Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you know when something is true? (10/16/09)

Featured writer: Susan Bono

Contributors this month:
B.J. Yudelson
Betty Rodgers
Charlene Bunas
Christine Falcone
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Elaine Webster
Heather Seggel
Inez Castor
Joan Zerrien
Susan Bono

Sometime Later

by Susan Bono

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

I don't know about you, but I rarely recognize the truth as it's unfolding. I've got 20/20 hindsight, and only see in retrospect what was right in front of me.

So I couldn't know that Monday afternoon in October was the last time my mother would try to speak. The imaginary cell phone that rang me awake at 4 a.m. the following Sunday morning was the signal I ignored to get out of bed to be with her when she died. But looking back, it's all so clear. The signs were all there, waiting for me to recognize them.

This structural lag in my comprehension is often a source of regret and pain. I feel as if I am forever just missing the true meaning of my experiences. But in these gaps and lapses are layers of understanding that can only be revealed if I write about them. My 20/20 hindsight can never make up for the truth I miss in the moment, but truth in reflection is its own gift.

Susan Bono has a lot to reflect upon in Petaluma, CA.

How do I know when something’s true?

  by B.J. Yudelson

When I was two, according to the family story, I fell into a duck pond at the end of our street. For as long as I can remember, I have had a mental image of ducks and water swirling down, down, down around my head. Only recently, since I have begun to consider the relationship of truth and memory, have I realized that my image can't be factual. Ducks would not have spun around me as I sank. I have no memory of fright, nor of being wet, nor of the stranger who pulled me out. I suspect that when my parents told the story, I pictured ducks doing what bathwater does when it goes down the drain. I don't doubt the truth of the incident - why would my parents have made it up? - but I know that my mental image can't possibly reflect reality. Illogical and emotionless, it is, sadly, just a made-up picture that I see in large-screen Technicolor.

I spent the summer I was ten with my aunt and uncle, a continent away from my parents. I have spotty recollections of the trip, including a cruise with my grandmother and cousin to Alaska. My most vivid memory is my fear on my return that, after three days alone on the train, I wouldn't recognize my mother when she met me in Chicago. Writing about that trip, I shamelessly created details to support what I'm certain is a true memory of a powerful emotion.

When I find myself musing in circles to figure out the meaning of an event or memory, I know I've hit the truth when a strong emotion surfaces, often tearfully. My family may correct my facts, but only I can know when I've written truth.

B.J. Yudelson uses her “Grandma skills” to tutor Rochester, New York, students in reading. She hopes to convey her love of words and stories. Yesterday she opened a fortune cookie and read the following: “You are a lover of words. You will someday publish a book.” She knows the first part is true; is the second?

Don’t Lie to Me

  by Betty Rodgers

I hate being lied to. The subtle flick of the eyelids. The sudden glance sideways. The too-ready, too-loud response. And they think I don't notice.

Some people are accomplished liars. Bold-faced, straight-on prevaricators. Knowing the flat-out truth, I might ask a suspicious one a question I already know the answer to, and let them fall into the trap. My mother-in-law used to say this technique gives them enough rope to hang themselves. It works more often than I care to admit. But then at least you know the truth about the person's character. You know if you can trust them or need to cover your bases.

I don't understand why anyone would think I wanted or needed to be lied to. Why tell me what they think I want to hear? They couldn't possibly know. I've always thought truth was a lot more palatable. The truth you can deal with...lies are impossible. Lies are like a spot of plum jelly on the cherry wood kitchen floor. Sticky, irritating, and usually tracked onto the carpet. You walk around, bent over at the waist, trying to wipe up the spots with a wet washcloth, tracking more with every step. You have to hire Chem-Dry to come in and do a professional clean-up job. Eegads.

Sometimes the truth hurts, but the lie hurts worse. Today I received an email from a friend who is now ready to date after a prolonged divorce recovery. She met a guy for coffee, they enjoyed a good visit and agreed to a second date for dinner and a movie. Off to a good start. Then he called and left a message on her voicemail at home, during the day when he knew she was at work, and made some lame excuse for cancelling the dinner date. "I'll call you." Of course he didn't. He's now thought of as a flake. Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to just say, "You're very nice, I wish you well, but I'm not interested in another date?" Then at least he'd be known as a jerk rather than a flake. There's a difference.

