Art vs. Life

by | May 26, 2020 | General | 4 comments

Those of us who love to write don’t like to admit this, but there is some overlap between artists in general (including writers) and con artists.

Years ago, when I was a grad student in the Canadian prairie university where I now teach, a woman prof I admired wrote a biography of the writer Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980). The prof’s research turned up evidence that the writer didn’t really grow up in a white-pillared antebellum mansion in the southern U.S. She came from the social class that used to be called “white trash,” and simply decided to reinvent herself. While doing that, she neglected to mention a short, messy teenage marriage. I couldn’t blame the writer for editing her life-story, but I sympathized with the biographer when she had to decide how much truth to tell on the page. Porter still had living relatives.

Stories like this are not that unusual, and they often come out after an artist has died. I was vaguely aware of how easy it would be to fictionalize an actual life while I was still an only child who made up stories about my dolls. My mother often told her friends that children can’t tell the difference between real life and “make-believe.” Looking back, I suspect this belief was probably widespread among parents of the post-war Baby Boom. I decided back then that I was not a baby, and I would always make a serious effort to keep the two dimensions separate.

Writing, whether one gets published or not, is a marvellous outlet for imagination. I like to think I can stay in touch with reality because I can escape to an imaginary world whenever I want to.

This brings me to a breakup that has been on my mind since early March 2020, when no one was hibernating at home. I had a gay-male friend, a polished drag queen. He was/is also a gifted raconteur, on and off a stage. In fact, I learned years ago that my friend (I’ll call him Puck) liked to dominate conversations, and that trying to change the subject was usually futile. At least his stories were always funny or dramatic.

Then he came very close to telling me that he had the missing original final piece of the Bayeux Tapestry (or Embroidery), which tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
According to Puck, he was visiting England when someone offered to sell him an old piece of embroidered cloth as a souvenir, and he bought it. He didn’t seem to remember the name of it, but when I prompted him, he said that was probably it.

This story troubled me more than any previous anecdote from Puck’s repertoire. I told my spouse that if something that valuable were really in the private possession of a tourist, a British historian would probably like to see it. But then, I hadn’t seen it myself, I know there are reproductions, and it was none of my business.

Then Puck told me that he and his husband would probably be adopting a little girl because her father (a friend of his) had died, and the girl’s mother was a nymphomaniac drug addict who neglected her. According to the story, the mother was inviting men to line up outside her house to take turns in her assembly-line bed, in full view of her child. Apparently she wasn’t charging admission, but she also didn’t hold a paid job, or spend any time cooking or cleaning.

I had already heard versions of this story, as circulated by some men about their ex-wives or girlfriends, or about women who have turned them down. This was my ex-husband’s description of me in the 1970s.

The slut of legend usually sounds like an X-rated cartoon, or a character in a porn flick which was made for laughs. She has no human limitations, and is imagined as a voracious cunt. (I vaguely remember a horror story by Clive Barker about a woman like this, a victim of her own plumbing.) The people who spread this story have never seen the slut in action, but they assure their audience that the story comes from a reliable source.

I expressed doubt about this tragic scenario when I heard it. I suspected it was invented by the child’s father, while alive.

Meanwhile, Puck’s impending adoption of a child seemed to be the talk of the LGBT community. The next time I saw him, I asked how this process was going. He told me that actually, the mother had custody and seemed to be doing an adequate job of raising her child. According to Puck, he had been lied to about this.

I stewed about this situation, then expressed my feelings in an email to Puck. I explained that I had been a victim of a similar smear campaign, run by my ex-husband, now also deceased. I explained that the death of the person who launches the Story of the Slut doesn’t kill the story as long as it is being passed on. The resemblance of a malicious rumour to a deadly virus seems too obvious to need pointing out.

Puck apologized, said he considered me a friend, and said he never intended to hurt ME. I’m sure he didn’t, but I wasn’t his primary victim. I haven’t responded to the apology.

So here we are. Much as I enjoy interesting stories, I wish all creative types would avoid passing off their own and others’ fantasies as truth. A good story has value on its own, and the best stories, even speculative fiction, are 1) plausible, and 2) about characters with personalities.


Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. JL Peridot

    Thank you for sharing this story, Jean. I found it a really compelling and thought-provoking read. I’ve often wondered if people who intentionally make up stories in an everyday context may be frustrated artists who lack the confidence to own their creativity enough to find a constructive outlet for it.

  2. JL Peridot

    Also, so sorry to hear you were the target of such a lie 🙁 It’s really not cool.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Funny, but I’d never claim to be able to distinguish truth from fiction even when considering my own life. In fact, I’ve incorporated so many “real” experiences into my stories that I sometimes have false memories inspired by my fiction.

    As for the Story of the Slut – people believe whatever makes them comfortable, or is consistent with their pre-existing biases.

    I do hope this isn’t the end of your friendship with Puck, though.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for commenting, JL Peridot and Lisabet.

    I would like to find a way to reconcile with Puck. When discussing this situation with my spouse, I said I was tempted to ask Puck to meet me for coffee so we could talk about truth vs. fiction face-to-face. My spouse asked, “Do you think you could get through to him?” This question made my heart sink because I’ve known him for years, and his style hasn’t changed in that time. A mutual friend once said, “I believe 50% of what Puck says.” I can imagine Puck apologizing to me again, very sincerely, then launching into an implausible but entertaining story to cheer me up because that’s what he does.

    Re the Story of the Slut, there have been urban legends on that topic. Years ago, I heard 3 different versions of a story that couldn’t be posted in ERWA Storytime because it involved a woman who supposedly trained a male dog to please her when she (human dog-owner) was in heat. In one version, the woman actually had a name. I didn’t know her, but the person who told me the story had apparently been told a version of the story attached to an actual person. The story was that her husband had arranged a surprise birthday party for her, so he and all their friends burst in on her while she was in the midst of a session with the dog, who belonged to a specific breed (German Shepherd, I think). At that time, there was a weekly TV version of Snopes, the site that debunks urban legends. The story of the lady & the dog was discussed on that show.

    I’ve found that many people don’t want to take a stand on whether they believe what they’ve been told. Confronting another person about a probable lie is stressful, and can end a relationship. After I left my ex-husband, most of our former friends told me that they weren’t willing to “take sides.”

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