It’s so tempting to imagine a drug or a hormone that would free me, grant me clarity from the foggy jumble that settles over me when I think about writing down what I believe is important in the form of a story. Although I spent much of my childhood as a fabulist, making up lies like it was my job (“No, really, my grandmother’s house has been struck by lightning seven times.” That one got real traction during a third-grade unit on the phases of matter. Plasma!), I find it nearly impossible now—painful, even—to take the risk of imagining, as a writer, alternate realities from this odd-around-the-edges but generally suburban middle class one. Are my truths really that self-evident? Or am I missing something fundamentally necessary in the mind or makeup of the fiction writer?
To the right of the “window” where I type this, on my “desktop,” there are photographs from my trip last year to Robben Island. I am preoccupied in particular by some lovely and terrible photographs of barbed wire and the watch tower over the island. I can imagine the quotidian details of prison life easily because I spend so much time in jails and prisons for my work as a public defender. (And I can imagine the psychological trials of imprisonment because I was twelve once, which is not unlike being held captive among angry inmates awash in righteous indignation and self-preservation-inspired treachery.) But the spiraling eddies of the lives disrupted by the prisoner’s exile? Those are so remote from me. Sure, I speak on the phone to girlfriends and children who want their partners and fathers home. And I can even imagine the empty feeling when they walk into their homes to find him still gone. It is the ceaselessness of the absence that is terrifyingly—and mercifully, I guess—unavailable to me. Is it more empathy that I need in order to write from their eyes, to tell their awful, important stories? Or are the great inventors just better at packaging their own pain and hope as another’s?
When I sit down to write, I think about people who write the great capers. You know: murder mysteries and train robberies and spy thrillers—absurd plot twists and internecine subplots. Sure, they aren’t all great works of art, but that invention, that ability to imagine the absurd writ large and faux-realistic? They are awe-inspiring to me, these Goldberg machines that may not serve any practical purpose, but that chug and whirl and move along anyway, thanks to their clever design.
Instead, I suppose I am more like one who works in marble or wood when I write. Chipping away at the story that lies within, at best revealing and shaping what is already there. I suppose there’s no dishonor in that, but whenever I sit down to write, it feels somehow more fraudulent to tell true-ish stories dressed up in fictional garb than to invent a new cosmos each time I write and, with it, new truths.
(The trouble is compounded by the fact that I really do know a handful of stunning and heart-shaking stories, but they were mostly told to me by clients, in confidence, and there are rules for the story-teller who happens to be a lawyer. Which is why, I suppose there are so many former lawyers who make their livings telling stories. )
I was awash in relief a couple of weeks ago when I read a headline purporting to quote the fabulist writer Karen Russell—my God, what an imagination!—whose work I admire, even if I don’t always enjoy it (Girls who weave silk in some kind of indentured servitude and over time turn into silkworms? Eesh. I have enough trouble with actual worms). The headline said something like “Karen Russell says all fiction is autobiographical.” You could almost hear the swelling of the drum and strings section in my internal symphony. But I tried to read the article—an interview, really—in a rush, on the tiny screen of my phone. I searched vainly for the money quote—a rebuke, I hoped, to my husband’s most frequent question (a question only, I guess, but one that feels always like a critique by inquisition to me): “So, all of this really happened to you, right?” Other business called, and I swiped away from the page, losing it, in all likelihood forever, to the great electronic dustbin. The relief of the rebuke gave way to the crush of daily life. And here I am back to what seems like a ceaseless season of questioning and doubt. Taking comfort in a questionably remembered internet headline. All about stories that are only mostly true.
I just looked back at his question (quoted imprecisely?), glaring back at me in 12-point type, “So, all of this really happened to you, right?” and it sent me back in my chair, head rolling from side-to-side, alternating from my shame at the answer (“Mostly, yes.”) to righteous indignation that it is utterly the wrong question to ask of fiction (“So what?”).
What does it mean, then, to write fiction? Is it enough to fuse a character here or there? To write as the “I” from another set of eyes, all be they eyes whose gaze has most often been trained on you? Is it enough to change the names of small town hangouts and re-dress well-known miscreants in other clothes? In this protracted era of memoir, is there more honor in telling a mostly true story as though it happened to you? To run the risk of filling the gaps with mis-remembered details? To be the omniscient, if self-deprecatingly flawed, narrator?
Does anyone who grows up dreaming of being a writer long for the day she can tell all her truest stories to the mostly unlistening world? There is a difference between telling our truest stories and shouting as our truest selves. Our truest selves are the result of heartache and loss and dishonesty and effort and joy and hope; they are, for most of us, a few degrees or more north of us at any given moment. Which is, I think, where our fiction should be, too. At least that’s what I think today. Because it is the only thought that makes the next word in the story possible.