Betty Rodgers’ blood is thickening in preparation for the winter months ahead in Boise, Idaho. She believes that truth is something you intuit...something you feel. You can reach her at

She Trusts me with Her Truth

  by Charlene Bunas

Four year old Emily had a "sleepover" with me last weekend. Her parents were going out of town and I gladly volunteered to do my Nana duties. After dinner of mac n' cheese, applesauce and ice cream, she had a bath, a story or two, a glass of water and a hug from me.

After tucking her in, I quietly tiptoed downstairs to clear dishes from the dinner table and to tidy the arts and craft projects we'd done all afternoon.

Finally, I dropped in my chair, remote in hand. Before I could settle in with escapism TV, I heard her call, "Nana."

"Yes, what is it?" I was in no mood to bring more water, take more hugs or kisses. I wanted to finish my chores and settle down for an hour of personal, senior-lady quiet time.


"Yes, Emily." I answered her in a voice that means business, not one that encourages getting away with something at Nana's house.

"Nana." Her voice quivered. I struggled out of the recliner and dragged myself upstairs.

"Emily," I began. "It's time for bed. This is already an hour past your normal bedtime. Now, what do you need?" My impatience questioned her motives.

Her little face ruffled itself around something very big, something very important.

I sat on the side of the bed, put my hand on her arm and said, my voice gentler now, "What is it sweetheart?"

"I'm scared, and besides, I miss my mom."

Whoops. She is telling me the truth.

"Well now," I said, as I scooped her in my arms. I'd like to tell you about another girl who was just about your age. It was a long time ago. She was visiting her grandma and was scared too. Her grandma's house was big and the little girl didn't go there very often."

"What did the girl do?"

"She did exactly what you're doing. She told her grandma and, guess what, her grandma held her in her arms, just like I'm doing with you, right now."

"Who are you talking about?"

"Who do you think?"

"My mom?"

"Nope. I'm talking about me. And, I'll tell you something else. My grandma let me sleep with her in her big, big bed."

"Can I do that?"

"I'd love it, Emily. Would you like to hop into my bed now or wait until I go to bed?"

"Will you get me when you go to bed?"

"Sure will."

Charlene Bunas writes her truth in Santa Rosa, CA.

How do you know when something’s true?

  by Christine Falcone

When I was in college, I had two different jobs silk screening, first wallpaper, then t-shirts. If all the screens lined up properly, or "registered", the image or design came out perfectly. But if one of those screens was off, even a fraction of an inch, it ruined everything. That's the way it is when reading something true. When the author gets it right, things come to life, jump off the page. There's not a false note. It resonates. Like a tuning fork, there's a vibration. A perfect pitch.

When I read something true, I know it because some part of me falls back into myself, like an iceberg calving. There's kind of a reclamation that happens. Even if it's not my experience I'm reading about, I suddenly know a thing, as if it had happened to me. It becomes mine in a way. Things line up inside of me. They register.

Christine Falcone is trying to makes sure all her lines register in Novato, California, where she lives and writes.

Truth from Fiction

  by David S. Johnson

Writers have a damnable job. To write great fiction it must be believable and great non-fiction must be unbelievable. The fiction writer has won the writing lottery, whereas a non-fiction writer sits on the corner begging for facts. A fiction writer has a gaping pearlescent universe to pilot his four-tentacled snowshoe hare with bucket seats and climate control, whereas the non-fiction writer is confined to the small, immobile black (or was it white?) cardboard (sure it wasn't wooden?) box in the middle of an expansive cow (goat?) pasture. I can be loathe to call something non-fiction because the rigidity of its definition, its essence of truth-telling facts, restricts a writer's pen. I've fudged on details in my non-fiction work for fluidity or comprehension. Life is hardly a smooth flowing story and sometimes requires a few adjustments in memory. I've also fudged because I forget or remember wrongly. I can sit around with three different friends and we can tell three different stories about exactly what happened that day on the river.

