It was with trepidation that I signed up for an Advanced Fiction class at the 92Y a few months ago, hoping to get accepted based on submitting a non-fiction manuscript. Intrigued by it, but apprehensive, since I’d never written one piece of fiction, I wondered if I was even capable of invention, of complete fabrication. Yet I was spinning quite a tall tale in the cover letter itself, just by applying—and implying that I was in any way advanced. Terrified of attempting to write fiction, I had no perception of plot lines, no concept of character development, and no notion of a narration nor creating a voice, since up until that point my voice and view had always been, well, my own.
What motivated me to break out of my comfort zone and try an entirely new style of writing? While I love the personal essay and considered it my genre of choice, the previous year had been frustrating. It seemed that editors didn’t appreciate my quiet moments, small revelations, and even larger life events. Unless someone is close to death, divorces, has an affair—or at least an abortion—no one is interested, especially at the glossy women’s magazines. I wrote about giving up drinking, my relationship struggles, but apparently my rock bottom wasn’t low enough and (horrors) I was still happily married. I realized a writer needs to go to rehab, have an eating disorder, and/or a parent with Alzheimer’s.
The last straw was reading a first person essay in The New Yorker in which a woman has an almost full-term miscarriage on a bathroom floor while traveling and documents it all in horror-movie-style, gory detail. I questioned how many babies must die in order for one writer to get published? How much of your soul must you sell? In essence you’re becoming the literary version of a reality TV star—but with all of the humiliation none of the fame and fortune. There was something sickening about the shock and awe trend of personal essay publishing and it had turned my stomach.
So the description of Adam Langer’s Fiction Workshop caught my eye: “Fiction is the art of using a lie to reveal the truth. Or maybe it’s telling the truth and only pretending that the truth is a lie.”
This philosophy appealed to me. I also liked that it was a chiasmus, a literary term I learned in my very first creative writing class. Even if I did have traumatic, horrifying stories to tell, I wasn’t sure I’d want to reveal them to the world in print and online so they could follow me around for the rest of my life thanks to Google. In this art form, maybe you didn’t have to sell your darkest secrets for a few hundred bucks.
Surely I could incorporate a little fantasy in my work; I’d already told little fibs and white lies in the name of non-fiction, exaggerating things for effect, creating dialogue to make a point, manipulating minor details to make the story better, and now I could do so freely, taking it to the extreme, not held back by the ethics of truth-telling. My mom notices these liberties, often getting caught up in the details, correcting inaccuracies.
“Your buck teeth really weren’t that bad,” she said the other day when I asked for her feedback on a piece.
In fiction you can do anything, say anything, things you don’t want to admit, sinister thoughts you wouldn’t dare speak, in the name of your main character—no matter how thinly veiled. So what if your character is your age, works in your profession, and coincidentally, lives in your neighborhood. She likes pistachio nuts; you like pistachio nuts. She bites her nails; you bite your nails. No one can prove that it’s you. They can speculate, but the evidence wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.
So adopting this attitude, I developed my first character and started my first short story. I was in heaven now that, unlike every other piece I’d written, word count was no longer an issue, and I let it fly. Let her rip. Described everything in grand detail. My character had so much to say, it seemed, that the short story could no longer be defined as such and extended into a novella and then, forced to drop the “la” it became the beginnings of what would be a very lengthy, full-fledged novel.
Let’s be clear; she isn’t me. She isn’t. She is a friend of mine. Who looks like another friend of mine, who has personality traits and neurotic tendencies of several friends of mine—an amalgam character, a sort of antihero, infused with a bit of my darker side at her core: my insecurities, my unedited thoughts, my raw, real self that I usually try to hide from the world. She lives in my sister’s town in a house that is eerily similar to my second cousin’s, has my old roommate’s profession, went to my BFF’s alma mater, and drives my parent’s old car. She is married to a man who is a mixture of every man I’ve every dated combined with all of my friends’ boyfriends, and also every man I’ve ever known. He is a complex character indeed.
Even if she started out based in reality, my main character Margie has come alive, at least in my mind, yet she has a mind of her own. (No Margie Culpepper, it’s not you, her last name is Moore. I just borrowed your first name; didn’t I always tell you I liked it?) She has taken shape, morphed, and I find myself asking what would Margie do in every day situations; I notice things only she would appreciate. She’s become my imaginary friend and she is evolving, as is her world. A plot is developing rapidly—in fact she’s out of control. Underappreciated and undervalued, she overspends, and she is on the brink of an affair. This is for my own personal amusement; luckily it does fit in with her character. She’s always getting into situations with her kids and her neighbors that I can only imagine. (And I did.) Margie is so mischievous, so manipulative, that at times I have to question my own conscious. But the story is gaining momentum. Even I don’t know where she’ll go or what she’ll do. And that, I’m finding, is the beauty of fiction writing.
Now the class is finished but my novel is most definitely not. Which has put me in a strange predicament. I’m not sure if I can continue to write personal essays because my life is so mundane—especially compared to hers. No wonder no one will publish my essays. I will happily write more non-fiction… if anything of interest ever occurs. Things materialize so quickly in fiction; they transpire, they arise and develop, while much of my life lately seems to be standing still, waiting for things to happen. Anything. Have an argument with a cab driver, have a relapse, have an epiphany. Hell, at this point I’d be happy to trip on the sidewalk, stub my toe.
What I’ve come to learn from this class—beyond the fact that my life is incredibly uninteresting—is that, as my instructor said, the best stories are created when we construct truthful fictions and fictional truths and all borders between the two are erased.
Apparently, truth is not always stranger than fiction.