Culture / Essays

On fiction, the scariest of genres.

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So, I wrote this story for the Footpath Library’s inaugural short story competition, which happily came second.

I am pretty pleased, I write odds and ends of fiction all the time, often never finishing it and never ever showing anyone. Writing is my favourite thing to do, and while some people find writing about their lives or writing reportage to be the most difficult and hardest to put out there, what scares me the most is writing fiction. I hate the idea of other people reading MY words, words that have come purely from the imagination and been spun into something unique. Words that I’ve thought about and messed with, interchanged and struck out, dragged back when nothing else works. Like every writer I know, I think about words when I’m reading other people’s work. I read out passages I love aloud. Sometimes I just read the same sentence over and over again in my head, enjoying the rhythm of it. Rolling around the way it sounds and the things it makes me see and feel. Sort of like when you taste wine and you swill it in your mouth looking for the component parts that makes it taste so good.

And when I write fiction, I worry too much. I worry my meaning isn’t clear, or my characters aren’t real, or the pace is all wrong. I worry that by choosing one scenario, one person’s name or occupation, I am exposing too much of myself. I am telling the reader about who I am inside. It is easy to write about your life, to tell the little stories that encapsulate the person you want people to see, but it is so much harder to say: “My imagination came up with this”. Because your imagination is all you have for yourself. You can never share it with anyone else, unless you choose to. No one can look inside and see what you’re imagining. I have always felt this heavy protectiveness of it. I don’t really know why. To me, a kid who grew up spending a lot of time with my imagination, the stories I dream up are woven into my idea of who I am and who I want to be.

Even if they don’t have a character or a storyline that might be about me, they are about my feelings. Some writers perhaps write fiction because it allows them to be someone they are not. To engage the sense of possibility that comes with imagination. To soar above the realities of the everyday. If you consider it this way, then I can see how it would appear the most impersonal of genres, a space to say outlandish things and create characters that will never be confused with the person you are, or want to be.

And maybe, that is what it is. I don’t own a dog. I have never been homeless. I don’t know what that life is, but I was able to write a story about it that you might think, is not a reflection on me. But when I sent the story to my Dad, he emailed me back and said he felt like he was in our home in Brisbane, that it really strongly brought that to mind. And of course it did. Because I wrote it with my childhood in mind, even if it was in the very back of my mind. And Dad saw that. The storm, the landscape, the atmosphere.

You cannot separate what you know from what you write. And when you create from scratch you leave your fingerprints all over it. That’s terrifying isn’t it? You can’t blame flaws in the work on anything or anyone but you.

I used to start stories all the time, and leave them half finished in a folder on my desktop called Writing. I never wanted to wrap them up or tease them out because they always followed one of two paths. I would try and make them foreign to me, divorce them from myself, and they would wither and die because they had no truth or energy. I would tire of them and mentally walk away, well before they were done. Or I would tangle up myself in the narrative and I would get to a point where the ‘me’ in the story would be about to do something that I would absolutely do, or think something that I would absolutely think, but that I’ve never shared with another living soul. And so I would walk away from it, because the fear of exposure was too great.

It is only now that I am beginning to find that middle ground, that place between too much, and not enough. I don’t know yet whether that means I will find a way to write more fiction, and distribute it more widely, or if I will continue to chicken out. I haven’t decided.

A colleague once said to me that I was one of the most confident people they’d ever met and it surprised them to hear I might get nervous, or doubt myself in any way. But sometimes my fears are so great they make it hard to get out of bed. Bravado is, and always has been, my closest ally. Fiction strips away bravado, because it has to. Because when we write about unreal things and people we need to connect with what is real. What we do feel. So that there is a ring of authenticity to the narrative. (Is that the wankiest sentence I’ve ever written? Probably. Sorry)

Anyway, my point is this. Fiction is terrifying and I have so much admiration for the people who write it, and write it well. Who own that there is a little bit of who they are in every scene and every premise. The further we run from reality, the more we must expose to create meaning and feeling. It is easy to make someone feel when what you are reporting is the truth, it is much harder when you’ve conjured it from within.

A friend recently asked on Facebook “Why must writing be intertwined with intermittent bouts of melancholy and self-loathing?” Why indeed. I don’t know any writers who are happy with their work, or think it’s perfect. At best they will grudgingly say it is ok, or that they’re “satisfied” with how it turned out.

I am trying to learn to be satisfied with my fiction, but I get the feeling it might take some more adjusting.

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