When discussing the writing art one can argue that all fiction has basis in fact. No matter the smoke and mirrors–or flights of fancy–fiction is always in some way a representation of the author (a factual thing). True enough, but a tad too pendantic. When we commonly talk about non-fiction or fiction we are speaking about whether the stories themselves are presented as having really occurred, or not.
As regular readers know, I write both fiction, and non-fiction. Until this time my factual and fiction writing have existed in completely different spheres. My fiction has been outlandish–fantasy and science fiction far removed from life, with characters larger than life. By contrast, my non-fiction has been very grounded. My non-fiction includes the poignant, thoughtful, and funny (and, rarely, all three at once), but there are no grand adventures. I have long been content with the great separation between the content of the two writing forms–but I have felt a shift.
I’m not entirely sure where my writing might be going, or if I want to go there.
For many writers it has been a regular staple to take from life and weave it into their fiction. Those who teach writing instruct their pupils to do such. Fair to say this has been a hallmark of some very good writing. It has been fashionable to write fictional stories that are but thinly disguised accounts of factual happening in the authors own life. And there is an entire industry of writing fictional stories about historical events, recent and ancient.
In the early years of my writing (many years ago) this mixing of fact and fiction never occurred to me because I was convinced most of real life was boring–at least as far as reading about it. Nobody saved the world in a grand way in real life–that was for fiction, and that was the grand adventures I wanted to write. So as a young writer I wrote fantastic fiction, and my factual writing was, by and large, simply to amuse myself about my own life.
As I grew more mature I became increasingly cognizant of the fact that there is much in life that is interesting beyond just saving the world–but still I felt all of life that I had seen was pretty boring, and certainly wouldn’t make an interesting story. The interesting and real things out in the world which one might incorporate into fiction required more finesse and skill than I had. So I stuck with what I knew, what I imagined, and felt capable of–grand fictional adventures and mundane factual life.
It was only when I began writing about my time caring for Grandpa Purdy that I felt I had personal experience, and writing, which formed truly compelling factual events. But even then I found the events so compelling and weighty as pure fact that I couldn’t see myself writing it into fiction. And so I wrote The Sea is Wide: A Memoir of Caregiving, a factual book. And I am quite glad I wrote it.
But in the process of writing the book I inadvertently discovered an advantage of using fiction to talk about factual things. It is very hard to be fully truthful, accurate, and faithful to a story as it occurs in life. As a writer you quickly discover how much you don’t know about events and motivations necessary to tell a full story. So what do you do–fill in as best as you can or leave holes in the story? Anyone who feels compelled to maintain a high standard when telling a factual story can find these limitations very difficult.
In writing The Sea is Wide I had a great advantage in that I had lived through the three years that I was primarily recounting in the book, and I had kept extensive written accounts of many of the things that happened. But even so, I was surprised at how often I ran into occasions where I didn’t have as much information as I would have wanted for writing factually. I allowed myself leeway to write from my memory and observations such as they were because I was writing a memoir “the world as best as I remembered it,” not an attempted objective historical account. But if it was hard to write a complete and factual account when I had so much at my disposal, how much harder would it be with stories I caught only in part, or saw only in a glimpse?
Writing about my time caring for Grandpa showed me very vividly how much impact the things of life can have in written form. It gave me the desire to write more such meaningful material–and yet it also showed me how difficult it would be to write such purely factual material. If I wanted to tell complete stories that were accurate and fair to all parties involved then there would be many stories that I could not tell because I would never have enough of the facts to be factual in writing.
I am mature enough now to see that everyone in life has stories worth telling, but I can also see clearly that I will never know enough of most people to tell much of their stories in a factual medium. Which has brought me to the place of contemplating how one writes fiction that draws from things heard, seen, and people known–and weaves it together in a fiction that tells truth about the world without being bound to a truthfulness of one person’s literal factual story.
Plenty of writers have done it, and done it well–with a wonderful effectiveness. But when I found myself seriously considering this form of writing I also found myself hesitating. This made me curious as to why I hesitated, which led to some inner searching.
One primary hesitation, I realized, was a concern that taking factual things and weaving them into fiction would make the facts less powerful, not more. For example I was (and remain) utterly convinced that I could not write a fictional story equivalent to the factual account of The Sea is Wide. Any fictional story would have been less powerful in conveying true things. Far enough. But (I remind myself) the whole reason I am considering weaving facts into fictional stories is because many stories I know I know so incompletely that I will never have enough to write a complete factual account. In such a situation a fictional story conveying truth about life is better than no story at all.
A second concern I felt was the fear that if I started combing factual things that I knew with fictional things that I’ve made up I might become confused about the facts of life that I know. I’ve had dreams where afterward when I woke I had to think very hard to separate dream from reality. In this fear I may not be giving myself enough credit. Doesn’t an author always remember their own writing? I’m not entirely secure in that. I remember years ago pulling out a scrap of writing stuffed away somewhere, reading it, and thinking “Wow, that’s pretty good writing–I wonder who wrote it.” Maybe thirty seconds later I remembered I had written it.
I don’t want to go back in twenty years trying to sort out my actual memories from the stories I invented. For this reason there was a certain safety in all my fiction being larger than life fantastical stories. The boundaries felt safe. Obvious.
But I realize my concern in this regard is only legitimate (if legitimate at all) if I attempt to wholesale take factual events and simply lightly skin the story with a veneer of fiction. For example, it has crossed my mind to take all of the funny country-life events that have happened to me (along with some that have happened to others) and combined them into one condensed hilarious country-living novel. That could be pretty funny, but with just a few names and bits changed and a bunch of true things otherwise stitched together I can legitimately see how I might, possibly, have problems in thirty years sorting it all out (if I should want too). However, I think that concern is not real if I am merely taking the substance of things I have heard, seen, or experienced and working them into a different narrative, completely unlike their birth. I don’t have such a shaky of a grasp on reality that a completely fictional narrative would cause me to become un-anchored from my own life narrative.
At least, I hope not.
In my dreams I would like to know the stories of this world so well that I could write them as straight factual accounts. But in the reality of my life I know only bits and pieces of true stories, and events, and they provoke thoughts in me about life that I cannot share as accurate factual accounts because I don’t have enough to be that kind of witness. I simply can’t. So I can either not share the thoughts, and the bits of life that I’ve seen which speak about larger truths of life, or else I can take those bits of me, and the world, and weave them together into fictional stories that speak to the larger truths of life.
I’m still not sure if I have the skill to do that, or exactly what stories I would make. But I give myself permission to try.