Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Truth About Fiction

There are many dichotomies in the writer's life, not the least of which is the fact that we spend hours, months, even years creating our stories in private, only to have them read and judged by the public -- most of whom we'll never, ever see or meet. Yeah I know that's the point, to have people read the pages we so carefully craft. Still, when you put yourself out there it's a lot like standing naked in Times Square. Not that I ever have, mind you, but I've felt just as exposed by my writing.
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As a reader of fiction I often wonder where a story comes from in relation to the author, because as a writer I know I put much of myself and my experiences into my stories. But I also know that the greater portion of what I write comes from my imagination and a conglomeration of things I've heard and seen. My books are not and never will be autobiographical. Yes, Every Good & Perfect Gift is based on events in the life of a close friend. But only the parts about the illness are real. Everything else is pure fiction. But even people who knew Evie as well as I did ask if it's all true. The answer is no, not even close.
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While I never had to protect myself from the writing police the way Debbie wrote about on Monday, I did have my own run-in with the "law" if you will, which kept me shackled in my mind for a very long time. A few years into my writing life, after I'd finished two or three manuscripts, I began to rack up the rejection letters in a serious way. Cold and impersonal, often nothing more than a form postcard, they were disappointing for a day or so, then I'd pick myself up, brush myself off, send out my proposal again and get back to writing. And that was in the days when publishers frowned on multiple submissions and spent 3 or 4 months to get back to you.
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But as the years passed and the rejection letters increased, discouragement set in big time. I questioned myself, I questioned God, and seriously began to pray that He'd remove this "thorn in the flesh" that my writing had become. "GOD! Why did you give me this desire if You're never going to open the door?!? Make it go away!" Oh, the drama.
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And that's exactly how I felt. Like I was standing in front of a brick wall with no windows, no doors, no way over and no way around. I just kept banging my head against it. And after a while it hurt. A lot.
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Enter Job's friends.
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Only in my case it was friend. Singular. One well-meaning friend and mentor, the women's ministries director at our church and Bible teacher extraordinare, who regularly told me that I should be writing non-fiction because fiction is a waste of time. That if I'd write non-fiction God would surely bless it. And after a while I almost believed her. Almost believed the desire I couldn't get away from was self-imposed, almost believed I was opposing the "real" call God had on my life.
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Almost.
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But a thought came to me one day that settled the issue in my heart once and for all. When Jesus wanted to get a spiritual truth across, He told a story. And those stories have never been forgotten. Not that I have anything against non-fiction. I read and enjoy inspirational non-fiction regularly, and respect those who can write it well. But the thing that drives me to spend hours alone with my hands on a keyboard is storytelling. The ideas that wake me up at night or keep me from sleep spring up from a place deep, deep inside. I can't change that anymore than I can change my dna.
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What about you? Where does your passion lie? Has anyone ever tried to snuff it out? How do you deal with it?

19 comments:

Cynthia Ruchti said...

I love this blog. Love these authors. Deeply appreciate your insights. Thanks, Sharon, my friend. My debut novel releases in May and I'm already practicing my "No, Libby is not me. Well, she is, but..." If it weren't for storytelling (truth, but in story form), the whole Bible would be the book of Numbers. I think about the power of the prophet Nathan's confrontation of King David. A story about a poor man whose lamb was stolen laser-pierced David's shadowed heart. Unforgettable story. That's what you write too, Sharon.

Marilyn said...

This post AND the above comment were great. I was nodding, nodding, nodding all the way through.

Need More Words said...

Thank you for this post. Sometimes when I tell Christian friends I am writing a fiction story I feel guilty, like what I am writing is frivolous. When people say they only read non-fiction I believe they are missing out on so much. Christian fiction has truth woven throughout and most importantly the redeeming power of God.
Let's not stop what we know God is calling us to do. Thanks for the encouragement.
Diane

Latayne C Scott said...

As a writer of both non-fiction and fiction, I've felt something similar my whole life. When I meet people and tell them that I am a writer, I don't ever use the term "author" in conversation: Even after 30 years of publishing it would seem presumptuous coming out of my own mouth.

Those who ask, "Do you write novels?" were always disappointed when I told them that I wrote non-fiction. I could see in their eyes that meant stodgy, lecturing, dull.

Those who are readers of non-fiction seem disappointed as well when I tell them I've written a novel. They seem to think that's frivolous. And I have absorbed that criticism through my pores for years. Truth be told, I've generated some of the criticism of novel writers.

I couldn't have the courage to write fiction unless it be undergirded with essential truth. I think that is what Sharon is saying. If it means feeling naked to get that truth across to the mind of a reader, we do it.

That's where community is so important. We tell each other that these vulnerabilities are worth it. If Jesus could empty Himself to serve us, what's a little literary deshabille here and there....