The truth is tricky, even for the devout. Many followers of the Bible do not interpret many of its stories literally and acknowledge that they are parables designed to teach and to inspire. James Frey's book, Million Little Pieces, is about a person's fight with drug addiction. It caused a flap because it was sold as a non-fiction book, which sells more copies to our rubbernecking, morbid-curious minds, when in fact a lot of the details were not true. People were furious because you, James Frey, fooled me into believing you. But isn't that what a writer's supposed to do? To get you so wrapped up in the story that you believe it and identify with its message? Is your ability to identify with a character and their struggle dictated by whether or not it really happened? The only book to make me cry was Of Mice and Men, a book of fiction but is nonetheless compelling and identifiable. Sure we need truth and fact-checking in some categories of non-fiction such as journalism and history, but the truth shouldn't shackle a writer who blurs the lines of reality for the gains of revealing the truth of humanness. Great stories, fiction or non-fiction, converge on the same goal of peeling back the layers of naiveté and artifice to reveal some truth about ourselves. Does my truth have to come from reality or fiction? I say it doesn't matter as long as I know that the truth revealed is inspired and inspiring. You can't believe everything that you read. But you can be inspired by it.

David Samuel Johnson currently finds his truth in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Cross my Heart & Hope to Die

  by Don Edgers

About the time I had reached the venerable (?) age of 11, I was confronted by my mother about some off-color writing she found in my wastebasket.

"Did you write this?"

"No, mother, I did not."

"You're lying."

"Why do you say that, mother?"

"You won't look me in the eyes."

From that point on, whenever I told an untruth, I looked people in the eyes. Eye contact made a lie - truthful.

My obituary, had I died at that moment, might've read: "Don Edgers was struck dead today after telling a lie, proclaiming, ‘Cross my heart and hope to die if what I say is not the truth.' His mistake was not crossing his fingers behind his back. His writings consist of a safety poem and a smutty letter."

On the surface, "How do you know something is true?" seems like a simple question; however, if one looks up a definition for ‘truth,' there are many qualifiers. Breaking down the subject, it depends on the source and to which of the five major (Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic) or other (Pluralistic, Minimalist, Performative, Redundancy, Semantic, Kripke's ) theories of truth one subscribes. The truth of the matter is, I don't pretend to understand these high falutin' theories, and go with gut feelings.

I ascribe to the belief that ‘rational' human beings, to which I feel an affinity, rely on knowledge, experience, common sense and faith; ergo, if something sounds too good to be true - it is, and 99.9% of what politicians say is pure, unadulterated B.S. "Period!"

Don Edgers lives and writes in Port Orchard. WA. He reads such philosophical/common sense books as Jack Douglas’s Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver and writer/illustrator B. Kliban’s book Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head

How Do You Know When Something’s True?

  by Elaine Webster

"Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

"I am not lying!"

"You are too! I can tell."

"Yeah? How?"

"Your hands are all sticky and sweaty."

"So? What if they are? It's still the truth."

"I was saving that Hershey bar and you stole it. I'm going to tell Mom -- Mommy!"

"What are you two fighting about now?"

"Danny stole my candy bar."

"I did not!"

"Did too!"

"Okay, Danny this is the last time I'm going to tell you to stay out of your sister's room."

"I didn't go in there and I didn't take her stupid Hershey Bar."

"Well if you didn't, who did?"

"He did!"

"Bad dog, Bosco! Betsy get that out of his mouth and say you're sorry to your brother."

Elaine Webster, is a staff writer for the on-line publication, a href="" target="_blank">Greener Living Today. She’s part of the Memoir Writing group in Sebastopol sponsored by SRJC with Steve Boga. She lives in Windsor, CA and her e-mail address is

How Do You Know When Something's True?

  by Heather Seggel

I'm not superstitious by nature, but my gut sense was warped at a very young age, so I sometimes need more convincing than the average bear might. When the Magic 8-Ball says "It is decidedly so," the Ouija board drags my fingers repeatedly to "Yes," twenty-five daisies drop their last petal on "She loves me," my local curandera does her thing with the chickens and gives me a thumbs-up, and I find a heads-up penny on the way to work, I might be willing to accept something as true. That's assuming I can't get my hands on some tangible evidence and CSI my way to the bottom line. My only defense is that I come by my craziness honestly.

If my parents didn't want to answer my questions, they played me against each other. "Ask your mother." "No, ask your father." If I persisted, which I always did, and they were still too squeamish to answer me honestly, I was fed storks, or cabbage patches, or "Your dad just went out for a while (three days?), he'll be right back." That's normal in many households. But when this approach drove me to amateur investigative reporting and I managed to learn things on my own, they would counter with, "Well, of course that's true, that's what we've always told you. You know that."

