I’ve always been a nonfiction writer. When I was asked the three standard questions at my MFA residency–what’s your name, where are you from, what’s your genre–I wasn’t like some of my fellow students. I didn’t dabble. Some said, “Well, I’m concentrating in fiction, but I write poetry as well.” No, not me. Strictly creative nonfiction. I admire poetry, but it’s too smart for me. Mostly, I just don’t get it and end up nodding thoughtfully and tapping my chin to pretend like I do. (Except “Man from Calcutta” poems. Those, I get.) And, despite that my mother always claimed I was a really good liar, I’m just plain bad at making stuff up. So, I guess nonfiction wasn’t a choice. I was born that way.
Unfortunately, my nonfiction wasn’t a one-woman show. It was populated by other characters, and the tricky thing about nonfiction is that those characters, when you set the page aside, happen to be real people. I shared my work with those real people on a few occasions, and never got a positive response. There were uncomfortable coughs, comments like, “Well that’s an interesting interpretation of the events”, and sometimes worse. But, I don’t blame them. If a character is written honestly, they must have flaws, and who wants to read about their own flaws? It took seven years, over $100,000 in undergraduate and graduate tuition, and several arguments, but I finally came to the conclusion that the repercussions aren’t worth it, and I’ll just have to wait until those real people are dead (kidding, kidding).
All hope is not lost, though. I can apply many of the lessons of nonfiction to fiction. Concepts of character development, plotting, dialogue, and the quality of the writing itself are genre crossovers. The crucial difference is imagination. In nonfiction, the story world and characters are already designed, you just have to convey them accurately and artfully. In fiction, you aren’t just the builder, you are the architect.
Eight months ago, I began my first soiree into fiction by writing a novel. A massive soiree, yes, but I cheated–Phil came up with the premise. Still, it was a challenge. A writer must know everything about his/her characters so that the character can act authentically in every situation. If you don’t know your characters inside and out, they won’t be consistent and they won’t ring true to readers. (I saw an interview with Dennis Lehane, author Shutter Island, and when he was on set, Leonardo DiCaprio cornered him and asked him something ridiculous like, “So, does my character like peas?” and when Lehane hesitated, DiCaprio looked disgusted and said, “You don’t even know, do you?” So apparently actors are even more committed than writers).
So, how do you get to know a figment of your imagination? Besides writing pages and pages of character profiles, I don’t really know the best way. Like I said, I’m no expert. But I’m getting better, and I’ve learned to interpret the old saying, “Write what you know” a little less literally. Instead of writing about characters with whom I am actually acquainted and the events I’ve lived, I write about settings I know: New York City, Queens, or more specifically: small apartments, I-95, funeral parlors, martial arts academies, Starbucks. I write about feelings I’ve experienced: loss, jealousy, anger, love. And if I want a character to have a certain attribute, I think of a person I know who has that attribute. So now, instead of characters being based on one person in my life, my characters are based on every single person I’ve ever met.
Anyway, although I haven’t secured an agent yet (I’ve gotten close, but I think my novel needs to be bumped to the next level, and I’m extremely fortunate to have two talented writers volunteering to help), my mother read the manuscript and literally said, “I LOVED it.” Many of you don’t know my mother, but she’s not the kind of woman to use caps lightly. This was the best compliment she’s ever given me, second perhaps to when she said I looked better in my wedding dress than the model in the David’s Bridal catalog.
Given that today is a day for leaping, an opportunity we only get every four years, I’ve decided to go one step further in the efforts to convert to a fiction writer by sending out a short story submission. As a nonfiction writer, I frequently wrote and submitted essays (logging about a 1/100 success rate), but there’s something about a short story that seems more artsy– maybe too artsy for me. But not too artsy today! I am a fiction writer, and I have a short story so, here I go. Leap!