Besides how to write fiction, what have you learned about life or yourself by writing fiction?
—Josh Marshall, New York City
This may sound a little aphoristic, Josh, but here it is: for me, to write fiction is to use language as the prism for studying life. And assuming that’s really the case, it would be hard for a fiction writer not to learn something about how people live. The focus is on characters and their situations and dilemmas, and a writer has to have a sense of how real people act and interact in order to create believable characters and have them do credible things—and, of course, has to have an interest in people’s stories.
So, in a sense, a fiction writer is always, at least subconsciously, on the lookout for information from actual lives to use in fictional ones. It’s a quest to find facts that will make a reader believe in the reality of a made-up story. But since it’s impossible always to get everything absolutely right in terms of both facts and the way a story is told, a writer is vulnerable, which is maybe part of the reason writers can crash and burn. Or simply lose confidence. They may feel terrific when they sense they’ve really nailed something, but there’s always a nagging worry they might screw up.
I guess I’ve learned that about myself, that my confidence wavers, that pushing the real or metaphorical send button to launch something into the world, always creates a level of slight panic or uncertainty, though far less than it did when I was a younger writer. I suppose I’ve also learned that I’m tenacious as I’ve kept at this for a long time, even when I’ve sometimes felt I’m writing in the wilderness, and also that I’m completely unable to escape the desire to express myself through language and, really, to understand what I think and see by following the odd ways language reveals experience. When you capture words on a page, they suggest other words so that a story becomes as much a creation of language as a chronicling of events.
But even though this fascination with language and love of the way it can work feels essential to who I am, I actually believe that we’re all very good with language. It’s our main interface with the world, and using it the most political of acts. It’s how we persuade others; it’s how we persuade ourselves. Fiction simply requires more ability to calibrate language because it asks the writer to find the voices of many different people acting in many different ways. Which maybe brings this full circle. From writing fiction and trying to write fiction, I’ve learned that language is at the heart of life. To offer a small paraphrase of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” it’s the thing that lets us be venal and glorious. Along with the apposite thumb, it’s pretty much who we are.
Josh blogs to the universe at talkingpointsmemo.com.