“Literature is a luxury. Fiction is a necessity.” ~ G. K. Chesterton
There’s a slightly cringe part of my life that I want to address, and to do so, I need to tell you a story.
My husband (adoring man) is proud that I may claim, in however minor a way, that I am a w r i t e r. When introducing me to his acquaintances, he often says something like, "Meet my amazing wife, Elaine; she's a talented writer."
While I appreciate his enthusiasm, I can't help but dread what follows next. I find myself stumbling over my words, desperately trying to clarify that his definition of a writer doesn't involve having published novels sitting on bookstore shelves. My writing career is something entirely different, with sporadic forays into fiction.
A recent cringe-inducing moment was when he introduced me to a renowned artist/poet at one of his art shows. This person was someone I admired deeply, and my husband proudly introduced me as an accomplished writer.
Cue: the creative pressure to live up to the title in front of such an esteemed individual. (Of course, they were lovely and encouraging when I quickly clarified what he meant by 'writer'.)
It returned me to my ongoing thinking about all the ways to be a writer, the opportunities this affords us, and why this pervasive hierarchy around who gets to call themselves a ‘writer’ still exists. When central advice around calling ourselves a writer simply says, ‘if you write, you’re a writer’, what difference does it make what or how we write?
As someone who predominantly writes in the spheres of content, copy and communications, my fiction work has a very fluid motion through my life. It’s settled somewhat in the past year as I’ve returned to study, and academic writing has once again appeared to dominate, but it is still there.
For the past year or so, I’ve tinkered away with a few old stories, pieced together my notes and half-formed idea for a novella that’s plagued me for several years, and written one new short story. This month I took the plunge and decided to submit a couple of pieces for publication - it was the first time in a long time I’d done so, and I forgot how thrilling it is to let something go and the potential of your writing being accepted and published.
The overarching theme around my decision to slow down my fiction writing (aside from lack of time) was the central question many writers come back to at some point in their carers: why write at all?
Or perhaps more accurately, why write fiction?
(Non) Fictional Lives
Outside of my professional content/copywriting work, I focus my freelance writing on non-fiction pieces. These are usually pinpointed around psychological or therapeutic ideas, how they might apply to my life, and how they might apply to others. I enjoy crafting these pieces together, with a high focus on bringing in other expertise and viewpoints from professionals related to the topics I’m writing about.
But I also love simply crafting pieces about my own experiences - even if I don't often share them.
Non-fiction is, in my opinion, much easier to write than fiction, and I think a significant part of this is because we love to talk about ourselves.
Especially in individualised Western cultures, where many of us are brought up to believe we’re all “wonderful, unique little snowflakes” (as one of my psychology professors hilariously commented when discussing the topic of individual differences).
We exist in a society that encourages us to believe in our uniqueness, and this undoubtedly leads to many of us believing that our stories are worth something - perhaps more than they are. I don’t say this to be bitchy or diminish certain stories, but as my friend Rachel and I were discussing lately, we’re a bit over the Eat Pray Love imitations and indefatigable misery memoirs that seem to show no end of turning up in our ‘recommended reads’. As Rachel asserted when we spoke about this, the homogenous demographics of the authors of these books further highlight the publishing industry's priorities (and bias).
Aside from our love to talk about ourselves, non-fiction is easier because it’s already happened. We know the characters and the parts we think they played, how things panned out, and the most creative we need to be is to rewrite the story in the way we’d most like it to be. We’re not creating something new but polishing an existing thing, developing it into the narrative we want to fit the page. Memoir has always fascinated me for this reason. As Rebecca Solnit writes:
“There are infinite shades of grey. Writing often appears so black and white. Every minute of every hour of every day, you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.”
In non-fiction writing like memoir, we write our infinite shades of grey because we only tell one version of events from our (often rather faulty) memory. But in putting it down into black and white, we create something solid around the ambiguity. If we do it right, we create generosity, kindness and style. What more could we hope for?
Nora Ephron is quoted as having once said, “I can’t believe how real life never lets you down. I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing.”
Although a seemingly heartwarming quote, serving as a reminder to note the incredibleness of our realities, it is one that’s baffled me a little, considering Ephron's career thrived on her fictional rom-com narratives.
Ephron also wrote Heartburn, a fiction novel that she later claimed as autobiographical, based on her husband leaving her for another woman while she was pregnant. Undoubtedly a painful experience, I doubt this was the ‘amazing’ real-life she referred to in her quote?
Perhaps what Ephron means to highlight is that we need not always 'create' something new for our writing. That our lives are rich enough with experience to draw from. I do have a habit of announcing whenever something less favourable happens to me that it is simp; simply 'fodder for the memoir'.
The truth is real life is filled with letdowns. It’s why we turn our infinite greys into black and white with personal essays and memoirs. It’s why we fictionalise the things that happen to us in real-life (like adulterous husbands while we’re expecting our first child) and why we write the real-life we want to happen (like the meant-to-be warm build of enemies turned lovers that categorises most Ephron’s romantic writing).
In an article for The Paris Review, Joe Fassler dives deep into why we write fiction, speaking with numerous writers and authors to get to the heart of what drives this creative output. He advises that David Foster Wallace said of writing fiction that it “is about what it is to be a human being.”
It’s easy to say that being creative and creating things is ‘what it is to be human’, but creativity should not be artistically nor intellectually pigeon-holed (as it so often is in literature). If creativity is what it means to be human, we have to acknowledge the full spectrum of what this means and not just the highbrow bits and pieces we selectively choose.