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I don't feel guilty about writing fiction, but since I'm not published, I do feel guilty about writing sometimes. I know that publication isn't validation, but it's easier to talk about it than just saying, "No, I'm not published yet... It just takes time...etc." Then you have people looking at you like you're that person on "American Idol" who doesn't realize she can't sing.

Nicole said...

No offense to non-fiction writers because I, too, admire their abilities, but . . . I think fiction tells it all. Reveals truth in so many ways and of course can be less restrictive. I rarely read non-fiction because it can be so boring, so repetitious.

The discouragement plays rampant tunes in my head. Throw me a bone, Lord. Please. A crumb, for crying out loud. But, He's the boss. Done for Him, approved by Him, sent forth via Him. Yielding sustains. Doesn't make it fun.

(Love Kristen's final sentence. Perfect.)

Bonnie said...

I have authored both fiction and non-fiction. They were very different writing experiences. Your Best You is something I use in ministry - it is an application tool I can teach and pass on.

And it is jammed with stories that illustrate the points I make.

Non-fiction without stories is, for me, a difficult read. Even the most academic books I read rely on story in order to flush out fuller meaning to the points they are making.

For some reason fiction has gotten a bad rap - it is often seen as "mere" entertainment - not reaching the level of importance of the shear didactic. But, I think, when we look more closely, we see story and storytelling is fundamental to communication.

Not saying I don't struggle with the fact I've chosen fiction as my path. When I speak at Your Best You seminars and small groups, I am awed how God uses the materials to change women's lives. I am changed, too. That isn't something you see with fiction. It doesn't work that way. I've had days when the story didn't flow, the story didn't bend to my will and I've thought - I can't believe my job is to sit alone and make things up!
But the moment passes, and I realize the stories will always call me back. I can't resist.

Katie Ganshert said...

What a beautiful, honest, and encouraging post.

I really agree with Kristen's comment, and got a kick out of her American Idol analogy. How I feel like that person sometimes! You can sing, though Kristen! I know you can sing!

Annette said...

Thank you for writing this post. I have never had anything published on my own, although I have had things I've said quoted in books.
When I write a review I keep in mind the hard work and the feelings of the writer, but I must be honest.
When I do write inspirational posts on my blog from my own life, it an exposing feeling.
Thank you.

Lynn said...

Just wanted you to know that I'm in the middle of reading "Every Good and Perfect Gift." Haven't gotten to the "disease" part yet.
I can't believe that anyone would say that fiction is a waste of time. Fiction allows readers to get away, to have a mini-vacation, to meet new friends, to laugh, to cry, to care...that's a waste of time?!
I can't even imagine how hard it is to keep getting rejection notices, but glad you keep fighting for your work!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Cynthia, thank you so much. I love your comment, "the whole Bible would be the book of Numbers" without storytelling. Great insight. By the way, I saw your novel, They Almost Always Come Home, on cbd.com today and plan to preorder it. Great cover, great story. Congratulations!

Great comments, everyone. I find that as writers many of us share common fears and insecurities but as we share them they tend to dissipate. As Latayne said, "community is so important."

Kristen, I had to laugh at your American Idol analogy. I can't tell you how many times I've wondered, and even asked, "Do I write like so many of them sing?!?" Ah me. Maybe the fears and insecurities don't dissipate as completely as we'd like.

Thank you, Lynn, for investing your time in my story. I hope you enjoy it.

Teri Dawn Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teri Dawn Smith said...

This post hit the spot! Like a bowl of tasty soup on a cold day. Like that first sip of coffee in the morning. Yes, and amen, to all of the above.

Lori Benton said...

"If Jesus could empty Himself to serve us, what's a little literary deshabille here and there...."

Oh, Latayne. I love it! Best thing I've read all day.

Carla Gade said...

I've had the old hymn "I Love to Tell the Story" playing in my mind all week. His story matters most. And if we can incorporate His truths into the novels we write it is a glorious thing!

Kathleen Popa said...

In my crankiest moments, I think that those who say fiction is a frivolous waste of time have sold out to the materialistic lie that all that matters are the things we can pin a number to. Cynthia, yes, yes, yes! Thank God we have a Bible with poetry and stories and mysteries. When God answered Job's complaints he gave him not answers but questions. I write fiction because I have more questions than answers, but these don't hurt my faith - they are my faith.

Diane and Kristen, I have felt the way you feel. Just keep writing. Everything doesn't have to make sense. You don't know God's plan, but you don't have to know it to live it.

Lynn said...

Just tried to find you on Facebook...you need to get over there!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Lynn, that's what I keep hearing, especially from Debbie Thomas. Maybe one of these days I'll surprise everyone and show up on Facebook. Maybe.

Joyce said...

There are some people who will never comprehend another person's right to be who they are. Praise the Lord for people who not only enjoy their own "stuff" but also let others enjoy their's without comment or judgment.