Evelyn Krieger’s essay, “Liar, Liar,” was runner-up for the 2016 Bechtel Prize. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the Bechtel Prize to the author of an exemplary essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination. In “Liar, Liar,” Krieger reflects on the sources of imagination and the joy of giving your audience a really good story.
by Evelyn Krieger
Fiction is lies. There is the Great Lie, the simple fact that the story is a story and not reportage. Fiction writers, therefore, are liars—and they have to be good ones.
—George Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer
I am seven. My neighbor Maryanne and I sit on the warm cement patio, playing jacks. After a while, I grow bored of the game and even more bored of Maryanne. She is a nice kid, but rather dull. We don’t play together that often. I’m not sure how to tell her I want to be alone.
Mrs. Kaye, my new babysitter, peeks her head outside the patio door and announces lunchtime. She says my friend is welcome to join. This is not what I want to hear. I notice that Mrs. Kaye is wearing my mother’s yellow apron. This reminds me that she won’t be home until dinnertime.
I tell Mrs. Kaye I’ll be there in a minute.
“Who is that?” Maryanne asks after Mrs. Kaye closes the door.
“She takes care of me and my brothers,” I say, scooping up five jacks.
“But where’s your Mom?”
I squint in the sunlight. Maryanne’s question unleashes something inside me. “She died.”
Maryanne stares. “When?”
I bite my lip. “Last week.”
Her voice quivers. “How… how… come you didn’t tell me?”
“I was trying not to think about it.” I bounce the tiny, pink ball a few times. “But don’t feel bad. My mom is still close by….” I tap the patio stone. “She’s buried right under here.”
Maryanne jumps up, her knobby knees at my eye level.
“Want to hear how she died?”
Next thing I know, Maryanne is off and running through the backyard gate. I wait there on the patio, strangely calm, wondering if she’ll come back.
To this day, I have no idea where that awful story came from, or should I say that awful lie. “If you want to tell your friends a make-believe story, you must let them know it’s just a story,” my mother scolded. “You scared the heck out of Maryanne!”
I remember feeling only a little sorry, though I didn’t reveal this. My mother sighed. “You don’t want kids calling ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire,’ do you?”
I wasn’t sure, but I answered no just to be on the safe side. Then she warned that my imagination would get me in trouble one day.
The thought that my words had such power was deliciously enticing. I tried not to smile.
Like a best friend, my imagination stayed by my side, rescuing me from the depths of boredom during Hebrew school and on long car trips. Keeping this “friend” in my life was worth the risk of getting in trouble. What if? my imagination whispered. What if I woke up one morning and everyone else was gone? What if I could freeze my teacher and classmates just for a few minutes? Inventing stories transported me to another realm where my shyness disappeared. At slumber parties, I spooked the guests with tales of vampires who preyed on young girls. (When Cindy Rogers wet her sleeping bag, she blamed me.) My little brothers listened with envy to the adventures that took place through the porthole of my bedroom closet. I tantalized them with descriptions of a free candy store that opened at midnight for only five minutes.
Can we go with you? they asked, perched on the edge of my bed. “Sorry,” I replied, big-sister style. “Only girls can enter Candy Land.”
School didn’t do much to develop my story-telling ability. During Show-and-Tell, I loved to make my classmates laugh (or gasp). My teachers frowned, even when the story was completely true, telling me not to exaggerate. I yawned through round-robin reading sessions and found zero inspiration from the dull stories in Neighbors Near and Far. Once, my teacher caught me drawing fangs on a generic male character. Where were the ghost stories? I wondered.
In fourth grade, a new teacher arrived at our school. Her name inspired stories and jokes. Miss Drinkwater started the day with “sharing time.” She laughed when I told the class how I dressed my little brother up as a girl. After lunch recess, she read aloud to the class. I put my head down on the desk and my mind filled with Wilbur and Fern and the smell of the barn. What if I had a pet who could talk?
One day, Miss Drinkwater hung some large black-and-white photographs along the chalkboard. She asked us to study these photos closely and to choose one we thought had the best story to tell. “What was happening in the picture?” she asked. “What happened before? What would happen next? How does it make you feel?” She told us to let our imaginations loose and write a story about the picture. Then she uttered these magic words: There are no wrong answers.
It was as if she had given me a key to the kingdom.