In his piece, Fassler also speaks with Amy Tan, and it was her response that captured me the most:
“The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are. When I was six or seven, I used to read a thesaurus, searching for the words that meant exactly what I felt. And I could never find them … When I had a feeling like sadness, I couldn’t find a word that meant everything that I felt inside of me. I always felt that words were inadequate, that I’d never been able to express myself—ever. Even now, it’s so hard to express what I think and feel, the totality of what I’ve seen. But this loneliness is the impetus for writing.”
It strikes me that more than loneliness, a deep-seated sense of longing lies behind much fiction. A longing to feel seen and understood, to find a way with our words and our characters to explain the sense of our human experience as best we can. Longing is fundamental to the human condition - it drives us to keep seeking change when the reality of what we have isn’t quite meeting our needs. As author Peter Geye advises in an interview with Lit Hub:
“I think it’s an important part of our life, everyone’s lives. If you’re lucky to be happy and satisfied in your life, you probably have less longing than others, but actually, you probably just have a different kind of longing.”
In his piece, Fassler mentions a study about how fiction makes us more empathetic humans. I tracked down the PhD research from the New School for Social Research in New York, which found that reading literary fiction directly contributes to personal growth, fostering our ability to recognise and comprehend the emotions of others. I wanted to understand this in more detail, so I read the study, and it was pretty interesting. To measure comparisons of how fiction increased empathy, groups were given different reading materials; non-fiction, genre fiction and literary fiction.
Participants who read non-fiction or nothing showed unremarkable results. Similarly, those who read excerpts of genre fiction displayed insignificant improvements. However, when participants read literary fiction, their test results significantly improved, suggesting an enhancement in their empathetic capacity.
The study's findings align with existing literary criticism and may represent the first empirical evidence connecting literary and psychological theories of fiction. Genre fiction typically presents fantastical situations and follows a predictable formula, aiming to evoke intense emotions and thrilling - but expected - experiences in readers. This is the main reason genre fiction tends to fail for me as a reader; it feels too formulaic and doesn’t offer me anything new to sink my thoughts into. While the settings may be extraordinary, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, reinforcing our expectations of others.
In contrast, literary fiction emphasises the psychology of characters and their relationships. The depiction of characters' minds is often ambiguous, leaving gaps that readers must fill to comprehend their intentions and motivations.
Literary fiction encourages us to imagine characters' inner dialogues, fostering psychological awareness. This awareness carries over to the real world, where individuals are complex, and their inner lives are often elusive. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction is more realistic and challenges reader expectations, subverting prejudices and stereotypes. It imparts valuable lessons about social behaviour, emphasising the importance of understanding those different from ourselves.
By exploring the inner depths of fictional characters, writers stimulate introspection regarding our vulnerabilities and flaws. As we embark on their journeys to pursue truth or meaning, we participate in their inner worlds, establishing an emotional bond. As Fassler points out:
“This is the magic of fiction. In the end, a good novel or story gives us a better understanding of ourselves by drawing us into the lives of characters that have sprung from the writer’s imagination.”
I have questions here as to why non-fiction doesn’t do this, though. The distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction is easy to make, but surely non-fiction memoirs should offer at least some similar attributes as literary fiction in surprising our assumptions of ourselves and others out in the world. In the study, the researchers advise that they specifically chose non-fiction that wasn’t about people, so I would be intrigued to see results from a replication of this study that included these texts.
The study offers great insights into how wonderful writing fiction is - for the reader. But does it get to the heart of my central question - why choose to write fiction as a writer?
I suppose we could argue that writing fiction does the same for the writer as it does for the reader, expanding their sense of awareness and empathy for others, but I feel like it’s one step further than that. Referring to Tan’s quote about giving voice to the inexpressible and finding new language for unnameable shared and unique experience, “is inherently political—is revolutionary—because, in very real ways, it expands boundaries: first of what can be said, and then of what can be done, and finally of what is possible.” (Fassler once more).
In the realm of writing and authorship, I know of many who claim that writing is a compulsion, something that exists internally as part of who you are. That calls and pulls you into its dreamlike lull, an unworthy victim to the creative muse that must channel through you.
I’m sorry but … *side eye*
I love the romantic, artistic notion this portrays, but let’s also acknowledge the inherent privilege that this one’s oh-so-nicely wrapped up with. Literature has always been used as a class-specific way to formulate identity, and adopting the heritage of ‘writer’ has been, and majoritively remains, no different. Why else would there be programs specifically to encourage, support, and provide platforms to writers who would otherwise be dubbed ‘working class’ (I love Kit de Waal’s work in this space).
Let’s not forget; to write, to take the time to write, and squander thousands (both financially and in time) on writing escapes and retreats is not a pathway available to all. To commit to writing, no matter what you write, requires intense, consistent commitment.
To my central question once more: why write fiction?
Perhaps I am simply asking this of myself. Why do I find myself longing to pen short stories? Why am I plagued by the narrator, who is the central character of the novella I’ve pondered writing for close to half a decade now? Is it all of the above or something more?
I don’t have the answers. I only know I need to write this damn novella. Maybe then I will.
“Fiction can allow us brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we don’t know what the hell to think. We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something, and then ten minutes later, you’re grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that what we know right now is not complete.” ~ George Saunders