Based on their typical lines of questioning, I think those who don’t write fiction might imagine it to be something like memoir. I’ve gotten the question about whether this is a thinly-veiled retelling of actual events. I’ve gotten the question, which character am I? These questions always offend me. If all I can do with my craft is change your name and move the story from Florida to France, I’m not a very good writer of fiction, am I? Thanks for the vote of confidence.
But I shouldn’t be so hard on them. After all, they don’t write fiction. A few of the fundamental qualities of a fiction writer include her tendency to daydream, her rich reading life, her vivid imagination, and her curiosity about the inner lives of others. This culminates in an understanding of the world that folds fiction into experience. Fact doesn’t hold supremacy when you’re used to discovering truth in fiction just as, or more often than you find it in a data set. So when fiction writers read Virginia Woolf, we never think, which character is Leonard in this novel? We think, my god what gorgeous sentences! and isn’t that so truly how our minds ping-pong through experience!
That’s not to say that fiction writers don’t mine our own experiences for insight that gets used in our stories, but fiction is not memoir. A writer’s fiction does not reflect the secret inner workings of the writer’s mind and life. If it was filled with facts, a writer wouldn’t call her work fiction. She’d call it verité, an article, or maybe even essay. If her work was memoir, she would call it memoir.
The trouble for readers who know you well is that they think they see themselves, or moments from your past. They layer what they know of you into your work, and that can destroy it, especially early on. If I’m wondering whether my husband thinks I’m living a double life because I write a story exploring the quest for happiness, the artistic impulse, and the ways people sabotage themselves when trying to achieve fulfillment, through a protagonist who is leasing a secret flat to escape from her family or working for the CIA when she tells her spouse she’s going to the office… I won’t write that story.
I care about my husband far more than I care about my sentences, but I’d like to be able to have both — so, as a rule, I don’t share my work while I’m feeling my way through it.
Fiction writers are using pure imagination – we craft lies that we hope illuminate a truth. We find that truth and we get to know our characters by writing them, and every early draft is really just an exploration. If we share our work with those who we fear will layer our own biographical details in and think they know something about us — because, for instance, the writer happens to have a mole on her cheek in exactly the place that the character has a scar! — their reading will stunt the continued writing of the story. Writers worry about enough without also worrying about whether our fledgling stories will make our mothers think we hate them.
Fiction writers aren’t narcissistically plumbing the depths of our own histories and consciousness. We’re using our imaginations — all the what ifs that bang around in our skulls all day — to inhabit the experience of others. Writing fiction is about empathy, about crawling inside the life experience of someone else, a character we construct from puzzle pieces of the hundreds of people we know, love, hate, meet, acquaint ourselves with, observe, read about, overhear on the bus… We create composites that, to us, become real as we write them.
Some writers do create characters that are more similar to them, and some write those who are as unlike them as they could possibly be. Either way, the drive to write fiction is a drive to understand the world through the individual eyes of others, and if we are using story to explore our own psyches, it’s in the sense that we’re digging as deeply as we can into the questions we can’t stop thinking about. Writing fiction is fundamentally about curiosity, and we try to satisfy that curiosity by bringing characters to life on the page.
Writers of fiction need to protect the writing process. We love and trust those close to us, but we also need them to know that the creative process is a messy one, and it’s not about them. We aren’t keeping secrets, we’re building worlds. We need to be able to do that without a layer cake of worry, expectation, and influence. And, yes, we do need to share our work, to give and get feedback to hone our craft. But this is work, above all. It’s not a hobby that we care only marginally about, spare time stuff. Writing fiction seriously is a vocation; to obtain useful feedback, we share with our peers, colleagues — those who know firsthand that fiction is full of imaginary friends, worlds that don’t exist, and the quest for beautiful sentences.