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My Problem with Fiction, and How I Tried to Resolve It

by Tom Johnson on Aug 11, 2011
categories: creativity technical-writing

I've been somewhat bothered by the fact that I don't read much fiction. For someone who has a degree in creative writing, this is a bit troubling. My degree is in nonfiction creative writing, but still, you would think that I read a novel a week or more.

Not really. Not too long after my MFA, I went through a burnout phase. During my 3 years at Columbia, I wrote a lot of stories and essays. They were all a type of literary writing. I spent countless hours editing them and then sent them off to various literary journals. The responses took months and were abysmal. I think I only published 1 or 2 of that whole lot.

Meanwhile, I was feeling pressures for employment. I applied for dozens of teaching positions, but nothing came of it except, by some small miracle, a two-year teaching job in Egypt. But that job wasn't taking me anywhere careerwise, and the pay wasn't much either.

At some point, I stopped reading fiction because I felt it wasn't getting me anywhere. While I love story, it didn't help me get a better job, or bring in money, and holing myself up somewhere to read was isolating from family duties.

During this time I focused more on tech and on books that would add value to my career than on fiction or even narrative nonfiction.

Years passed like this. I guess I found that I could do without fiction. Movies fill the escapism void, and travel excursions.

Last month I kind of fell into a bad habit. After work and general busyness, I'd feel exhausted in the evening. Too tired to do anything, and ready to relax and be entertained, I'd watch spy shows (like MI-5), or cop shows (like Rookie Blue), or even South/North Korean espionage melodramas with subtitles (like Iris).

The problem is that rather than going to sleep when tired, the shows would keep me up for another hour or two at night. Then I'd be exhausted in the morning. The need for some passive, mindless entertainment at around 10 pm lasted until midnight. By mid week I was exhausted and sometimes grumpy. I knew I needed to change.

My daughter recommended that instead of television, I choose a favorite book to read. It should be a book I like, with a story that is a treat to read, one that I might look forward to and prefer to television. I knew she was right.

My bookshelf. It's a mix of fiction and nonfiction (but mostly nonfiction).

The next few nights, rather than watching television, I pulled out a copy of Dispensation, an anthology of short stories with Mormon themes that Shannon gave me for Christmas. I read Brady Udall's "Buckeye the Elder" and remembered how I used to love fiction. Then I read Brian Evanstan's "Care of the Estate." And before I knew it, I was hooked. I started reading more and more short stories in the anthology, and then expanded to The Atlantic to read stories in their fiction edition. I downloaded Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander from Audible and listened to nearly all of it while working on my basement. I downloaded Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and listened to that in every spare moment. I realized how much I liked fiction. Why had I been avoiding it for so long?

And then I got to thinking about writing short stories myself. I'm creative, I can make up a story on the spot for my kids. Why not try my hand at fiction? Maybe I had a hidden talent I could surface.

I began brainstorming a plot. But this story, being fiction, had to follow one rule. According to an essay by Bret Johnson in The Atlantic, you shouldn't write what you know (see "Don't Write What You Know"). It's the biggest mistake rookies make. Why shouldn't you write what you know? Because if you do, writing becomes an act of explanation rather than exploration. In contrast, if you get inside someone's head, and imagine or explore what they would think, feel, say, and do, then you're operating in another mode: discovery. And in that mode, your prose comes alive.

I was totally convinced by this argument. In fact, I started to think that perhaps I had gotten the nonfiction/fiction dichotomy wrong all these years. Rather than pursuing nonfiction, I should have pursued fiction. I should have been exploring the minds of my characters, specifically minds unlike my own.

With this idea, I began to conceptualize a story, to lay down the basic plot. I would write about a repressed housewife who takes a "vacation" while her husband tends to the kids at home. Instead of vacationing, the woman applies for a job at a temp agency and ends up, unbeknownst to her husband, filling her husband's job during his leave of absence. The manager likes her work so much he decides to let the husband go and hires the woman full time. This sets the man into jealousy and rage with his wife and employer and ... then I'm not sure what happens.

Excited about the possibility of writing this story, I shared it with my wife over some cake at a posh dessert shop – "The Chocolate" in Orem. The Chocolate is a house with a lot of different rooms, painted in green and black and decorated with mirrors and flowers and trendy artwork. We sat on zebra cloth chairs. I tried to explain the plot to my wife, how it would proceed, and how it would eventually end.

As I was explaining the plot, I realized how shallow and simple it sounded. I heard my own voice and thought, this sounds dumb. I would need to put a lot more thought and development into the story. I only had the bare bones of a few of the actions, and creating a real story would require much more work. Real work. More research, more brainstorming, and lots of writing and rewriting and more writing. I estimated that to write one decent short story, I would need to dedicate at least 40 hours to the task, maybe more.

My wife explained that I'd need to show rather than tell. But her generally quiet reaction slowed my eagerness, and I began to think through this idea for fiction. After spending 40+ hours on a short story, what would I do with it? Send it to a small literary journal, where it would be added to their slush pile and reviewed quarterly? Would it end up in an online literary e-zine read by a handful of wannabe writers, published by some spare-time hack on his Blogspot website?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that writing fiction would be a lot of work. I'd need to research the characters, the psychology, the environment. I'd need to write and rewrite and rewrite. And all for what? For the chance of publishing in some obscure literary journal?

There wouldn't be any immediate reward, no immediate comments. No praise. No career advancement. No speaking invitations. No advertising perks. The work would reside in a place few would read, and yield little results.

Worst of all, I realized how simple and undeveloped my story sounded. This effort? Not really worth it. There was no twist, no cleverness in the story. It would either be predictable or manipulative.

With that, I decided to put the brakes on fiction reading. If I were to pour my soul into something, it should be nonfiction, the personal essay, my favorite format. I know what it takes to write a good personal essay. It requires research, and brainstorming, and a lot of writing and rewriting and sometimes throwing it all away to start over. Somehow it never occurred to me that writing fiction followed a similar process.

More than anything, I was befuddled about what to make of the advice -- don't write what you know. In nonfiction, if you don't know the topic you're writing about, your essay is going to stink. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll shift to writing a naval-gazing memoir -- the sure sign of death. Without intellectual substance, the essay devolves into an over-dramatized retelling of your life.

Yet strangely, this exploratory mode that Bret Johnston describes is exactly the thing I like about personal essays. You don't start out knowing everything. The very purpose is to explore a topic, to essay an idea and see where it takes you, or to find out what something truly is. It's the same mode that fiction writers slip into when imagining a character, but with nonfiction, you're navigating a world of ideas. You're following a conceptual path to see where ideas intersect and cross. You're looking at an idea from all perspectives, trying to find a way through.

Bret explains,

In early versions of some stories, my impulse was to try to record how certain events in my life had played out, but by the third draft, I was prohibitively bored. I knew how, in real life, the stories ended, and I had a pretty firm idea of what they "meant," so the story could not surprise me, or prorivde an opportunity for wonder. I was writing to explain, not to discover.

He then switches from explaining to exploring, and it liberates his writing. It makes the writing process adventurous and interesting to both himself and readers.

Although Bret's advice seems geared toward fiction, nonfiction essays actually follow exactly the same philosophy. If you're writing what you already know, there's no natural drive forward. The nonfiction essayist is just as much interested in charting unexplored territory as fiction writers. For example, when I started this essay, I had no idea how it would play out, where I would end, and how I would resolve my problem with fiction. Only as I come near the end do I realize that this principle -- don't write what you know -- runs just as seamless through nonfiction as fiction. Both aim to explore the unknown. This gives me hope that the great divide I've constructed in my mind between the two genres is really much thinner than I had previously imagined.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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