Effects of Fiction

Chinua Achebe

by Ed Davis on July 18, 2013

Life of the Imagination

“How often do we hear people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have the time to read novels,’…adding that they read histories or biographies…more appropriate to serious-minded adults. The life of the imagination is a vital element of our total nature. If we starve it or pollute it the quality of our life is depressed or soiled. For just as man is a tool-making animal and has recreated his natural world with his tools, so is he a fiction-making animal and refashions his imaginative landscape with his fictions.”
(Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays)

For some time I’ve been pondering the effects of fiction on readers; now I’ve begun to ponder its effects on the writer.

Effects on Readers

While anathema to so many of the community college students I taught, fiction is to me so damn entertaining in ways that other media aren’t. Surely everyone can relate to the fact that Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth in his film version of Lord of the Rings is not and never will be the perfect version in your head. Events, picturesque landscapes, marvelously talented actors, vision—yes, movies can duplicate, even sometimes exceed, the power of the written word; but for pure narrative voice (point of view) and character penetration, fiction can not be duplicated through image and dialogue alone. Many of my students who enjoyed during their middle and high school years Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, to name two books perennially making the list of “favorites,” realize this. The authorial voice comes through as a clear, lyrical symphony—sometimes flutes, sometimes cellos—and every scene, character, inner monologue, flashback and snippet of exposition is an ingredient in this potentially life-changing voice. I believe the folks at the Boston Globe are speaking of its power when they say:

“The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more potent at changing beliefs than nonfiction. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

Furthermore, fiction readers may be much more capable of living with ambiguity: A trio of University of Toronto scholars report that “people who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call ‘cognitive closure.’” I know what they mean: fiction can crack my mind open like an egg and force me to consider other points of view, enlarging my soul to the point where I can understand, if not love, the rapist, the religious zealot, the murderer. That is, if writers have done their work well.

Effects on the Writer

And what of fiction’s effects on writers themselves, before their words ever reach readers, assuming they do? Having written fiction for four decades, I’ve experienced a process as powerful as religious conversion, as complex as learning a new language. I’ve felt it grow over the years, change and develop into a passion manifested as mission, vocation.

Learning to Filter

I fault no one who thinks fiction writing looks easy, not even non-writers who say, “I’ll tell you my great story, you write it up and we’ll split the royalties.” Stories are ubiquitous—great, incredible stories—and that can be a problem to the fictionist who must make even the most fantastic story believable—but it’s the writing that produces the effect, as opposed to telling (I respect the oral story-teller, but his art is not literature). The practice is as demanding as anything a human can encounter. For one thing, it requires filtering out hundreds of story ideas that bombard the writer daily, requiring the ability to detect the real thing. As the writer’s filters become walls, they must simultaneously remain as permeable as new leaves, or no life-giving moisture and sunlight get through.

Being Chosen

So much of a writer’s apprenticeship is consumed learning to recognize THE STORY, the one(s) he/she’s meant to write—and not necessarily in terms of knowledge or experience, important as those are. I’m talking about chosenness: an indefinable subjective feeling that this is his/her story to write. Who decides? Oh, I hear writers (an independent, unruly lot) shouting, “I decide: me and only me.” I respect that. But until gaining experience, I often chose wrong; these days, I more often choose right, relying on an inner knowing, preventing false starts. I can usually see how the story is wrong for me before I’ve committed a word to paper.

With experience, the writing itself teaches writers how to let the stories choose them, rather than vice versa. What a relief! I remember well the incredible yearning I had, after graduate school, to write fiction, with no clue what to write. I’d like to return to those days and comfort that self who felt anguished that he “had nothing to say.” Which is ridiculous; we all have plenty to say, though the realization of it only comes through attempting it over and over and over, with thousands, maybe millions, of words written and deleted. That’s the cost required to validate a literary calling, one I’ve paid with great pleasure.

Digging Deeper

By developing the writing habit, fiction can become a rigorous laboratory for the genesis, refinement, arrangement and, above all, revision of first thoughts and ideas. To get a story on paper at all requires trusting that one sentence will lead to the next (fiction happens between keystrokes, said one wise writer). The whole world begins to magically unfold on page or screen right before the writer’s disbelieving eyes. And because it seems a sort of magic, the writer mustn’t mistake this glimpse behind the veil as THE STORY.

Revision: Infancy to Adulthood

If a first draft is, like pregnancy, the long gestation of an idea, the revision process represents the child’s growth from infant to mature adult. And some infants go full-term—big, healthy, pink-cheeked—while others are premature; some will be put on life-support, but many of those will not only survive but thrive. Only a few will die; the decision to abandon or abort must be made with the greatest care. I’ll arise from the birth of a new story in tears, moved to my depths, feeling like I’ve returned from the bottom of the sea. But writing fiction teaches me that giving birth is only the beginning and a very fragile one at that.

However, I would not write fiction without the wonderment of those births. That initial thrill is why I’ll spend hours and hours, often years, parenting these wobbly toddlers to full man- and woman-hood. And if I’m a good father, my children may thrive in the often-hostile world of publishing to which I introduce them as soon as they’re weaned, and hopefully not before.

The Writer’s Truth

Done well, fiction writing, like parenting, contradicts and undoes much of what one has previously learned. Every emotion, belief, idea or experience will be rigorously re-examined in order to tease, squeeze and gently coax meaning into the world. Hopefully the story will be beautiful, but it must contain truth, not the truth, but the writer’s truth. Writers reveal it first to themselves, then to readers…if the story survives. Never in your face, never manipulative, never pleading of bullying but presented in a state of innocent purity, uncovering truth is one of the best reasons to write as well as to read.

Alas, endless revision doesn’t always produce this wonderful effect; yet writers can always console themselves by knowing they’re growing—in their craft and character. If writing a short story, much less a novel, didn’t rewire me in some way, then something’s wrong. “The Bicycle,” a story I wrote about a boy whose bike is stolen by a black bully, whom the protagonist follows home, confirmed the racism I absorbed growing up in southern West Virginia. Did writing the story prepare me for the day a student told me he couldn’t comfortably attend my class due to the racist piece of student writing I’d assigned for homework? I believe “The Bicycle” prepared the ground, so that I didn’t become defensive or worse. After painful reflection, I agreed with him.

My fiction finds me wherever I hide. It doesn’t always require me to air my deepest secrets, but the possibility is ever-present. Consider Dorothy Allison, and John Gardner, who wrote wonderful autobiographical fiction about their deepest wounds. In her novel Bastard out of Carolina, Allison describes her sexual abuse at the hands of a stepfather, while her mother did nothing to prevent it. The protagonist of Gardner’s short story “Stillness” (included in The Art of Living) drives the farm equipment that kills his brother, just as happened to the writer when he was eleven. My own novel I Was So Much Older Then is full of my own hard childhood, including my mother’s mental illness.

The Greatest Effect

Maybe you should reconsider writing fiction if you insist on leaving your life out of it. Then again: go ahead and try; you might be more successful than I have. But I’m grateful that my work seems to have taken me exactly where I needed to go: to the heart of matters, helping me see the wisdom in what journalist, critic, video game advocate and fiction writer Tom Bissell said: “The highest purpose of fiction is to show that all people are fundamentally worthy of mercy.” Amen, brother.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoffrey Porter July 18, 2013 at 12:44 pm

An interesting read, and I wish you’d produce more blogs on writing…

I think a big flaw in my own writing, is while I proofread over and over, I tend to not nurture my voice after the first draft. I need to spend more time trying to achieve deep revision, and perhaps less time focused on commas and incorrect words.

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