As a career journalist, the term “fiction” always made me a little uncomfortable.
After all, that’s the last thing you want to see beneath your byline in a newspaper or magazine, because fiction there translates into … lying.
Indeed, that was always my comeback to people who accused me of “making up” elements of a story.
“If I could do that, I’d be writing novels,” I’d say.
But I didn’t. I could never really see the point, although I enjoyed reading novels by other writers.
All this changed, however, one morning in 1993, when I woke up and decided to create a work of fiction about the newspaper business.
“Where did that come from?” I asked my unseen muse.
There was no answer. Still, I enthusiastically tore into the project. I spent a week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a writers’ retreat, and banged out 20 chapters, working 15 hours a day. And then, for reasons I can no longer remember, I hit a stoplight.
For 20 years after that, I would periodically summon this novel-in-utero from the womb of my computer, read those 20 chapters, and redo them. Then, a few months later, I’d do the same thing. It became like the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Finally, in 2013, I had some health problems that forced me to the sidelines as a columnist for several months. Free time surrounded and enveloped me, and one day my wife Gail said: “Why don’t you just finish that damn novel?”
So I did, and it was a revelation.
I recently interviewed a successful novelist named Garth Stein who told me: “Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock up a hill. If you’re lucky, at some point you’ll reach the crest of that hill, and then you’ll have to run to catch up with your rock.”
He’s right, and here’s what I discovered — writing fiction is actually easier for me than writing non-fiction.
It reminds me of a song I always liked, from the group REM, called “World Leader Pretend.” The refrain goes: “This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend. This is my life, this is my time. I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit. It’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”
How true. When I’d be stopped by walls while writing a newspaper piece, I’d have to put everything on hold in order to call more people or do more research. With a novel, you just invent a solution.
Let’s see — why would that character mysteriously disappear for two weeks? Wouldn’t someone see him during that time? Wait! I’ll have him be abducted by aliens! Why not? It’s my book.
What I also discovered in writing “The Kudzu Kid” was that my characters became real people. I became less of a creator and more of a stenographer. When I put the main players together, they would talk to each other, and all I’d have to do was write it down.
In a way, it was like playing with Lego blocks as a kid. I created my own town, supplied it with a newspaper, and added characters. What fun!
Lest I be inundated by angry e-mails, however, I’m not saying writing fiction is easy. Sometimes those characters turn mute. all too often, the plot wanders into a dead end.
And there are reasons why everyone doesn’t write fiction. A lot of people simply aren’t curious, but see things more on a surface level. That doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, but they don’t feel the need to let their minds wander. They could no more write fiction than they could fly.
Those, of course, were the people who got A’s in high school while I sat at my desk and looked out the window. Now, at last, my propensity for imagination has become a plus.
Sometimes, I think, we all get so hung up about how many books we aren’t selling or how much money we’re not making that we forget that writing fiction can actually be fun.
The thing to remember is, you’re not starting from Ground Zero. As I always tell other writers with whom I work, everyone is unique. No one who has ever lived, or ever will live, will have your combination of genetics, geographic location, parents, friends and life experiences. No one else has watched all the same movies or read the same books as you have. In other words, we all have our own window on the world, and that will make your writing fresh and different, if you let it.
My Mom once gave me a T-shirt that said “Be nice to me, or I’ll put you in my novel.”
“The Kudzu Kid” contained literally dozens of war stories from my long newspaper career, and all the characters were people I have known, or composites of those people.
And if my memory of those prior events is a little flawed, so what? It’s only fiction.