Friday, December 10, 2010

The Fact About Fiction

We’ve been talking non-fiction/fiction this week. I’ve learned much from Katy and Debbie – and my TBR list has grown because of all the excellent recommendations from our readers. I read loads of non-fiction, quirky stuff from YA books explaining environmentalism, to books on writing, to biography (currently reading the biography of C.S. Lewis’s wife Joy Davidman Gresham), to info/reference volumes. I read very little Christian non-fiction. There are reasons for that, but I won’t go into it here. I do have a Christian non-fiction recommendation, though. When I was going through a disastrous time in my life (one of many), I found a slim book by M. Craig Barns called When God Interrupts. There’s a long story that goes with this book, but suffice it to say, it was sustaining. Now, on to today’s fiction/non-fiction topic.

I have a theory. Goes like this: All fiction is fact that never happened (except it did). I realize this reads muddy, but allow me to explain.

On Monday, Katy opened our eyes to the notion that fiction is empathy. That it helps us to lean into the human condition, not to judge, but to understand and identify. I agree wholeheartedly. And I’d like to build on that thought. If empathy may be created through reading the made up stories of invented characters, then this implies that the stories do in fact contain truth that can be construed, and then applied to our lives.

Let’s break my theory down:

“All fiction is fact--” One of the reasons we must create rich, layered characters of depth who possess both good and negative qualities is because to do otherwise is a form of self-delusion. We would be lying to ourselves. When we, as writers, insist our character reacts to the troubles around her with only pure motive, altruism, and honest action, we are attempting to turn a blind eye to the totality of truth about ourselves. And in our efforts to write a bright story of human hope, we end up with a fiction that contains no truth.

“Fact that never happened”. Fiction is an account of true emotion. Story reflects and explores the essence of humanity. Fiction is a map of us. An emotional biography. It is the opportunity to explore the truth about how we feel about ourselves, our neighbors, our place in the world. We explore this through stories that have happened to no one, to someone, to everyone. This is the mathematics of story – No one (invented character) + someone (reader interacting with richly textured characters inside story structure) = everyone (novels that allow many readers to identify with various and unlikely situations and people)

“(except it did)”. Once the reader begins reading, the story plays out inside the mind, heart, and imagination of the reader. It lives. It happens. The reader and the writer communicate this fact, tracing each other’s common experience of being through the connecting power of story.
Fiction is the breathing part of us. It’s a way for each of us to explore how to live out our humanity – and a way for us to glimpse at the ways other people live it out.

Writers, how does your writing crack open the experience of being human? Readers, what fiction have your read that has been an emotional biography for you? (and yes, you can answer as both a reader and a writer). We love to hear from you.


Latayne C Scott said...

First of all I have to say how much I love the writings of each of my sisters here: Bonnie's courage and incredible writing skills, Debbie's craftsmanship and insights into the human condition, Patti's wry humor and delicate touch, and Sharon's ability to show grace in the worst of fictional circumstances. I am in awe of their talents and love them all.

But Katy's writings had a personal impact on my writings in a specific way I'd like to mention. I'm the straight-laced person who doesn't want to loosen up in public. Oh, I may display humor and certainly I delve into difficult issues. But I don't have the kind of freedom that Katy does, deep in her soul. Her books To Dance in the Desert and The Feast of Saint Bertie did something to me. They lubricated my joints, I guess you can say. The very idea of dancing (I worship in a religious tradition where we we don' daince we don' chew and we don' go with those that do) for instance is new to me.

So, as a tribute to Katy, I wrote something in my most recent completed (and still unpublished) novel, A Conspiracy of Breath. It was a passage where the protagonist and narrator was moved along by the Holy Spirit as she was receiving part of the the Epistle of Hebrews. And, because of Katy, my heroine could dance to those holy impulses.

Thank you, Katy, dearest friend.

Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne: That is amazing and gorgeous! Katy's books do possess a freedom of spirit rare in Christian fiction. She is a rare writer - a gem.

I know exactly what you mean. Your literary tribute to our dear friend made me smile.

Unknown said...

Bonnie, i love what you said in your post - i am not a writter, but read and have sold many books (i owned a store, and later worked in a book distributor warehouse as prp) and wish i could have had this post to refer to then. So many people asked if it was fiction or fact. Thanks!

Nicole said...

Bonnie, well done. And although I totally agree with this statement (That it helps us to lean into the human condition, not to judge, but to understand and identify. I agree wholeheartedly.), I find there are readers who do judge vigorously. Unfortunately. Some readers insist their standards should be met above all others, and their ability to stretch their singular idea of the human experience is limited to a severe legalism. Their vocalism is largely responsible for the somewhat lack of freedom to portray the world and Christians as they sometimes are.

Bonnie Grove said...

