Because the Truth Hurts
Why I Write Fiction Instead of Autobiography
Last night I finished writing a book. I feel nervous calling it a book I prefer calling it a manuscript until it’s published, and my stories have not yet been published (even saying it’s “finished” is somewhat premature I still have months of editing ahead, maybe longer). Soon, after more editing and a return to stateside postage, I’ll begin searching for an agent. Last night was a milestone, certainly, but milestones are such fragile things. I tried writing a short essay about that milestone, tried to express everything that went into the creation of what I believe is my best work. And I was surprised at what I wrote, surprised at the thoughts that came up. Those thoughts are the reason you aren’t reading that essay.
The truth is a dangerous thing, especially shared online. We each maintain our own version of the truth, and we pick and choose how much of that truth to share with others. Writers, in particular, have to be careful. One of my creative writing professors in college once explained his view of talkative authors, the authors who get up in front of talk show cameras to tell everyone about the way things are. “I can’t stand works by authors who have opinions on everything,” my professor told us. “They’re so busy giving their own views that they don’t understand anyone else’s. They miss the point of writing. They can’t compare opinions that they don’t bother to understand.”
More and more, I find that my professor was right. I didn’t fully understand until I learned that one of my friends was a fellow writer-in-progress. During a long drive, he told me about a book he was working on, a how-to guide. It seemed interesting, and I listened as he explained the introduction and all the personal experiences he would pour into this book. He told me he was glad that I was there to listen he said he was writing his how-to guide for people like me, the quiet people who spend more time in dark corners than out on the dance floor. He had hours of stories to tell, and they were good stories, too. But, as he explained, it was too hard finding the time and the “creative energy” to sit down and write everything down. I could relate he had a difficult job. Daily stress wears on a man. I write what most people would consider “a lot,” but even I sometimes go for months at a time without writing anything worth reading. Without a second thought, I agreed that the writing would go better once he got back home for while, away from his job.
A few days later, we got back from the long drive, and he sat me down to share his work. I couldn’t refuse he had more pride in his eyes regarding that book than I’ve felt for my own writing in years. He reminded me of a little boy showing off his best drawing from school. And then he proceeded to read the introduction aloud. They were the same lines he had told me during the drive. He had the words memorized, almost verbatim, like lines from a script. And all he had written was that introduction. And after finishing the introduction two pages, handwritten he again told me the stories that he had told me during the drive, and he again reminded me about the aspects of my own personality that I need to work on, aspects of myself that his book would help improve. All I would need to do all anyone reading his book would need to do is follow the directions.
I feel some regret putting this story online. My friend might read it and recognize himself. Or, worse, his other friends might read it and recognize him. But I can live with that risk. The other essay I was working on, however, I couldn’t post. It was a good essay, I think, but then I started talking about the army. I began relating opinions that I can’t share online. Maybe in an e-mail, maybe over a cup of coffee or a beer, but not online. It’s not just the army I can’t talk about, though. There are many aspects of life I dare not share, compartments I keep hidden away. The army sensitized me to the reality of secrets in the military, “need-to-know” becomes a matter of life and death, and we learn to watch what we say. But I didn’t learn that skill from the army. It was as a child that I learned to hide. My friend with the how-to guide hasn’t learned that trick yet. Maybe he doesn’t need to. He talks often about his life. He’s very proud of his accomplishments, and he never tires of explaining the obstacles he has overcome and the insights he has made. Over the course of a week, he told me more about his own life than I have to tell about mine. Occasionally he tried to tell me about my own life, tried to fill in the blanks that I didn’t share. I wonder if he’d recognize me in my writing, if he read it. I doubt it. The truth hurts, sometimes, and I hide it as best as I can.
Though reading it here would be the first they’ve heard about it, it was my parents who taught me how to hide. I know they didn’t mean to, but much of life is accidental. It’s interesting talking to my parents about my writing. Each of my parents because of divorce, I have four has a different view. My mom, though, was the last to accept it. It wasn’t until I enlisted in the army that writing became a respectable occupation (and only by comparison, I’m sure I’m not sure what she’ll think after I get out). This is the mom who once told me “there’s no money in aerospace engineering how about you try chemical?” Unfortunately (from my mom’s perspective), hiding between the covers of a book is far easier than working out the differential equation describing the dynamic heat transfer across a cylindrical pump.
For me, writing fiction began as a form of hiding. I wanted to tell stories, but I never had the nerve to tell the true stories. I still don’t, at least not to everyone. It’s easier to reveal life in bits and pieces, the real story sanitized beyond all recognition. Through fiction, past injustices can be revealed and future hopes foretold. If you’re good enough at it, you can even make money (or, at the very least, put up a nifty website).
I’m lucky in that most of my writing focuses on the future rather than the past (it was the only way I could put in aliens, robots, and time travelers…unless I had the robots chasing the aliens back in time, but that means even more research). No matter how creative the story, though, it wouldn’t be good reading without a dash of real life for flavor. If you know what to look for, you’ll find me there, hiding in the pages of my fiction past experiences and personal reflections lay hidden amongst imaginary people facing imaginary problems on planets that certainly don’t exist anywhere in this galaxy.
Now you might be wondering what it is I have to hide. A bad childhood? Horrible experiences in the army? Radical political opinions? What?
I can’t say. I have nothing spectacular to hide, nothing of great importance to anyone else, but to me the thoughts are sacred. If I tried revealing my actual life to the world, for my friends and my family to see, I’d leave out too much. It would be a watered down expression of reality. I wouldn’t lie, but it wouldn’t be the truth.
But that’s okay. I’m not here to tell all. I’m here to write fiction. My goal is to write a good story worth reading. Relating the whole truth would defeat the purpose.
29 December 2005