Why Write Fiction?
I’ve been a writer of fiction since I first learned how to make words with crayons on construction paper. My first short story was about my cat, Cleo, and a series of improbable adventures she went on.
My fiction writing progressed through all the usual stages — “…and then I woke up” surprise endings; fan fiction before it was even called that; thinly disguised (okay, not at all disguised) lamentations about bad relationships and bad breakups and yearnings for unattainable boys.
Eventually, I wrote fiction that other human beings might actually want to read. I don’t know, maybe some of you hit it out of the park the first time you step up to the plate…but I think most writers have to get a lot of crap out of the pipeline before reaching the good stuff.
All the while, though, I’ve also been writing nonfiction. I kept a diary on and off for decades, only really stopping when I began blogging. (On LiveJournal, and if you didn’t already know how old I am, now you do.) I blogged regularly until the Book of Face drained off everyone’s daily attention — most absolutely including mine. (I haven’t managed to figure out Twitter, I confess; I’ve tried twice, but something about it just defeats me.)
And now I’m edging my way into maybe-sorta-kinda a memoir? I think? Anyway, I’m writing personal essays. Lots of them. I’m loving doing it, and I’m getting lots of really nice feedback on them. The essays are gaining an audience my fiction writing really hasn’t, in all the years I’ve been fictioneering.
So…why keep writing fiction, anyway? I should just be an essayist-memoirist, right? If it’s going so well?
No, I want and need to keep writing fiction. Here are my reasons why.
The first isn’t even really a reason, it’s just…a ground state. Fiction is what I read, almost entirely. Novels, specifically. So, not to get all tautological on you, but: because I read novels, I write novels, so there will be more novels in the world, because that’s what I read. A novel is what naturally wants to come out of me when it’s time to tell a story. (Or at least, that’s what happened until I started writing all these essays…)
Be that as it may. The point is: I, personally, value fiction; so when I want to write something to share with the world, that is where I have landed.
The next reason is best explained in terms of mental muscles. Just as, if you go to the gym and only work out your arms, your body isn’t going to be in good shape all over, I think a writer — any writer — needs to write a variety of stuff. Long stuff and short stuff. Realistic stuff and wacky out-there stuff. Literary stuff and science fiction stuff and fantasy stuff and romance stuff and (apparently!) true stuff, who knew.
Don’t write the same story over and over, in other words. Your whole-body gym workouts increase and change as you get stronger, right? You add more weight to the machine, you swim more laps, you move up to the advanced level cardio class. Otherwise, you’ll quickly fall into a rut and see no progress.
Which brings me to my biggest, yet most ineffable reason: we need fiction. We need, as both readers and writers, to stretch our minds and live — at least some of the time — in a world that isn’t. (Yes, I am far from the first person to make this argument.) Humans need story: it’s how we understand who we are and who other people are, what has happened before, what is possible for the future.
Memoir and biography and history and the personal essay can and do carry part of this weight — they are very good at showing us the lives of others who are not like us, and connecting us with others who are like us — but only fiction, released from the need for literal truth-telling, lets us nourish our imagination. Fiction allows anything to be real…you just have to open your mind and let it happen.
The imaginary people in my head — the witches and warlocks, and the girl who disappears, and the lonely dragon, and even the realtor stuck on a space station with no land to sell — when I am writing them, they come as alive to me as the people I run into out here in the real world. Sometimes more alive. When I’m exploring a character, I have to figure out what makes them tick: why they are who they are. Where they came from, where they want to go — and where they actually go instead. Who they love and who they hate and who they’re afraid of.
If I could somehow write a personal essay about each moment in my life, I’m still only writing about me.
If I write ten different novels, I’m discovering not just ten, but dozens and dozens of different “people”. And sharing them with you.
And maybe even figuring out something new about myself in the process.