I once had an acquaintance who was a very good poet. Supposedly whenever he needed a little money he would write up a few poems, publish them, and get paid. Just like that. Good morning, how ya doing, and thanks for the cash.
I read his stuff and I have to tell you, it was pretty good. I was not surprised at all that he had this ability to write impacting, emotionally strong poems that publishers were happy to buy. One day I enthusiastically said to him, “Hey, your work is really good. You should write fiction, too.” His reply? “No way! Fiction is way too hard . . .”
Now, let’s get one thing clear. No form of writing is easy. Every type of writing requires one to engage the mind, exercise the faculties, stretch the vocabulary to make an end product that readers can appreciate. Poetry lives and dies by image, specificity, and rhythm. Creative non-fiction relies on the detail of poetry and the pace of narrative to enhance the factual details as they (allegedly) happened. We are dealing with language after all, and language is slippery, evasive, challenging. No, it’s not at all that other writing is easy, it’s that fiction is just so especially difficult.
What I posit here is an arguable position. Narrative is, in many ways, narrative. One thing happens and then another. Cause and effect. Characters behave accordingly by making choices and acting those choices out. Challenges rise up, tension builds, all the basics of an engaging story are there and each form has its own demands.
Yet, writing fiction is like learning a foreign language. You’ve got a whole history of the language at your disposal – words you’ve never heard of with meanings for things you perhaps didn’t even know were defined. You’ve got slang, idiom, sentence structure, an accent. Each component means something. In short fiction each component means everything. Compare this to an essay in which you may well be telling a story, but it’s your story, as you experienced (or researched) it, and even if you have the skill to add the details that make it come alive and become an enriched and engaging piece of writing, the details, some of them, were given to you without your having to invent them. The same cannot be said of the poet, because the poet is capturing something entirely different. But the poetic mind is alive with the music of emotion. In poetry there is a moment, with jade vines and lemon mists wafting through sunlight. There are passing glances with promises of romance, the sponge of a bitten lip, the echoes of a yowling dog interrupting the serenity of a still night. Fifteen lines of poetry is a sprint into the senses and then it is done.
And then there’s fiction. The great, smirking Cheshire Cat of composition. The wisecracking, oddball of everything that written language can be, encompassed in a form that is as narrowly missed as it is narrowly gained. The details have to be the right details. The sentiments must be correct. The dialogue must sound true. The story must arrive at its natural conclusion or all is lost.
I once read somewhere (and I paraphrase) that “no story is so good that it can’t be ruined in the telling.” This is the daunting reality fiction writers face.
But whether we accept that fiction is the most difficult form to write in or that it is merely as difficult as any writing is, it is worth remembering that our struggles with writing stories in no way makes us a failure. It is true, I suppose, that there are failed writers. I suppose as well that this definition of failure is subjective, as I imagine that there are published writers who feel their final output was a failure, and there are unpublished writers who simply quit the endeavor without reaching their million words or, because of some other distraction, walked away from the page and never returned. For me this latter failure is the only failure. Even as I stare at the blank page in search of a story, or the middle of a draft lost at sea, or finally at the complete first draft in desperate need of revising, and I feel all of the bitterness that this work engenders, I know I will not quit.
Nothing is more rewarding than completing a difficult task. When I’ve had a good writing session I know at the end of it that I have earned my keep. I have satisfied my job as a writer and as a soul that needs replenishing. When I do my work I am happy. I love all types of writing – even grant writing. But fiction, ah, fiction. This is where I am most challenged, and with that challenge comes the promise of the highest reward.
To defeat the bogeyman of fiction one must only wrestle with it until it is exhausted.
And we have infinite stamina.