A note on fiction
The make believe one. The fake one. The pretend one. The unreal one. All these phrases I’ve heard students use to describe, to remember, to keep track of the distinction between nonfiction and fiction. The made up one. The fantasy one. The imagined one. All of these my students, and I myself, used to describe Fiction. And with my weird allegiance to cold, hard truth, I stopped writing Fiction in my youth believing it to be “untrue” in the way that Marvel Movies are “untrue,” but of Fiction this is not, of course, True. Not at all. On the contrary, Fiction poises the writer just so that she might tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth.
Third person limited. That’s my narrator, a voice, maybe my voice who writes the world into being. “She said aloud to no one but herself,” says my narrator of a character whose life is also entirely manufactured, whose actions are at my pleasure and whim, characters whose existence and insistence have given me in my Very Much Nonfiction Life room to play, room to experiment, another room to set down my heart when this Nonfiction Life feels like it’s going to snap me in half with Truth.
Sometimes God gives you more than you can handle. Sometimes God or the Universe, or the Force, or the Energy – whatever you believe, whatever you know to be true – sometimes that God, Universe, Force, or Energy does give you more than others, give you more than you think you can carry, give you more suffering than seems normal in the course of a human life much less “fair.” Nothing’s fair except for maybe, sometimes in Fiction, but not in the Fiction I am writing. The Fiction I am composing by way of The Book is truer than any piece of Actual Nonfiction I’ve ever composed, including this, for that is my intent: a book of Fiction that captures a little Actual Truth about this business of being human.
The real one. The actual one. The historical one. The True one. This is how I heard students refer to Nonfiction, and of course in Creative Writing classes where I taught extensively on the matter of Creative Nonfiction their assumptions about the genre became bent, became trained toward a critical eye, a soft sense of disbelief, a search for what was genuine, and what was True. And every small success I’ve ever enjoyed as a Writer has come from that genre, Nonfiction – more specifically Creative Nonfiction. And while I can’t say I’ll never write another piece of nonfiction, can’t say I’ve chucked all that for “fiction writing,” I can say if I never write another book after Book Three (which has a title), if I finish this fiction, and I never write another book, that is fine with me.
There is a character in my book who increasingly struggles to speak. The words have all sunk to the bottom of his gut, and what effort it takes to push them up and out, and of the characters in my book I think he is my favorite because while I haven’t lived his life, he is the only character in the book who might really know how I feel today. The words have sunk to the bottom of my belly, and when I speak I must push them up and out. And for this character, and his female double, life is not so simple though both are experiencing what only one identifies as “ordinary pain.” May be exquisite, may be unusual, but the pain our sufferings become is the same pain. Even if the circumstances that initiated the pain were insane and unlikely, the pain our sufferings become is always common pain. You know it. And so do you. And you, too. Probably, though, not you because maybe you make a living mocking and bullying people on The Internet. But definitely you, you get what I’m saying.
One of my characters will never again speak to her ex. That’s just the way her day is gonna go. Another of my characters has no ex to speak of. And here in my Nonfiction Life, I am speaking again to my ex. Not because cancer erases or eclipses the past or the pain or the suffering of the past, but because I know something. I know something and I first learned it when I was fourteen, laying on a bed in the ICU while a priest gave me my last rites. Life is short. Life can go away at any time. Medical suffering is merciless toward the human heart, mind, and soul. Life itself is merciless toward the human heart, mind, and soul.
When I heard my ex was sick with cancer, I must admit, reader, I absolutely had a moment of “Well fuck it all to hell. Fuck it. There is no God. Life is cruel and meaningless and fuck it.” And I felt that way for several hours before I got an entire grip on myself. I said this once to a student, “get an entire grip on yourself.” A little boy who was losing his shit because he’d become convinced his misplaced bottle of Root Beer had been “stolen.” He had a meltdown in my classroom, as children are wont, and I walked up to him, sat down beside him and gently said, “You need to get an entire grip on yourself.” And weirdly enough, on this particular child, it worked. Sometimes, weirdly enough on this particular child, who is me, it also sometimes works. “Get an entire grip on yourself.”
And I know now that I can stand firm in my Truth while still exercising Compassion toward those I love, and it’s damn near impossible to “unlove” someone so yes, I will be one source of support for my ex as she enters cancer treatment, and no I have not forgotten all that transpired, yes I am still troubled and traumatized and hurt by everything that went down, but no – I do not want to add to the pain of someone who is already in tremendous pain both physical and emotional. I won’t do it, and so if that person who is suffering reaches out, I will reach back because maybe I know a little something about this. Maybe I know a little something about how to save your own day when it appears your whole life has just crumbled into dust and there’s nothing you can do with dust but sweep it or blow it away.
