Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fictive Continuum

An acquaintance who is writing a memoir is perplexed by the capacity to write fiction, and I in turn am annoyed when I have to (or choose to) write non. 

"How do you do it?" she asked me. "I mean, how do you think up story ideas? I really have no ideas. I have to write what I know."

"How do you think of story ideas?" is a question many writers (fiction or non) mock, but it's a perfectly valid question. And I might ask her the same thing: how is it your own reality is enough to write about?

I am a disaster at nonfiction. I've never been adept at writing my own reality or anyone else's. Fiction is a way of interpreting for me, a way of dealing with the world. It's a personality defect more than anything else. I write fiction because I have huge problems with nonfiction. (This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, and many writers are capable in both; I just happen to have a predilection for the made-up.)

Here are three and a half reasons I don't like writing nonfiction:

1) I've had a dull life.

I don't know that it's been dull so much as it's followed the most expected trajectory you could think of for a member of my demographic. Born in the 70's, divorced parents, listened to Madonna in the 80's, Nirvana in the 90's, a brief enmeshing in punk rock, MIA in the 00's; I rebelled as expected, experimented with drugs, experimented with non-Western religion, deep depression, Prozac, deferred college, protested, traveled the world, went to college, went vegetarian, read The Corrections, had a baby, started using more asafoetida in my cooking, had more babies, learned to make bread and homemade mozzarella, voted for Obama, house went underwater along with everyone else's, lost job like everyone else, went back to meat-eating, the end. There's my memoir. Ta da. Look up "Gen X Stereotype" and there I am.

There are no new stories, of course, just retellings, so I could conceivably tell my story again, but it seems so whiny. I haven't had the kind of hardship necessary to write engaging nonfiction about myself.*

2) I don't have the insight or empathy to write about other people.

And if I were to write nonfiction about some arena outside of myself? About politics, or music criticism, or the history of fonts? Forget it. I live in my head. I'm blind to all else. As far as writing opinions, criticism and the like...I don't have any opinions. Because of my paucity of knowledge, I am simply too ignorant to form an opinion. I am hopelessly un-well-read. If I have a strong opinion on something, I tend to change it once I research the subject to my satisfaction.

3) Nonfiction is fiction anyway, but more dishonest about it.

To contradict everything I just said, I have written nonfiction. There was college, of course, where I had to write reams of papers that analyzed Freud and Foucault, Balzac and Hitchcock, and it was mostly bullshit. In college I acquired a fair degree of facility in the field of bullshitting, which, it seems, is what nonfiction is about.

And I've written a couple of articles about food. One of them was full of half-memories and perhaps even a fib. I mean, food? How do you write about food? You have to shellac an immediacy of meaning on each dining experience you write about, which tends to not be present at the moment you are dining. It's just food. It doesn't have a moral. Which leads me to:

3B) I find it hard to extract morals from reality.

Again, this leads to some truth-stretching.

Nonfiction involves narrative arcs and denouements just as surely as fiction does; the problem is, reality does not come embedded with narrative arcs and denouements, so imposing these on factual events involves either lying or pathological rearranging.

So nonfiction seems dishonest to me; fictitious, in other words.

In a bar once (because that is where all relevant conversations are held) an inebriated gentleman explained to me that what made Hank Williams’ music so great was the fact that his lyrics were autobiographical: the old truth-equals-beauty fallacy. Well, it may have been true that Hank heard a whippoorwill, a mournful train whistle, and a robin weeping at exactly the same moment as leaves died, a moon went behind the clouds, and a star fell in the sky. But of course, they weren’t really weeping along with him and his loneliness: it merely seemed that way. Hank anthropomorphized some natural phenomena and it made a lovely song. Fiction.

Everything is fiction to a greater or lesser extent. I may as well write fiction.

So, how do you write fiction? How do you craft something out of nothing?

While nonfiction is based on true events, fiction is simply based on true events that didn't happen. Fiction is what could have happened, or could still happen. Maybe because of my normal-trajectory life I am fascinated by what isn't. I am aware of the possibilities, and I enjoy exploring them. Fiction is all of that. Fiction is what isn't (but not necessarily what you want to be). Fiction is supposing. Fiction is noticing: noticing all the things that are the same on your 5,000th drive from Minneapolis to St. Paul on I-94, and then noticing what is different, and then wondering what else could be different. Fiction is seams and interstices and the unspokenness they conceal. Fiction is pretending to live forever. Fiction is knowing that you don't have to understand. Fiction is what you wanted to say but didn't. Fiction is who you wanted to love but couldn't.

A marginally illustrative anecdote: before I had ever eaten authentic African food, I got some cookbooks from the library and learned to make West African meals, or what I thought West African meals were. Jollof rice, palava sauce, groundnut soup, gari foto. Of course, every cook imprints her own taste on a dish, and my food assuredly was marked as my own. When I eventually traveled to West Africa, I wasn't terribly surprised to find that the food was miles from my own attempts at replicating this cuisine. It is sort of like learning to read a foreign language before you ever hear it, without learning the phonetics of the language; the spoken reality is removed from the reality you had created in your head.

I still cook West African food every now and then, but there are now two versions of this cuisine in my head: the Pre-Real version and the Real version. Before I plan a meal, I have to decide which type of food I want to create.

Creating the Real version, I've found, is much trickier than the Pre-Real version. Why should this be? Well, you have to follow a formula to craft the Real version. There is a specific way, or a few or many specific ways, but any deviation from those guidelines results in a different product, one that will disappoint those who seek out the Real version. If I were to cook for Ghanaians homesick for the version of groundnut soup they grew up with, I would surely not satiate their homesickness.

With the Pre-Real version, I can do things my way. I guess this makes me a bit of a control freak. But in truth, I tend to prefer the Pre-Real to the Real. I hone it to the tastes that I am used to and that I prefer.

Thus it is with the fictive continuum. When I attempt to replicate reality, I come up short.

There is a Right way to do everything, and there is the way I do things, the Ambiguous Way, the Potentially Wrong Way. I simply don't have the prerequisite knack or inclination to do things the Right Way, and that is why I write fiction.

*I do not mean to imply by this that I accept the myth that artists must suffer to make art.