“Why would someone who has a long, successful non-fiction writing career suddenly shift to writing fiction?
I’ve been asked that question numerous times in the past couple of years as I’ve learned the fiction craft and business. Heck, I’ve asked myself the same question. So, if you’re curious, too, stick with me as I work this out in this blog.
Let me start by questioning some of the assumptions in the question. First, let’s question the word “suddenly.” I wrote my first fiction at least 55 years ago, and up to 2002, I’d written four novels, a dozen or so short stories, and a score of fables. But except for the fables, none of those were published. (I’ll tell more about that in a later blog post.) For now, let’s just say that there’s more to writing fiction than simply sitting down and cranking out words on the keyboard.
Another assumption is “non-fiction.” In addition to the fables, most of my non-fiction books contain quite a number of made-up stories. Some of them are jokes to make a point memorable. Some of them start as true stories, but have details changed to protect my consulting clients and keep me from being sued. Some of them are combinations of two stories, while others are fractional stories, leaving out parts that seem irrelevant to the point I’m making.
The third assumption concerns “success.” Although I’ve been successful financially, that wasn’t why I started writing non-fiction.
Continuing My Previous Work by Another Means
I remember sitting in the bushes when I was eight years old, trying to reason my way out of my misery. I believed I was “smart,” because that’s what everyone told me, but it didn’t make sense. If I was truly smart, I should have been able to figure out how to be happy, not wretched. Apparently, I didn’t know how to use “smart” to create “happy.”
I vowed, then, to learn how to use my smarts to become happy.
One of the things I learned rather quickly was that the people abusing me weren’t very happy either. I decided to surround myself with happy people, but soon learned most smart people were also tortured by their smarts. To reduce the number of potential torturers, I resolved to teach other people what I was learning. That was the mission I carried into freshman English composition, where Bill Gaffney taught me one way to accomplish it.
One way for smart people to be happy is to express themselves, to put out in the world the vast melange of thoughts and feelings whirling in their heads. For me, that wasn’t easy to do verbally. My voice was squeaky and my mind always ran ahead of my mouth. As for singing, I was told quite early by the chorus teacher to move my mouth but never to make a sound. I might have been a painter, but my hand and eye didn’t seem equal to the task. I dreamed of becoming a dancer or an athlete, but my klutzy body wouldn’t cooperate.
That left writing. Writing has brought me a cornucopia of happiness over many years, but in recent years, I’ve become aware of two reasons not to continue writing non-fiction:
a. Many people I’d like to reach with my happiness lessons don’t read non-fiction.
b. Many of my happiness lessons are too difficult to communicate in non-fiction.
Stories as Experiences
Writing is not my only way to communicate my happiness lessons. For many, many years, Dani and I and our colleagues conducted workshops based on simulations—experiential learning: Problem Solving Leadership, Organizational Change Shop, Systems Engineering Management Groups, Satir Writing Workshops, and many others. Unfortunately, as I’ve grown older, my stamina has faded, making such workshops much more difficult. So, I asked myself, “Is there another way to offer experiential learning without the strain on my aging body?”
I’d like to say that I immediately recognized that reading fiction is another kind of simulation, but I’m not that insightful. Only gradually did I come to realized that a great deal of the popularity of many non-fiction books is in the stories. Stories make for lighter reading, and some people object to them, but overall, those of us who use stories manage to communicate lots of hard stuff. Why? Because a good story takes readers into a trance where s/he can “experience” events just as they can by involving themselves in a teaching simulation.
So, I finally figured out that if I could create powerful stories—the way I have created powerful simulations for half a century—I could carry on my teaching without the real-time strain on my body.
And that’s the first part of this story—the story of how I decided to write novels. I’ll continue the story in later blogs. Perhaps, if I do it well, you’ll be able to share the experience with me and learn a happiness lesson or two.
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and blogs regularly on Fridays. His books, First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See and The Hands of God are available in his bookshelf here on BVC:
His personal web page is http://geraldmweinberg.com