Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

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