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Essay: Why Fiction?
If a tree falls in a novel, wait, what if it's not a tree but a tower and...
Should I kill him? How will I do it? Why are they out to get him anyway?
These are just a few of the questions I ask myself on an average Tuesday morning. “What the hell am I doing with my life?” might be a better question most days. It is a bizarre life choice to write fiction.
This week I’m inviting you into the ongoing argument I have with myself in hopes that maybe we’ll both come away with a better appreciation for the work of fiction and why it matters. Or, maybe we’ll both decide I need to stick a fork in it and focus on my day job.
Teaser: I’m contemplating publishing a new novel and would love you to weigh in. If you don’t have time to read this post, please jump to the end to give me your 2¢.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is
obliged to stick to possibilities; the truth isn’t.
The Power of a Waking Dream
We have so little control over our lives. The older I get the less stock I put into the notion of free will. We are the product of millions of micro-decisions made the minute our first cells began to divide in our mothers’ wombs. Every “choice” is predicated on those that came before. Inertia is a bitch.
I didn’t choose to be bad at confrontations or bald or idealistic to a fault. I did choose to become a father before I was really ready which made me choose to get a job that earned a steady paycheck which in turn led to a thousand other choices that carry the strong scent of inevitability. But you know this. Your life, your reality has likely been composed in a similar way.
Fiction is a powerful counterweight to both the inertia and chaos of real life. As readers of fiction, we can choose to be chased by zombies through a post-apocalyptic landscape, seduced into a dangerous affair, or be a parent struggling with the tragic loss of a child. Why would we choose to read such dark and horrible things? The answer is that it’s a safe place to explore our fears and desires. We can control the dose and we can close the book any time.
To write fiction is to have an even greater measure of expression and control in exploring what could be. Writing fiction is lucid dreaming. The chance to keep going long after your alarm clock would have ended things.
Plumbing the Depths
Each of the three novels I’ve written and the fourth one in progress were born out of a strong desire to deeply explore a subject, a relationship, or an idea that I wanted or in some cases needed to understand better.
My second unpublished novel, “The Sound in the Space Between” went even deeper, plumbing the depths of childhood trauma and family dynamics. Where my first novel dealt in more of a glitzy, fantasy version of life, this book is a grittier, more visceral exploration. It follows two brothers who survived horrifying abuse in childhood and the splintered trajectory of their lives in the aftermath of that trauma. The story was not based directly on my own experience, but on what I’ve observed from people close to me over the years. I don’t know if there’s a better empathy-building exercise than immersing yourself in the writing of a novel. More so than in my first novel where the characters were amplified or distorted versions of myself, this second book gave me the chance to live in someone else’s skin and see through their eyes. I loved these characters in a very real way and it was hard to let go of them when the story ended. I’m still trying to decide how or even if I should publish this one.
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Exploring the Outer Reaches
We humans have an insatiable appetite for imagining worlds far beyond our own realities. Science Fiction and Fantasy book sales amount to a whopping $590 million dollars annually.1 If you add to that all the movies, shows, and video games in these genres it is more than the GDP of a major country. There is a powerful instinct for us to believe in things we cannot see given that all of us are marching at different rates toward the same darkened doorway. Constructing elaborate stories about far-fetched worlds and existences that we cannot know is a coping mechanism of sorts to deal with that fear of what happens after we die. All the great religions and myths are at their root, just stories to acclimate us to the inevitable.
With my third novel, I mustered the courage to dip my toe into this great tradition. “The Memory of My Shadow,” which I published as a serial right here on Substack, goes far beyond my own experience and that of people I’ve known. When I started the book five years ago, I was fascinated with the looming presence of A.I., how it would change humanity, and more importantly, how it would change everything we think we know about consciousness. I saw a collision coming between what has been a timeless trope in sci-fi with a startling new reality of machines actually having the power to create and improvise. I’ve written quite a bit on this topic if you’re interested.
But the spector of A.I. alone was not enough to sustain my interest for the time it takes to write a novel so I injected a horrifying real-life theme to play counterpoint: gun violence— school shootings in particular. Fashioning a monster from a machine is no match for the monsters we’ve enabled in our daily lives. Still, I needed a way in to tell the story. I found that way in by writing in the first person from a woman’s point of view. You may ask why I would willfully choose to write something so audacious. My honest answer is that I wanted to do it precisely because it scared the shit out of me. I wanted to reach far beyond my grasp to see what might happen, to see if I could do it.
Unlike the first two novels, the process of writing “The Memory of My Shadow” gave me moments of insight that I never could have predicted. Like a chef who throws wildly incongruent ingredients together, I had moments of discovery that introduced wholly new sensual experiences I never knew existed. If you’re interested, I wrote more about the novel in the preview which you can read here.
What’s Next? What’s Practical?
The biggest obstacle for me to keep writing fiction, like so many other writers here on Substack and beyond is the impractical nature of it. No one needs another book of fiction the way they need a book on how to overcome their childhood trauma, be a better manager, or make the most out of their vacation in Belize.
I had lunch a couple of months ago with a novelist I’ve admired for some time. He’s published eight books, two of which were best sellers, one of which was optioned by a movie star you would know to turn into a TV series. Surely he is the embodiment of the dream and yet, no. He has a day job writing copy at an agency. He drives an aging economy SUV. I provide this anecdote to show that the majority of writers barely earn a living and fiction writers with a few rare exceptions, simply don’t.
So if it’s not for money or fame or even modest recognition, why do it? I can’t speak for all fiction writers, but for me there are two reasons. The first should be obvious to you at this point. I learn so much about the world and about myself when I write. When I write a story, that story changes me and that change keeps me open and flexible which I think is vital as I continue my walk toward that darkened doorway. The second reason is the powerful feeling of connection I get when I reach just one reader and we share the space of a story together. There is no more intimate connection between an artist and an audience. It is singular.
A New Book, A New Adventure!
I’m considering publishing my fourth novel here on Substack as a serial. The working title is “Harmony House” and I’ve had an adventure writing it so far. I’d like to bring you along for the ride if you’re willing. Here’s the teaser:
As the climate crisis is eroding the shorelines that have not already been destroyed by fires or hurricanes, the Jenson brothers have a dream to introduce completely sustainable, eco-friendly living through a tiny modular home they’ve invented. With the help of a green tech billionaire, they are poised to sell their innovation to the world under the condition that his daughter, Eve will be in charge of marketing. Eve insists on an elimination style reality TV show where six contestants must live together in the 500-square-foot home. The person who outlasts the others wins Houze. The six contestants selected for optimal diversity and entertainment value have no idea they’ve entered a game that could cost them their lives.
The foundation of Houze is steeped in blood and corporate greed. The story that unfolds shines a light on the many contradictions of modern society as winner-takes-all capitalism collides with a fundamental need to cooperate and ensure our survival. Fans of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty will enjoy this book.
I cheated with “The Memory of My Shadow” in that the book was already in the can. I simply doled it out in pieces. This book would be a true serial in that I’ll be writing it as it’s being published. This is both thrilling and terrifying to me. While I’m more than halfway through, the ending is still just a pinhole of light in the darkness. Assuming that light’s not a train, I should see you on the other side.
I’d love to gauge your interest as I try to screw up my courage to make the plunge. Here are a few quick questions that will help me decide the future publishing of this book.
Let’s have a chat. I’d love to know what you think about all this.
What keeps you reading fiction or why do you avoid it?
If you’re a writer, is fiction easier or harder than non-fiction?
Describe the way you read fiction. Are you a skimmer who just flows through the story or are you a close reader who constructs a copy of the world in your mind?