One of the events at last weekend’s extraordinary Toronto arts festival, Luminato, was a panel discussion put on by Atlantic magazine on the subject of Why Fiction Matters. My friend Miranda and I checked it out, but came away disappointed: The moderator talked too much, some of the panelists were unprepared (a surprise, given that the title was a dead give-away for what the questions would be), and most of the responses, at least in my opinion, showed why the panelists made their living writing and not speaking (though I was sufficiently inspired to pick up a copy of panelist Anne Michaels’ best-seller Fugitive Pieces).
So, over afternoon drinks at one of Yorkville’s trendiest bars, we decided to come up with our own answers to the three key questions that the panel had attempted to address:
Why does fiction matter?
Miranda said she thought that stories are a form of communication between the writer and reader, an implicit conversation. It’s important, she said, because these stories tell us about the reality in which we are living. We can learn more about the real world from fiction than we can from non-fiction, perhaps more than from direct observation.
My answer? Fiction enables us to imagine possibilities. The power of such imagination and realization is transformative. As I’ve said before, if we can’t imagine (what is really going on, that we can’t see directly), we can do anything (including tolerate factory farms, the abuse of spouses and children, atrocities in prisons and foreign wars, etc.) Once we can imagine, through powerful writing, what is really happening, we cannot sit by and let it happen. We are propelled to change our thinking and then our behaviour. And we can also become aware of things we might love, things we might be good at, things that are needed that we care about, and hence discover what we are meant to do in our lives, that, without such stories, we might never have realized.
What makes a good story?
For Miranda, a good story is one that captures a fundamental truth about human experience. In the process, she said, a good story must engage us, with an appropriate rhythm and pace that draws us in, and it must be compelling and transporting — it must begin with something familiar enough that we can relate to it, but then it must take us off in an unfamiliar direction. In the process, she concluded, it can prepare us if and when we face a similar situation ourselves.
To me, a good story is one that draws our attention to something important we hadn’t noticed. Much as the job of the media, according to Bill Maher, is to make what’s important interesting, the job of the story-teller is to draw our attention to things we wouldn’t normally consider or look at — sometimes even things we shudder to think about.
What is the wellspring of your creative writing?
Miranda declined to answer this because, she said, she is not a writer of fiction. My answer, which is close to the one Tim O’Brien proffered, and which resonated with Miranda, is imagined myths about things we care about. That’s a complex answer, so let me break it down. We all write about myths, because the story, even the one in our heads that is not yet transcribed to language, is a fiction, it is not real. It is our limited view of what happened, why it happened, what it meant, filtered by our own subjective worldview. It is a myth if it is believable (whether or not it is true). A myth is the currency of story, it is what we can accept and understand at a deep level, even though our experience as the reader is different from that of the writer. Without that currency, that tapped capacity for common understanding, there can be no communication.
So every story begins with a myth — a powerful, shared, uncritically received and accepted belief. In fiction these myths are imagined. That means they might be based on some ‘true’ story or event, but they are fictional — they are invented, ‘brought into being’ through the writer’s mind. And as the word ‘imagine’ comes from the word ‘image’, this also means that they are pictured, portrayed, made vivid.
And the third element is that it must be about something we (writer and reader) care about. One of Frederick Barthelme’s brilliant 39 steps to great fiction is “We can’t care about sand mutants. If you do, or think you do, kill yourself.” Stories are about emotion, about pain and love and passion and the whole damn thing.
So the wellspring, the source, I think, of creative writing is the convergence of these three things: a believable, compelling myth; a vivid, ‘image-ined’ portrayal that ‘re-presents’ that myth; and the evident, driving passion in every word that tells the readers that the author cares, and therefore so should they.
Example: from Barthelme’s Elroy Nights:
As I drove across the bridge, I thought how we’d started as young people insisting on living the way we wanted, and how we’d gradually retreated from that, from doing what we wanted. Things change. What you want becomes something you can’t imagine having wanted, and instead you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought. One day you find yourself walking around in Ralph Lauren shorts and Cole Haan loafers and no socks. You think, How did this happen? It isn’t a terrible spot, and you don’t feel bad about being there, being the person you are in the place you are, with the wife or husband you have, the step-daughter, the friends and acquaintances, the house and tools and toys, the job, but there is no turning back. You have a Daytimer full of things to do. You have a Palm PDA and names and addresses and contacts, and there is no way back. Even if there were a way back, you couldn’t get there from here, and you probably wouldn’t go if you could. The effort required isn’t the kind of effort you can make anymore.
This is a powerful re-presentation of the myth of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, idealistic, passionate, intense, and somehow became what we are now. I have gone for walks and drives at 3am and the picture he paints of his protagonist is my story. You can almost taste the bewilderment, the loss, the resignation, the sense of self-irony in every word. He speaks directly to my soul. The wellspring of his art is mine, too.
This is why fiction matters.
Category: Language & Storytelling