Secrets can have many layers. At the top, you have your fairly innocuous secrets…what you bought your mother for Christmas, the surprise birthday party you’re throwing for your husband, the tiny ankle tattoo you hide from your boss and grandmother. Another layer down, and shades of gray start to appear. Maybe this layer is reserved for instances when a friend is backstabbing another friend, tacking on a tacky, “But don’t tell her I told you that!” at the end of the rant. These secrets really stink, especially if they’re unsolicited. Who wants to carry around that kind of garbage in their head?
They get a bit more dense and sour the further down you travel. Here is one of the biggest secrets I’ve ever known, straight from the bottom of the pile, involving a college friend of mine. Home on spring break our sophomore year, she answered the telephone to discover a secret that turned her world inside out.
“J____?” an unfamiliar woman asked. “What’s going on over there?”
My friend paused, as anyone would do upon being asked such a question by a stranger. Was it a prank call? A clever intro to a telemarketing pitch? She decided to just ask the obvious question. “Who is this?”
“The mother of your sisters.”
And those five words changed everything. My friend’s father was living the kind of life we’d only seen on bad television. The kind of life Anita Shreve captured so eloquently in The Pilot’s Wife. See, my good friend’s father had one family…the one she grew up with. With just one brother, one father, one mother, and one daughter. The only family she thought existed. (And who wouldn’t make such an assumption?)
He also had a second family, with children, in another house not even that far from J__ and her mother and brother. And with that one telephone call, my friend tumbled straight to the bottom of the secret stack to discover one of the worst kinds of secrets you could imagine. It’s the kind of secret that inspires gossip ending with, “But don’t tell her I told you that!”
J and I have lost touch over the years, but I still think of her now and then and hope she’s doing well.
So secrets can be innocent, but far too often they’re ugly. Thing is, writing fiction calls for keeping the worst kinds of secrets for your characters, revealing bits and pieces along the way. I’ve never been very good at keeping secrets (depending), but I had to learn or I could never tell a decent story. Because you can’t give away the twist in the opening chapter. You have to learn just how many clues to drop, how many red herrings to leave in your wake, and you have to pace their reveal.
Secrets usually have a way of wriggling their way out of the pile, no matter their layer of origin. And in fiction, that’s essential.