In an act of peace, in an act of solidarity, and Good Faith, my ex and I deleted our respective Twitter accounts. I took it a step further and deleted all posts on this blog, not because they were untrue, not because I “take it all back” (I don’t because it happened) but because I will not add to the suffering of a human being who is already stacked with more suffering than few other people her age are stacked with. Cancer. Not a little skin cancer. Not even a little early breast cancer. But Cancer, and I’ll be damned if I will strand someone with that diagnosis when I know that I know a great many things about how to live, and sometimes even be Okay, and More Than Okay, while going on under the heavy shadow of your mortality that with one scan, one blood draw, one word on a digital screen, the needle of the fact of our own death moves ever more near. And we’re never ready for this. Never.
And that’s where mercy comes in, if you can spare it. These are the moments where you activate Mercy Powers – upon others, and upon yourself. Even if I couldn’t always get it from those who came in and out of my life, I know Mercy is what I often coveted above anything else, when I was in my thirties first diagnosed, when I was in a Pandemic diagnosed again, all I ever wanted was Mercy. And if I have Mercy to spare, I will spare it because I don’t live in a Mind that says “you must suffer because I suffered.” I don’t believe the latter way of thinking is at all Correct though we see that thinking play out in our interpersonal relationships, and now in America at large: you must suffer because I suffered. And often we hear this from so-called Christians. And usually the irony of this sentiment – you suffer because I suffered – is totally lost on Christians in particular.
It is not our “job” as human beings to add to the built-in suffering that our Human Lives come with. We have no duty to make things harder on our fellow humans. There is no religious or spiritual text, no historical fact that reveals we must “put the hurt on” the other humans around us who are only trying to survive all the Human Suffering that cannot be helped. And I will not purposefully add to human suffering, on the contrary if I can alleviate it, I will.
At the core of the first conversation I had with my ex following our horrific divorce (which is not yet fully in the books, though we’re talking about ways to get this divorce on lock rationally, fairly, swiftly), was a human (my ex) asking a question, “What do you know? What can you tell me?” And as it happens, I know a little bit of a lot on this matter. I know about how hard it can be to sleep in the weeks following a “bad diagnosis.” I know about how hard it can be to focus on work when you’re literally gearing up to fight for your Actual Living Life. I know the surreal seemingness of life in those weeks after you’ve heard “Yeah, you got something inside you that might actually kill you.” I know about tears, and about taking it day-by-day, and about talking to God.
And as it turns out, I know a helluva lot about writing fiction. The Book is good, and I normally am not the first to say this about my own work. (I haven’t even sat down and read Transference all the way through because I know what I would have fixed if I wasn’t finishing my second book in a Pandemic, while teaching, having cancer, and being in an unhealthy relationship.) As it turns out all those years of studying and teaching fiction while writing lots of creative nonfiction made me grow into the kind of Writer who can sit down and make worlds, make characters, write dialogue (not to brag, but some Esteemed Writers that you have heard of have told lil’ old me that I’m real, real, real good at dialogue). I can’t do much, but I can Write. “I’ve been writing,” I told my ex when she asked. “Writing a book. A work of fiction. Can you believe that?”
I can hardly believe that.
The false one. The pretend one. The make believe one. These are all terms I’ve heard young writers apply to Fiction. I must say I’d sometimes challenge descriptors like “false” or “fake” or “make believe,” for even before I was returned to writing fiction (like all Child Writers I started writing by writing Fiction) I understood as a student, as a teacher, as one who has studied the form for a long time, that Fiction wasn’t in fact “false”; on the contrary, the best Fiction illuminates everything that is True.
Today, a cloudy Sunday, will be full of writing, housecleaning, music and maybe a little Deep Space 9 (my sister and her boyfriend got me into this, and I would have never thought in a million years I’d actually enjoy it, but I do). Today, the work of keeping “an entire grip on myself.” Today, the work of Compassion, the work of Mindfulness, the work of being gentle with myself and those around me; today great works of fiction.
This song has been saving my soul this week. I've been singing it, and listening to all the many covers and iterations (her recording with the song's writer, John Prine, is also exquisiste). Maybe Ms. Bonnie Raitt will bring you some comfort today, too:
Be good, hooligans.