Not only did that approach dampen my well-earned sense of accomplishment in the field of detection ("My uncle's not just sleeping, he's drunk!"), it came with a new and uncomfortable piece of knowledge: My parents were entirely too comfortable lying to me. The more I caught them at it the less I said, and it happened often. Each new instance was another termite, working its way through a table leg, until my trust in them had pretty much collapsed in on itself. They were good parents in other respects, just not credible witnesses.

This quirk in my upbringing had two positive effects on me; since I turned to books to fill in the gaps in my education, I've always had faith in their power not just to enchant but inform and educate. And I write to pin the truth to paper, no matter how hard it wriggles or who it might offend. That's where my instrument panel kicks in, ironically; "If I made it up, I know it's true," sounds like a rallying cry for tabloid journalism, but reading and writing are the only arenas where my gut instinct tends to operate correctly. Putting in a little extra time with a pencil, pad and library card is a worthwhile use of my time, and this way, no chickens have to die.

Heather Seggel is currently unemployed and writing just to keep awake in Ukiah, California.

Truth Detectors

  by Inez Castor

Like everyone else, I have a built-in truth detector. A simple little truth causes a warm, comfy feeling, like a cup of cocoa. A major Truth brings immediate "Truth bumps" and some small being in my belly leaps in joyful agreement. A lie makes the hair go up on the back of my neck.

Unfortunately, most people had their truth detectors disconnected while they were still too little to fight back. It's easy to do; just frequently answer the questions of little people with, "Because I said so." Insist they hug Uncle Whatever even if they'd rather not. Teach them that doctors, priests and teachers know everything and all adults have the correct answers. Lie to them regularly and call it "play." For example, when my first grade daughter came home furious with her father because he'd lied to her by telling her that if he unscrewed her belly button her legs would fall off, he thought it was funny.

I escaped most of that idiocy by the simple act of choosing a loosely wrapped mother that treated me like an adult and taught me to trust my instincts. Even when she was drunk, what she said to me was the truth as she saw it. Having watched the young adult results of "good" parenting, I'm deeply grateful I was not subjected to it.

Inez Castor is currently studying Truth on a bike in the harbor.

How do you know when something’s true?

  by Joan Zerrien

I once would have told you that I recognize the truth in my bones. I used to trust my bones. But bones carry flesh and flesh carries desire and desire feeds on illusion and there I find myself: stumbling about in the Land of Not-Truth.

Although I still listen to my body, I am mindful that my relationship with truth is nowhere near as intimate as flesh upon bone, because so very often reality is not what I would have it be. I must listen very closely. If I hear a humming energy carrying "truth" along my bone-lines, that's likely to be the song of my wanting that I hear. If "truth" simply thuds from my throat to my heart with a sturdy "ka-chunk", it's likely to be the real thing.

Truth IS, in the sense of unavoidable reality. To say "my truth" is as absurd as saying "my God." Truth will not be recognized by my personal response, as it has on occasion flooded my heart with relief, stunned my mind with disbelief, or sent me to bed muttering "Please, no…please no." Or lightened my face with glee: "Really?"

I know the truth when I stare it in the face and it stares right back at me.

Joan Zerrien writes and raises daughters in the San Jacinto Mountains, awaiting the first snowfall, that grace-filled moment of simple truth. (She admits to still having preferences in this area.)

Sometime Later

  by Susan Bono

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

I don't know about you, but I rarely recognize the truth as it's unfolding. I've got 20/20 hindsight, and only see in retrospect what was right in front of me.

So I couldn't know that Monday afternoon in October was the last time my mother would try to speak. The imaginary cell phone that rang me awake at 4 a.m. the following Sunday morning was the signal I ignored to get out of bed to be with her when she died. But looking back, it's all so clear. The signs were all there, waiting for me to recognize them.

This structural lag in my comprehension is often a source of regret and pain. I feel as if I am forever just missing the true meaning of my experiences. But in these gaps and lapses are layers of understanding that can only be revealed if I write about them. My 20/20 hindsight can never make up for the truth I miss in the moment, but truth in reflection is its own gift.

Susan Bono has a lot to reflect upon in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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