Marianne: What a lovely gift you've given me today, to think that a book lover, seller, and distributor finds my thoughts worthy to pass on to the people who trusted her warms me through. Thank you for your kindness!

Nicole: Ah, but with every novel we stretch a little more, we lift our heads a titch higher, and we see beyond ourselves an inch farther. Even the people who seem to religionize their notion of what fiction should be, cannot remain unchanged by it.
With every book, we learn.
Reading and writing is a collaboration of grace in action.
Thanks for your good thoughts.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

"we are attempting to turn a blind eye to the totality of truth about ourselves. And in our efforts to write a bright story of human hope, we end up with a fiction that contains no truth."

Diggity dang, yes! Yes. Yes. So very cool this post is. A little Yoda I am today. ;)

Going to reread this post, then tweet it.

~ Wendy

Kathleen Popa said...

Latayne, you make me blush. I'm honored to find this tribute in such a beautiful novel. I pray one day I see it on the bookstore table. The one in front.

Thank you, Bonnie for such a great description of fiction. Is there anything truer than To Kill a Mockingbird?

Diggity dang.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: So glad you enjoyed. And thanks for the shout outs on Twitter. You're always so generous to us.

Katy: Excellent point about Mockingbird. And John Steinbeck's literary career was to tell the truth about California, and humanity - without ever writing a word of non-fiction.

Megan Sayer said...

Nick Hornsby was the first author I read who really reflected ME back from the book. Reading "About A Boy" was like an unlocking - a sense that all the weirdness inside me that I never shared WAS in fact part of our common humanity. "High Fidelity" and "Fever Pitch" have done the same, although to a lesser extent.

This sounds strange, but it was that experience that's encouraged me most with my own writing to share the "difficult" emotions, and write stories that I probably wouldn't otherwise share. I'm finding that through these, every so often, people will say to me "yes, I felt like that", or "that happened to me but I've never spoken about it". And so the unlocking continues.

(by the way Latayne I loved your comment. I've been there too).

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan, A wonderful example of how a story about made up characters can work transformatively in a real life person.
(yes, I make up words all the time)


Thanks so much for that!

Marcia said...

Bonnie, your blog this time caused me to mull over the reasons why I read what I do and write what I do. As usual, I'm unable to respond with a quick answer. It always takes me a while to process things in my mind, hence I often post something later than most.

I think the felt emotional need of many women is to be utterly and lavishly loved. I've recognized this need in myself. Therefore, we crave stories of romance, where we can vicariously experience fresh, new romantic love.

When I was in high school, I read hundreds of cheap romances, smuggling them home in brown paper envelopes and reading them late at night, because my dad forbade me to read them, wise father that he was. I continued those reading habits after I was married. Even though I was a pastor's wife, my husband didn't mind. I'd keep records of what I read and rate the romances by certain standards of satisfaction. The ones with more conflict and tension got higher marks. When inspirational romances became popular, I started reading those. (And began writing one myself. )

Somewhere along the line, I suppose as I gained maturity, dimestore romance started failing to light my fire. Perhaps because the secular romances tended to be immoral, and the inspirational romances too saccharine. Gradually I began to understand in my heart what I had always known in my head: only God can love me as deeply and passionately as I wish to be loved. If I tried to hang my heart on the man-woman thing, it would leave me empty.

I'm still a romantic, still enjoy a good wholesome, tension-filled romance. But I look at the relationship between a man and a woman as a symbol of the relationship between Christ, the groom, and us (me), the bride. Surely God created romance so we'd get a picture of the passion He has for us. Therefore, romance is valuable as a parable. In my way of thinking, it must be treated as an arrow pointing to the Main Dish, and not served up as the Main Dish itself. Which surely takes some skill in writing.

Probably the book that came closest to an “emotional biography” for me was Jane Eyre, a romance laced with searing hardship... joy found amid off-the-chart pain.

I first read the book in high school, never realizing that someday I, like Jane, would go through a “fire” of sorts and end up losing the love of my life, only to rediscover joy and a deeper romance with him in the midst of his handicap.

Bonnie Grove said...

Marcia: What a lovely and thoughtful comment. Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable part of yourself.

I think your comment points to a deep need we suffer. Yes, we all want to be loved, to feel and experience passion. We want to be wanted. But a steady diet of superficial romance novels (including Christian ones) is very bad for us indeed. It privileges the passive igniting of falling in love over the richer landscape of tried and true love. And it warps our understanding of love and it's role in our lives.

What shocks me most about Christian fiction is that the bestselling books are simple romance novels - stories that titillate. Even if they dress them up in a bonnet, or in a toga. They are just romance novels. We readers need to demand more. We need to get out of our fluffy books and start changing the culture one book at a time.

Always great to hear from you, Marcia.