I have mixed feelings about writing fiction. First, I have no formal training, other than a class I took as an undergraduate in college 40 years ago. Second, I understand non-fiction, which is journalism adjacent. Having been a PR person for decades, I feel comfortable with reportage, commentary, essays. Third, I feel grounded with non-fiction, because when I write an essay my job is to elucidate as clearly as I can a set of real facts and feelings on a specific timeline. Finding a jewel of clear truth while cutting away everything that dims it is a great pleasure as a writer.
But fiction? You make up absolutely everything. Will I ever feel like I’m any good at this?? As I wrote back in May, the heady realm of Toni Morrison and Thomas Hardy terrifies me. Also, there are hundreds (thousands?) of genres. It’s a vast and unknowable universe and I’m in a tiny unmanned space pod, wondering if I’ll ever land on the right planet.
These questions and doubts have been present every day this summer as I’ve finished the first major draft of my novel. I think what I’m writing might be an ‘autobiographical novel’ because it’s a fictionalization of my memoir. Except there’s one big change, which is that I’ve felt compelled to write a happy ending to this story. My novel’s heroine, after losing the love of her life and facing intense career, personal and spiritual struggles, eventually winds up with another man who loves her. For some reason I find this happy ending thing profoundly embarrassing.
So, when I read a sentence George Saunders wrote in his gloriously wonderful book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I laughed out loud. In my own house. Alone.
Here’s what he says: “It was as if I’d sent the hunting dog that was my talent out across a meadow to fetch a magnificent pheasant and it had brought back, let’s say, the lower half of a Barbie doll.”
My talent appears to be the head of a Barbie doll, with matted hair and an eye socket chewed out by a slobbery dog. Sigh. Have I written, heaven forfend, a romance novel? Or chick lit?
I grew up with a bias against the very idea of “women’s literature.” I watched my mother read romance novels by the shopping bag full. I certainly wouldn’t have been caught dead doing that! I was reading Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme and H.L. Mencken, damn it!
But here I am, writing a story of a woman finding herself and finding love, not necessarily in that order. Is writing this story worthwhile? I mean, who knows??
But whenever that question comes up, which is anywhere between 8 – 247 times a day, I push it away and focus instead on what I love about writing — finding a jewel of clear truth while cutting away everything that dims it.