The conflicted storyteller

For years I’ve struggled on and off to write fiction.

I once wrote a novel, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good, and I needed it to be so much better if I was to push it, believe in it, take it as far as it could go.

After a few years of consideration and doing other things – mostly discussing fiction with like-minded friends – I’m well aware of some of the faults in my past efforts. But like everything I do, there has to be a deeper reason, a cause or problem that prevents me from achieving what I want to achieve.  I must be missing something profound.

I still haven’t found the answer – I’ve found a dozen answers, and collectively they help, but it’s not enough to break through the malaise I feel when I try to write fiction.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really want to write fiction….

“Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”

There is no solution because there isn’t any problem

– Marcel Duchamp

That is, my motivation is complex. If I wanted to write fiction, I would be writing it. When I think about writing fiction, in fact I feel terrible about it. I think fiction is pointless, indirect, a waste of time, empty escapism. No wonder I don’t want to write it.

Yet I can’t let it go.

So now I think the truth is more like this: I want to write something, but I don’t know what it is. It is different from my current work, writing non-fiction articles. But the moment I look at the alternative of ‘fiction’ in its various guises, I feel that it is not that either. The reality is that I do not know how to write fiction yet, and all I have in mind to guide me are a dull set of limited conventions. I can easily write non-fiction because I know the essential parameter of seeking to understand and to solve a problem.  But when it comes to fiction I don’t know the essence, only the conventions and accidental characteristics.

So what are the essential parameters of fiction?

It turns out that ‘fiction’ is not a very useful word. It simply means something ‘imagined’ or ‘shaped, formed, made’.

‘Story’ is a better word. I do want to write a story, and it turns out that ‘story’ comes from ‘history’: a “relation of incidents”, not distinguished from the modern use of the term ‘history’.

So if I want to write a fictitious story, it means I wish to relate a series of incidents that did not happen. But why would I do this? What is the point or purpose, such that I could make it a good story, rather than a bad one?

Perhaps the essence of a fictitious story is not so different to the essence of an actual history? Indeed, if we go back further, from the Latin historia to the Greek historia, we find that the meaning changes from “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” to “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,”, which is in turn derived from histor “wise man, judge,”.

So is a history an account of the inquiries of a wise man?  But surely the real purpose of stories these days is merely to entertain?  And surely the kind of work that goes into creating modern fiction has little at all to do with wisdom and inquiry? Isn’t imagination and creativity the very opposite of inquiry?

This is, for me, the crux of the problem. Non-fiction is inquiry. My articles and even my private writing is aimed at inquiry, understanding, illumination. But my attempts at fiction appear to travel another direction entirely, toward imagination, unbounded elaboration, essentially frivolous fantasy.  And if I look at any one of the stories I’ve enjoyed in my life, can I truly claim to have learned anything from them? Have I gained anything more than entertainment and escapism? Is my desire to write fiction in fact a desire to participate in escapist entertainment more fully?

What do we gain from reading fictitious histories?




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