and reading, and even more writing and more reading, until we eventually and accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a pointless exercise required by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list that we did.

This leads us to one of the most vital questions all fiction writers must ask themselves: “Will anyone care what I write?” The immediate answer to this question is no. Unless you’re already famous, people won’t care what you think, what happened in your daily life, or if you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.

BullFrom  Ron Shelton’s script for Bull Durham:

“Your  shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs (major  leagues in baseball) with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”

Until you get famous, and those who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll be a slob, until then you’ll need to write something that someone cares about. Nobody cares that your friend has a propensity for lying, for example, unless that characteristic can be added to one of your characters to make them more colorful. Nobody cares that your aunt is ultra-sensitive, even though everything she has in life has been given to her on a silver platter, unless you can infuse that characteristic into a character in a manner that is entertaining to a greater audience. Nobody cares, unless you can translate these characteristics in such a manner that reminds us of our lying friend, or our hyper-sensitive  aunt. Or, if you can’t make this crossover, then you must make that character so damned entertaining that we won’t care when we can’t relate.

SOLZHENITSYN“The key to convincing another person of your point of view,” Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said. “Is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves.”

Convincing someone that they’ve reached your point before you do, is called manipulation in the writer’s lexicon. When most people see the word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian leader manipulating their citizens to think a certain way, but a writer can use their powers of manipulation for good, if they do it right.

How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horrific story? When a reader experiences emotions, after reading a series of words on a page, they were manipulated by the author. If a reader prefers to think of it in other terms, that is their option, but the vein remains the same. The reader was made to care about the central character in ways they considered endemic to the reader, when in all actuality it was the author’s skill to be universal that led them to that point. The author carefully crafted a visual portrait picture that trapped the reader into caring.

It’s the job of the writer to manipulate the reader into believing that they care. It’s the writer’s job to create an environment through which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief.

“If a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested. “The reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

In other words, an author could be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that their friends have ever seen, but the reader don’t know them, and the reader won’t care about the author, or their wacky takes on life, until the reader can relate to the wacky world the author is in charge of creating.

This leads us to the next question: What kind of liar are you? When you were younger did your relatives and friends constantly accuse you of fudging the truth? If that’s the case, you may be a writer. Did they question everything you said, based upon your history of exaggeration and fabrication? If they did, you may be a writer. Were you so good at lying that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, because some part of them wanted to believe your story? If that happened to you, you may be a writer. If you’re a born liar that needs some venue for channeling that inclination to exaggerate your truth to entertain those around you, welcome to the world of words. You can let your freak flag fly here, and we’ll welcome you with open arms. You can be crafty in our world. You can lie, embellish, and exaggerate to entertain. In the world of storytelling, story is sacred, as is the art of being true, even if the writer is being truer than true.

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” –Ernest Hemingway on symbolism.

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” 

When writing nonfiction, we hover over a fault line of true versus truer than true, and we should always side with true. For in most cases, nonfiction is far more entertaining than fiction. It’s a feel that the author shares with the reader, a seam that will tear with wild exaggeration. We need to be careful, in other words, to avoid some exaggerations we find entertaining, because the definition is entertainment is subjective. This is where the manipulative skill of the writer comes into play, for if the author can help the reader define subjectivity, they can both enjoy some exaggerations that prove truer than true for the purpose of entertainment.      

It takes a very steady hand, but those who have written as many stories as I have know what I’m talking about. The art of being true, without necessarily telling the truth, can be found in the art of creating creative non-fiction. If the author is true to the character, the pace, the layout, etc., a fudging of the details will be forgiven if, and I want that word italicized and emboldened, if the story is entertaining.

Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. An author might have interesting stories that have occurred in their life, and they may be worth telling, but they may not be great without some lies, exaggeration, and embellishment. And we won’t care about any of that as long as the author doesn’t swear all the details are 100% true, because we want a great story, and we want to be entertained.

