Life Lessons

Fiction is the Lie That Tells the Truth

When my Bubbie died in January, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. People kept telling me that, “She lived a good long life” and “Her memory will live forever” but this wasn’t helpful. I know that she lived a great life and I know that I was very lucky to be 41 when my last grandparent died. But how should I deal with her death? What do I do now?

I started thinking about a conversation I had 13 years ago with Mike McGill. Mike was the superintendent of the Scarsdale school district, one of the best school districts in the country. We were talking about what students should learn in high school to lead a good and productive life.

I thought I had the answer. At 28, I’d finally learned the key skills to be successful in the business world: analytics and communication. I’d spent two years in business school and then worked for two years as a  management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the world’s most prestigious corporate strategy consultancies. Through this education, I learned to take data, analyze it, and communicate a story about it. Analytics and communication are also the skills needed to discuss issues and be a contributing member of society.

But Mike had a different perspective. He said, “Literature is the most important subject you can learn. It’s at the heart of being human. By reading a good book you learn key life lessons. There’s no better way to learn empathy and see things from someone else’s point of view.” Mike’s comment always stuck in my head and helped me understand how to read literature. So when Bubbie died I looked to literature for answers.

After Bubbie’s death, there was a lot of praying and mourning in our home. Given the amount of Jewishness around,  I turned to that great font of Jewish wisdom—Billy Crystal. He co-wrote and produced an audiobook called Have a Nice Day. In the book, the angel of death comes to the President of the United States in the morning and tells him he’s going to die by the end of the day. What will he decide to do? How will he prioritize his last day? Everyone, even The President only has 24 hours in each day and only one life to live. But even President Obama found time to sleep, spend time with his family, and even watch TV. The core lesson I took away is that to lead a good life you need to prioritize what’s most important in life.

Then I started listening to A Christmas Carol. There are many great lessons on how to live your life from the book like “He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win” and “Being nice to others is the key to a fulfilled life.” But there’s another theme in the middle of the book—that hell is lost opportunity:

He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Once I started looking for them. I found helpful lessons everywhere, like in the song Everything’s Not Awesome from The Lego Movie 2 which provides the advice not forsake the good for the perfect:

Everything’s not awesome
Things can’t be awesome all of the time
It’s an unrealistic expectation
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try
To make everything awesome
In a less idealistic kind of way
We should maybe aim for not bad’
Cause not bad, well that would be real great

There’s nothing really new in any of these lessons. The key lesson for me is that the best way to deal with death is to lead a good life. In theory, you could put every lesson on a sheet of paper and you’d have all the wisdom in the world. That was the selling point of the 1990s bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

But that’s not the point. Just knowing the facts is different from really understanding them. Acquiring wisdom is putting your facts together in the right way. That’s where literature comes in. Literature helps provide a framework and a way of seeing the world that goes beyond the facts. It helps you expand what it means to be a human being. The author Neil Gaiman sums up the value of literature in this wonderful essay:

Fiction builds empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals… Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different…

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.(1)In his introduction to The View from the Cheap Seats, Gaiman writes, “I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”

So while I still think that hard skills like analytics and communication are the keys to figuring out how to get things done, I also know that I need to rely on literature and stories to figure out the really hard stuff. Thanks Mike!

Some notes on death and literature:

Note 1 (3/29/20): My fellow Director on the Yale Record Corporation David Jeffery died recently. In his obituary, the obituary writer ends with the poem For the Anniversary of My Death by WS Merwin. The New Yorker includes the poem in Merwin’s obituary

Note 2 (4/26/20): The will of Shalom Aleichem says that if you don’t want to pray for my soul, at least remember my writing and have fun. From the will of Shalom Aleichem, “At my grave and throughout a whole year, and then every year on the Jahrzeit, my remaining son, and my sons-in-law, if they are so minded, should say Kaddish after me. And if they do not wish to do this, or if they have no time for it, or if it be against their religious convictions, they can be absolved from this duty only if they all come together with my daughters and my grandchildren and with good friends, and read this my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the really joyous ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best, and let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.”


1 In his introduction to The View from the Cheap Seats, Gaiman writes, “I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”