“So, is this autobiographical?”
“I think this character is my aunt.”
“Was it that boy you dated senior year?”
Each time I write a book, its publication brings on a flurry of questions. The questions happen because the books are fictional, and I’m beginning to think there’s something about fiction that doesn’t make sense to us as human beings.
Apparently, we struggle to believe that a human being could actually make up another human being. Out of whole cloth. Straight from the imagination to the page. It just can’t be.
Why is that? Why do we start peering intently into the space between the lines, looking for the author’s real life in her unreal story?
Are we somehow uncomfortable with the thought of a person “creating” another person?
Does the suspicion happen because only some people can actually use imagination in this way? Is it like what happens when I try to imagine what my mathematician friend Sharon does at work? It can’t be real, can it? Numbers like that?
Are we hoping for a secret glimpse into another person’s history, and hoping her writing will grant us one? Is this the human temptation to read someone else’s page in the Book of Life?
Yes and no to all of these, perhaps.
When called upon to discuss the phenomenon with my husband, who was gazing speculatively at me across the dining room table, I gave it serious thought. The man’s not in the book. No, he’s not in that one either. But he still wants to know how I think this works.
I’d imagine nearly everyone who’s tried to write fiction has heard that old saying: “Write about what you know.” But I think the sayers of this saying often mean, “Don’t write about what you don’t know.” Or perhaps, more dangerously, “Don’t write about what you don’t know as if you do know.”
We have to write about what we know. We might get our knowing from living, and we might get it from research, but if we don’t get it from somewhere, people who do know will read our writing and say, “Well, THAT could never happen.”
And that’s just the problem: if it’s fiction, we all know at the start that it didn’t happen. Not in real life. It’s just that we want it to read as if it did. We want to recognize its quality and humanity as real, even though we know the events are imaginary. There must be hundreds of reasons for this. Probably, we like our own version of reality better than reality. We like to believe our pretending is realistic.
(There is an inevitable tangent here—to achieve maturity, we have to consider how much of what we “know” about other people is also imagined. How much do we fill in the spaces between our knowing? Our version of a person might be plausible without being true.)
So if we need to write something that seems real but isn’t, we must be drawing on real knowledge, but giving it a different form.
And that’s why I decided that fiction is like carrot soup. Carrot soup is made from carrots. Real, individual carrots. But to make soup, you have to chop the carrots, cook them with stock and spices, run them through a blender, and perhaps even cook them some more. When you serve the soup to (for example) your speculating husband at the dining room table, it’s no longer possible to discern which particle of soup came from which individual carrot. When he tastes the soup, however, he will know instantly that it’s made from carrots. Real carrots. Something he sees often in his life and knows the taste of, something he can recognize as real.
But only the taste remains. He’ll never know which of the carrots he saw on the counter was transformed into this one spoonful of soup.