Learning to Write, part 3September 20, 2008
A lot of our conversations with family and friends involve books. Whenever someone asks me what type of books I like to read, the answer is always non-fiction, mostly politics, philosophy, technology and business (wow, that is one of the most boring sentences I have ever written). In fact, I usually have a hard time remembering when I last read any fiction.
But then it occurs to me that I have a wonderful son who I've been reading with for all of his 13 years. There has never been a time when we weren't in the middle of a book together (currently The Underneath). So, I actually read fiction all the time, and love it, it just happens to be out loud.
The same is true with writing. I think of myself as someone who only writes about ideas and politics (and unsurprisingly the rest of the reading material listed above), but each Christmas for the last eight years, I've written a story for one of Ben's presents (often involving cats or one of his current favorite things). So, I actually write fiction all the the time, and love it, it just happens to be for the family.
Each time I read or write fiction though, I'm struck by just how endlessly complicated it is. For me, writing non-fiction is very, very different and much, much easier. Fiction requires mind muscles that must be terribly underused in my case because it is often a painfully slow process. There are more details and decisions in a paragraph of fiction (who's talking? who else is in the room? what is the room like? how does this character talk? how did the talk the last time they spoke? how does this scene relate to what came before and what comes next? are you revealing too much or too little? is the reader asleep at this point? etc...) than a chapter of non-fiction (does this make a point clearly and economically? is it reasonable? does it fit where it is? is it a pleasure to read? does it hold the reader's attention? repeat...).
So, when I started thinking about writing code and writing fiction, I realized that both of these things make my mind work in completely new ways and present unique challenges. After spending many weeks brainstorming ideas for a novel, I have started writing a story about a thought I mentioned a few months ago: don't hate the part of you that most makes you feel alive.
Now, when I say "started writing", I mean there are a few disjointed paragraphs and a Backpack page that makes the newspaper-covered walls in A Beautiful Mind look like a Library of Congress card catalog. I have no illusions about the likelihood that such a project will ever be finished, or if so, published. Without a contract, cash, and a deadline, neither the flesh nor the spirit is willing, more often than not.
But I am having a lot of fun lying in bed each night, thinking about these characters and scribbling fun phrases on scraps of paper. And once in awhile, a couple of sentence come together in such a way that I smile and think, "Is this what it feels like to be a writer?" The funny thing is it happens with a few lines of code sometimes, too.
The one thing I'm struck by is the thought that fiction can be more timeless than non-fiction, and in some cases speak to a reader in a much more personal way. I think I'd like to give that a try.