Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I'm just making this up

Someone asked recently what was the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

I opened my mouth, ready to say something like, "Non-fiction is true, fiction is made up."

Thankfully, my gums flapped shut before such yammer fell from my mouth.

Later, I spent time thinking about the distinctions between the two - and there are distinctions, even as you read the question above, you were able, almost immediately, to classify the terms as different - categorize them in separate places in your brain, and retrieve details about the terms from separate places in your brain (aren't you amazing, look at you and your brain go!)- and I found myself thinking in circles.

Fiction - in all its forms tells stories that are far more true than some of the non-fiction I've read, even though the characters are made up. Fiction is what makes all the non-fiction in life digestible, interesting, pondering, thoughtful, glorious, frightening, comforting, exciting, and entertaining.

I'm at work on my second novel - which I thought was going to be the sequel to my first novel. I mean, I meant to be at work on the sequel to my first novel (which I'm still shopping around), but I'm not. I'm actually at work on a "sequel" to my short story The Stuckville Cafe which is hitting bookshelves May 15, 2008 as part of the Hot Apple Cider anthology. I've been getting such amazing and positive feedback from the story, even before it hits the shelves, that I'm convinced I need to write a full length novel based on the story. But, more about that later. For now, on to my point!

At The Stuckville Cafe is a work of fiction. But it's setting is real (but I won't say where the real Stuckville is), the people are real (names and identifying features have been changed to protect the innocent - and the not so innocent :) ), and the themes; love, hope, peace, joy, grace, etc. are more real than the skin I'm in.

I could, in fact, take the same info, the same themes, and the same settings, and write a non-fiction book about a real town, populated by real people, and the events that shape their lives. And it could be a great book, too. A sort of documentary (I love documentaries!), a slice of life time capsule captured in ink.

So, the difference between fiction and non-fiction isn't subject matter. It isn't characters, it isn't theme, or setting, or anything else that we think of that makes up a traditional fiction book. Because the components of story are the same if you're writing fiction or non-fiction. You use the same tools, they are just used differently. You have the same data, they are just arranged differently on the page and spoken in a different tone of voice.

And so, I fess up, I come clean, I throw up my hands and surrender.

I don't know what the difference is between fiction and non-fiction. Yet I do. I know it in my heart somewhere, in some swirling, windswept place where ideas come, but as soon as they arrive they are blown to the peripheral, just out of translatable reach.

But, I'm teachable.

What is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?


David J. Felter said...

Bonnie, I agree with you. There is something at work in fiction that reveals truth, sometimes far more efficiently and effectively than in non-fiction. Jesus' parables have been "worked" by a lot of scholars. The faith of some individuals is insufficient to allow them to see them as "holy fictions." They must see them as true stories. What happens in many "true stories," is what I call the distraction of the concrete, which inhibits the communication of the abstract. Great post! ~Dave

Bonnie Grove said...

"What happens in many "true stories," is what I call the distraction of the concrete, which inhibits the communication of the abstract."

Leave it to a great editor to say in one sentence what it would take me pages to say!

I was thinking about the parables of Christ, as well as the proverbs and psalms from around the world when I was writing this post. Somehow, only through our stories, are we able to communicate the depth of truth, the many facets of it in a way that makes us stop breathing for a moment as we take it in.

God's is at work in the art of fiction. Our fiction can be a type of worship that God Himself can inhabit, and when He does. . .

I wonder if this is why so much "secular" fiction can touch us, move us, explain life to us, because so many "secular" writers live for the art (as opposed to the business) of fiction.

Thanks Dave!

otter said...

Good question! M. L'Engle often said "story is truth." Yet there is a difference, if nothing else, in the way fiction and nonfiction are presented to the reader. Some nonfiction seems very far removed from story, even though based in "fact."

Bonnie Grove said...

Otter, I like how you brought feelings into the question. I think feelings (sometimes the emotions evoked by the story, or, sometimes, the sense of feeling close to the story or not) play a major role in the difference between the two.

Have you ever read a non-fiction book and felt it was so good is was "almost like a novel"? I felt this way when I read the non-fiction books "The Sky Gods" about the rise and fall of Pan Am. The author (can't recall the name, I'll look it up when I have a bit of time later) had a great story to tell, and he made it better by the way he told it. I'm not a bit aviation fan, but I loved the book because he didn't just tell me what happened, he told me a story.