This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. The young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t come up with a decent story for his first novel, so he decided to document his life in Paris, in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. How much of that book was actually based on fact is difficult to know. Was he merely documenting what took place, or was he engaged in creative non-fiction. Whatever the case was, he used it as a springboard for a career that many would say contained some of our finest novels. Hemingway would eventually reach a point where he could no longer come up with great stories, and some have suggested that this search was one of the contributing factors in his decision to take his own life. Before this tragic event occurred though, Hemingway said: “Everyone has one great story in them.  The trick is to have two.” An aspiring author can find that one great story that they have in them, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.

The Invention of Lying: A Review


The gist of this movie is that the greatest lie ever told to man is the existence of God. The fictional movie also exists in a world where everyone always tells the truth, no matter how bold or harsh. No one, in this movie, even knows what a lie is–hence the name of the movie. The Gervais’ character discovers the idea of lying in another scene, and he realizes that it makes life much easier for him in some ways. In another scene, his mother is dying, and she is fearful and desperate. She believes that she will face an eternity of nothingness following her death. In a desperate attempt to soothe her, Gervais’ character invents a place of mansions and happiness (heaven). The doctor and nurses overhear this, and they are intrigued. Word gets out that Gervais’ character has received information about an after-life. He is pursued for this information, and he invents a man in the sky (God). The people are irrationally soothed by Gervais’ character’s ideas. There are no counterpoints to Gervais’ character’s claims in the movie, and there is no counterpoint of enlightenment. The character merely claims at the end that he invented the whole thing.

I feel it’s my duty to inform you that this is not a chick flick, and it’s average. It is not as good as Gervais’ other movie Ghost Town, and it’s not as good as his shows Extras and The Office. The aspect about the ‘lie of God’s existence’ is not listed on the back jacket of the movie, and it’s not in any of the promos I saw. It caught me off guard. Now that you know, feel free to rent, buy, or download if this is your thing.

As to the counterpoint, it would’ve been nice to see some commentary about the other side. Example: While some believe in the existence of a man in the sky, others believe the sky is falling (i.e. Global Warming). While some believe that a bum on the streets is always a victim of circumstance, others believe most of them are there as a result of some form of self-indulgence. While some believe in the mythical assistance men in the leadership roles of government can provide to humanity, others believe that the key to success and happiness in life is through self-sufficiency.

It may have been difficult to fit such counterpoints into the plot, without being too preachy, but the writers of this movie could’ve done it.  They wouldn’t have had to devote huge chunks of dialogue to it, or numerous exchanges, to satisfy the other side.  They could’ve had one scene, or one simple piece of dialogue that questioned the other side.   They could’ve said something along the lines of “a man in Washington spear-headed a movement to attempt to curtail human indulgence, so he got together with his other buddies, and they invented something called Global Warming/Climate Change/Climate Disruption.”  They could’ve written that this attempt to shame human indulgence is equivalent to the definitions employed by individuals of Biblical times that believed that indulging in pursuits that God didn’t approve of, would result in a damaged harvest for the year.  They could’ve written some form of dialogue that suggested that shaming people into acting a particular way is as endemic to the human being as indulging is, and in this particular case (in the movie) the man in Washington was so upset by his unsuccessful bid to become president that he decided that he needed a legacy, so he latched onto an idea that stated that our Capitalism-run-amok form of   indulgence is causing a catastrophe of epic proportions.  They could’ve then concluded that this man’s legacy is now one of self-indulgence based on attempting to curtail indulgence, until he built an ostentatious, and indulgent home, and lavished in the riches his principled stand afforded him, until, like King Midas, everything he touched turned into gold, and his vain sermons on self-indulgence become a method to feed his own need for further indulgences.

This writers of this movie could’ve then had the people of the world irrationally worship the man in Washington, until a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him, and the writers could’ve had this man avoid any dissent and debate with some wild declaration along the lines of “all the science is in.  This catastrophe is happening.”  The writers could’ve had irrational exuberance occurring on both sides, but I’m sure they didn’t want to offend anyone.