We give thanks for all our blessings around the Thanksgiving holiday. Looking back over the past year, we recognize all the great people, events and circumstances that have brought happiness to our lives. We are grateful and feel proud to have our lives.
Fiction, on the other hand, is that idea in a mirror. Fiction reflects awareness of what we lack, what we wish we had, or once had and no longer do, or wish had happened. Some might call it the anti-Thanksgiving. (Okay, stop rolling your eyes. I couldn’t avoid a little melodrama.)
Not everyone writes fiction and non-writers will often admit to a certain fascination with the process whereby the stuff gets written, and marvel at those who successfully pen compelling tales. They might presume a giant gap exists between the writer and themselves (the reader).
Where Fiction Comes From: An Act of the Mind
But at the end of the day, there really is not much difference between those who write and those who read. Ask either one about something they have lost, an opportunity never taken, or a situation they wished had turned out differently, and they both approach the realm of the imagination in their thinking. The mind operates similarly for both.
Nor does it matter whether you write details about those wishes. One typically defines fiction as something that IS written down. But the process that brings forth the imaginative creation–the fiction generation machine, as it were–is an act of the mind. To write down what bubbles forth is an act of the hand. The first can exist without the other, and fiction has still been created.
Lying: The Oral Act of Fiction
Imagination operates in the mind. Imagination that gets written down is called fiction. Imagination that makes its way, instead, to the mouth may facetiously be called lying. In the context in which I’m writing here, what I’m talking about is honest lying–the full, non-disclosed transmittal of things that never occurred. To use a kinder word, storytelling, an action that acts as a powerful device to build culture, belief and traditions.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of falsehood that lends itself to deceit, malice or self-serving chicanery. What I’m discussing is the kind of lying/storytelling that taps into the dreams and imagination that reflect the human concept of regret or loss.
Fiction: It’s Not for Everyone!
Not everyone goes in for all that “nonsense” about lost opportunities, choices never made, dreams about what could have been. There are literalists who avoid like the plague those flights of fancy they believe are simply useless and divorced from the world we live in. Many technical people, though not all, are like this. What is the point, they might argue, to consider something that never happened nor ever will? Listening to them, one realizes that when it comes to the world of fiction, the gap between writers and readers is little while the gap between writers and literalists who scoff at imagination is profound.
Their arguments may be sound logical. But I will also never forget the film, The Remains of the Day, and the emotionally detached butler, Mr. Stevens, who competently and unimaginatively manages the estate of the wealthy tycoon, Jack Lewis, before the housekeeper, Ms. Kenton, catches him reading a romance novel. It is one of the most powerful scenes in the film and quite revealing of someone, in this case Mr. Stevens, who seems like anyone but the kind of person who would be caught reading a romance.
The scene appears to imply that, for a certain sort who may seem strict, practical and intolerant of nonsense, reading isn’t necessarily an event that doesn’t happen. It is an activity that is instead best left hidden for fear of what it might reveal–human imagination, sensitivity and the capacity for emotion.
Memoir: Tell Us Your Life and Start Lying!
As mentioned above, anyone can find something they wished had happened differently in their life. To do this yourself, start writing a memoir. It is not essential to write about your entire life. Pick one part of your life–college, post-college, high school–and begin writing a true-to-life account of that period. Inevitably, the people who played a role will leap onto the page as well as some of the most important interactions you had with them. The fact that those interactions bubble quickly to your memory shows how important they were.
As you do, you’ll discover something funny. Your mind starts to throw out images, scenes and bits of dialogue that never actually happened. Here is where the world of fiction begins. Your mind carries a picture of the perfect world–not the world you lived in, or the life you passed through, but the one your mind believes SHOULD have happened as you passed through it. Lost opportunities, loss of courage and plain old stupidity on your part play a major role in diluting that perfect world of its fulfillment in the real one.
You don’t need to tell anyone what your mind tells you as you’re writing a memoir. Your pen (or your fingers on the keyboard) may want to hesitate as the truth threatens to “bleed” into something that never happened but which is also somehow truer to that vision your mind holds of the world. One wonders how much of any memoir is actually fiction. How many autobiographies suffer from the embellishment of a writer who couldn’t help but tell a good story even if the facts were not correct?
Memoir or Fiction: Does it Matter?
Remember James Frey‘sA Million Little Pieces? Remember the scandal that resulted when it turned out his so-called memoir was blatant fabrication in key areas? I wonder how many people cared. Readers do give themselves to a writer under certain conditions. A writer may claim to present a novel and the reader absorbs this, or the writer may claim to present a memoir and the reader absorbs that. One doesn’t like getting duped. But there is real power in a well-told story, no matter whether it is made up.
Most of us, with the exception of those above-mentioned literalists, have the potential to write fiction. Of course real, honest-to-god writers of fiction, don’t simply stand politely by and wait for the mind to slip up by pushing aside details of our imperfect lives for those tastier morsels of what should have been. Fiction writers skydive off the platform of their minds into the limitless depth of imagination, push beyond those concrete life events that ended up not-so-stellar and plunge mercilessly into the lives of friends, families, colleagues and anyone else who may provide a wellspring of ideas to fill the pages of their stories.
For those who don’t write fiction regularly, memoir provides a great opportunity to begin tapping the depths of imagination novelists and short story writers use on a regular basis. It is a chance to find those deep, dark caves in all our minds, including in the minds of those who read romance novels behind closed doors and those of storytellers, where regret, pain and fear live, where the seeds of imagination are stirred about by the imperfections of our lives, where fiction is born like a seed blossoming under a dark sun.