My eye fell on the photo of a rusted swing set in a backyard overgrown with weeds. It made me feel lonely and afraid. Something sinister had happened there… but what? My heart raced, thinking of the juicy details. Hmm…. Could something have been buried beneath the slide? As my pencil moved across the lined paper, our classroom disappeared. I was transported to that backyard in the photograph. I heard the creak of the swings and the cries of the ghost children who had once played there.
My teacher’s voice jolted me from this trance. “Evelyn?” I looked up to find my classmates gone. “It’s recess.”
My face blushed. “But I need to finish writing.”
Miss Drinkwater didn’t get mad. Instead, she smiled warmly and asked if I wanted to stay inside for recess.
“Good,” she said. “I look forward to reading your story.”
Miss Drinkwater was the first teacher to tell me my imagination had value, the first teacher to treat me like a writer, and the first teacher to tell me I had a gift. Her creative writing activity unfurled a wonderful realization: my tales could be written down. I could reread them, cross out the boring parts, add chapters. I could keep them secret, if I wanted. I could lie my head off and who would know?
By the time I got to high school, I had dozens of secret short stories stashed in my desk drawer. Gradually, I moved from horror to realistic fiction. The protagonist was often a teenage girl who felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and alone. Of course, I never left her alone. She fell in love or into adventure. Sometimes a wise elder came to guide her.
I attended an all-girl, religious high school where contact with boys was forbidden, and that, of course, is why we obsessed about them. My friends delighted in hearing my escapades (mostly true) with the boy next door. He really did that? My mother’s warning had become a distant echo. What harm was there in a little embellishment? The tales of my secret boyfriend brought esteem and kept me in the limelight; that is, until I met my match.
Dina, a studious and soft-spoken girl, announced one day that she, too, had a secret boyfriend. Eyes popped, mouths dropped. They’d met at the library, Dina said. His name was Ricky. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and kissed like a seasoned lover. My friends gasped. “Tell us everything!”
Dina had moved center stage.
It didn’t take long for me to realize she was lying. (Takes one to know one, I suppose.) The details of her stories didn’t quite jibe. Ricky sounded like he walked off the pages of a romance novel. Everything was just a little too perfect. Of course, I had no intention of bursting Dina’s imaginary bubble or trying to play editor to her fantasy. In fact, I admired her creative risk, clichéd as it was, because it provided a vicarious thrill for her friends’ boring lives. What surprised me most was that none of the other girls questioned the veracity of Dina’s stories; they swallowed them whole. My take-away lesson was that telling stories wasn’t so much about making things up as making things believable.
Years later, while reminiscing with an old friend from high school, the subject of Dina came up. My friend asked me, “Did you know that Dina’s boyfriend wasn’t real? She’d been lying the whole time!”
For a fiction writer, one plus of getting older is the amount of material you acquire. Truth is stranger than fiction. In a sense, it gets harder to make things up. The process of writing becomes more like mixing things up. The child, in contrast, has only her imagination, pure and untarnished. My youthful years of storytelling helped me develop a sense of pacing: how to hook the listener, how to create tension, and which details to leave out—essential skills for a writer. When I became a teacher, my storytelling followed me into the classroom. First-graders loved the silly stories. Middle-schoolers responded to stories of embarrassing moments. High-schoolers craved the heartfelt and personal.
My three children, too, became the beneficiaries of my storytelling.
“Tell us the one about when you fell in the creek!” my son begs as we all snuggle on the couch.
“No, I wanna hear about the time you dumped your fish down the toilet,” Audrey says. My oldest daughter asks for a story they haven’t heard before.
“I’ve told you them all,” I reply. “The well is dry.” They don’t believe me.
So I close my eyes and retreat into that kingdom of childhood. “Ah, yes, there is one you haven’t heard before. Hmm, let’s see, I think you’re old enough for this one now.” My children wait in anticipation. “One summer, when I was about seven, I had this friend named Maryanne….”
Evelyn Krieger is an educational consultant, homeschool advocate, and writer. She has worked as a reading specialist, first-grade teacher, middle-school English teacher, and ballet instructor. She especially enjoys teaching writing workshops and mentoring high school students. Her writing credits include Teacher Magazine, Instructor, The Reading Teacher, Family Fun, Tablet Magazine, Family Circle, Lilith, and many others. In 2011, Evelyn’s debut children’s novel, One is Not a Lonely Number, was selected as an Honor Book from the Association of Jewish Libraries. She lives in the Boston area.