“Only” Fiction, by Deborah J. Ross

At the best of times, I’m mildly schizophrenic about my story-telling. Actually, that’s an inaccurate use of the word. I mean, inconsistent and of two contradictory minds. On the one hand, I think it’s essential, even life-saving, to tell the truth about who we are, how we feel, and what we have experienced. I’m struck over and over with how telling our personal stories has the power to transform not only our own lives, but those of the people around us. On the other hand, I also believe that good fiction operates on somewhat different principles than real-life one-event-after-another. It has a beginning, middle, and end that give it shape. I’m far from original in saying that good fiction is more true than life, not because it is more credible but because it focuses on emotionally coherent story arc.

“Write What You Know” may be good advice in terms of emotional veracity, but useless and counterproductive when it comes to gigantic silver slugs with space-faring technology, magical systems based on music, or boarding schools for wizards. Such beings and such worlds come about as a marvelous alchemical blend of research and imagination.

Like other fiction writers, I work hard to create characters that aren’t me and situations I’ve never experienced. As a result, I’m not alone in having some reviewer or even fellow writer (who should know better) assume that I’ve drawn heavily on autobiographical material for my characters. (This did happen to me, and I can assure you all that Kithri from Jaydium is entirely made-up.)
Things can be emotionally true without being literally true. I can remember how it felt to be in such-and-such a situation or having done this-other thing. Like many (most, I daresay) writers, I love hearing other people’s stories, and I am as guilty as the next person of taking mental notes about adventures and experiences that are different from my own. So although this-particular thing never happened to me, this is how I imagine it felt like, having listened to someone it did happen to. If I do my job as a writer well and bring a writer’s sensibility to the problem, then I can end up with a story element that rings true.

The other side of this coin is what to do with my own life story. Keeping my experiences secret is one option (not a very healthy one, in my opinion), and telling them only in certain private settings is another. Putting them down as a memoir is yet another. Like lots of other people, I’ve had the impulse to turn mine into a work of fiction. Half the people I mention this to think it’s a wonderful idea and the other half warn me not to even try. Most of the time, I am not at all sure it’s a good idea. I suspect that the very things that were pivotal for me, the things that moved or shook or inspired or devastated me most, don’t fit well into fiction. So I’d have to be willing to “kill my darlings,” not just the prose bits but the sequence of events and in many cases, the events themselves. My fear is that in doing so, I will come perilously close to lying about what happened to me. It’s often been a struggle to delve deep enough to discover my own truth, and I wonder if fictionalizing it will eviscerate its meaning for me. I still haven’t come to a resolution about this and would welcome any thoughts.

There’s another way to look at all this and that is to take those critical moments and to use them as kernels of fictional moments. I may deck them all about with completely different circumstances. I may make sure the characters involved in no way resemble those in real life. I may situate them in a plot arc having nothing to do with “what really happened.” I may change all these things in the service of crafingt a story. I may even change the pivotal moment itself but use its emotional energy as a driving force, a lens through which I focus the momentum of the story. So far, that’s worked the best for me: passion and tears poured out on the page.

In the end, all stories are made up. All stories are true. They are, after all, only fiction.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.



“Only” Fiction, by Deborah J. Ross — 7 Comments

  1. And the other factor is time. You need to digest your pivotal or devastating experience, before it can slip into your fiction. Elie Wiesel vowed he would wait for ten years before he wrote about his time in Buchenwald; in the 50s he wrote 800-plus pp that got cut down to 245 and then down to 116, appearing as NIGHT in 1960. That’s why we haven’t seen the great 9/11 novel yet — it’s too soon. Give it another decade or so.

  2. Randolph – yep!

    Brenda – in principle, I agree with you. I’ve given some of these events 25 years, which is why the question has come up for me again.

    Mostly, I think that if I talk about it and keep an open mind, if it’s the right thing to do, “the way will open.” But the relationship between personal history and fictional story-telling is a discussion worth having.

  3. This dichotomy is such a toughie, and you express it well. It’s something that I think writers do think about a lot.

    And yes, “write what you know” is pretty useless for sf and f writers!

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