From time to time someone asks me (as, no doubt, they ask other writers) why I do it. Why, specifically, I write fiction as opposed to nonfiction. It really is hard to explain to those who seem tone-deaf to what we call Art. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to yourself. The short answer for me is that I love it. I love creating stories and weird stuff and making up plots, because I always loved stories. (When I was a kid, I’d watch movies in which a group of people are thrust into a really cool adventure and at some point one of them would talk about wanting to just go home and having everything return to normal. And, as a kid, I’d think why would you want to do that? Can’t you see that what you’re doing now is so much cooler than going back to a dull life? That was a kid talking, of course, because the stories were in fact so much cooler than what passed for my “real life.” It’s only later that you realize that part of your “real” life was the freedom to indulge stories, pretend, and thrust yourself—quite safely—into adventures.) Telling stories just felt like the coolest thing to do.
But then you grow up and actually try to do it and if you stick with it long enough to discover all sorts of other aspects to it that you couldn’t imagine as a kid just looking for a neat ride. And that’s the art. And that is hard to describe to people who don’t read fiction, who don’t Get It.
Dan Simmons wrote a novel called The Crook Factory about Ernest Hemingway in WWII. He lived in Cuba then and he ran an amateur spy ring, hunting submarines, for a time. This much is true. Simmons built a very intricate and thrilling novel around it. His viewpoint character, though, is a FBI agent who is one of those with the tin ear, who doesn’t Get It, why someone would write fiction.
Late in the novel they have a conversation about it. Here is part of it.
“Why do you do it?”
“Write fiction rather than write about true things.”
Hemingway shook his head. “It’s hard to be a great writer, Lucas, if you love the world and living in it and you love special people. It’s even harder when you love so many places. You can’t just transcribe things from the outside in, that’s photography. You have to do it the way Cezanne did, from inside yourself. That’s art. You have to do it from inside yourself. Do you understand?”
Hemingway sighed softly and nodded. “It’s like listening to people, LUcas. If their experiences are vivid, they become a part of you, whether or not their stories are bullshit or not. It doesn’t matter. After a while, their experiences get to be more vivid than your own. Then you mix it all together. You invent from your own life stories and from all of theirs, and after a while it doesn’t matter which is which…what’s yours and what’s theirs, what was true and what was bullshit. It’s all true then. It’s the country you know, and the weather. Everyone you know…the trick in fiction is like the trick in packing a boat just so without losing trim. There are a thousand intangibles that have to be crammed into every sentence. Most of it should not visible, just suggested…
“Anyway, the…trick is to write truer than true. And that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.”
That’s one way to describe it. I didn’t realize truth had anything to do with it until I read an Algis Budrys review of a Gene Wolfe novel. He said of Wolfe that he told the truth well. I puzzled over that for a time before it clicked. I’d been saying something of the sort for a long time concerning philosophy—that there’s truth and then there’s fact. Occasionally the two meet and become tangled up and are in many respects the same thing, but mostly there are facts, which have no meaning. Truth is the meaning, which must be derived or extrapolated from fact. Which led me to the conclusion that Truth is a process, an ongoing experience of recognition. One of the places I’ve found it has been in good fiction.
I don’t know if Hemingway ever actually said the above—it sounds like something he would have said, though, which makes it true, whether there is the fact of it or not. And that is what fiction does.