One of the more interesting classes I’ve taken during the course of my writing career was a class on novel structure in my MA program. We read six novels, all of which had unique structures, some wholly fitting of the story unfolding between their covers. One of the books we read was Being Dead by Jim Crace. The structure was complex with storylines moving forward and backward in time, including one depicting in scrupulous detail how bodies decompose. It was an excellent book.
What should have been a lively discussion on structure turned into a debate over fiction itself. The debate centered around the sprayhopper, a bug important only as the subject of study of one of the protagonists in the book. Crace had invented the bug. Several of my classmates googled the sprayhopper and couldn’t find it. Half of the class found fault in the entire book because the bug yielded no hits in a Google search. I’m not sure why the bug had to be real but the setting and the characters didn’t. We argued the merits of the book because of an author’s invention.
“It is fiction,” the professor said, and I agreed with him. Crace’s description of the sprayhopper, or marine cricket, and its habitat was so detailed it never occurred to me to doubt its existence.
Throughout my classes, seminars, and workshops, write what you know has been an underlying theme. I never liked that advice and often wrote about what was unfamiliar to me. Aminatta Forna in her keynote address at this year’s The Muse and The Marketplace conference agreed. Even though her keynote centered around the political novel, she had much to say on the craft of fiction. “New writers are often told to write what they know. I tell my students something different. I say write not what you know, but what you want to understand.” Exactly, I thought. How boring to write otherwise.
Reading novels as a child taught me things. I read about the Amish, anorexia, and the Holocaust. I learned of Africa, old dogs, poverty, and slavery through stories. Sure I learned history in school, but it was the images created by the words in the novels I read throughout my childhood that stayed with me and guided me into adulthood. It is through fiction that I learned of a complicated world outside the close borders of the rural Pennsylvania town where I grew up.
I think I came to writing as an extension of what I learned through reading. If I learned things through reading, perhaps I could understand things through writing. It may not be the best way to figure something out, but what I start to make sense of will resonate more strongly. If we can’t reach beyond ourselves and beyond what we are familiar with, how will we ever understand anything? Back to Ms. Forna: “Who is better placed in this era of extremist and reductionist ideologies, narrated on the Internet and through social media, who better to challenge self-serving versions of the human story, than we writers, whose work it is to understand and convey nuance and complexity, who can offer a different way of seeing, one which challenges prevailing rhetoric with an alternative vision?”
Jim Crace has stated that all of his fiction is made up because his life is too boring to write about. Aminatta Forna’s life is anything but boring, yet she opted for fiction as a way to express what she needed to express. “I decided to become a writer of fiction for the greater possibilities afforded by the imagination,” she said.
That novel structure class has stuck with me for years, and the keynote brought it all back. I’ve been thinking about the keynote for a week now. None of us should take writing fiction lightly. And none of us should stand idly by as someone turns to nonfiction to learn a truth. As Ms. Forna says, “Nonfiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.” Fiction can be powerful stuff. Think about that as you write your next made-up story.