Why I Can’t Write Fiction
I half-joke that I don’t write fiction because I don’t care about entertaining anyone. That’s not entirely true. For my writing, I can appreciate entertainment as a means to an end, but entertaining someone is very much not what drives me as a writer. To inform, to inspire, to motivate, to challenge: these are what I hope to accomplish.
However, I avoid writing fiction mostly for a fundamental reason: I can’t. Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve crafted entire universes within my head, replete with curious characters, and have worked to translate it all onto the page. But the effort always falls short.
Last fall I took a course in short fiction. I set one of my stories in a pub in northwest England, and spun a tale of struggle and despair that repeated itself from one generation to the next. The premise was strong, and it made a solid point. However, when we workshopped* the piece in class, my instructor (the phenomenal Ed Bok Lee) said that my story was like a stillborn baby–it had all the pieces but it had no life in it. My classmates all said that, though I had created an interesting story, they didn’t care about any of the characters. And I asked–begged–Ed, “How can I breathe life into my writing? How do I get people to care about my characters?” He replied, “I can’t answer that for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.”
Well, I have finally figured out what my big problem is, and I can best explain it by talking about The Sims. If you’re not familiar, The Sims is a series of computer games in which you “create” people–looks, personalities, everything–and then have them live out their lives in neighborhoods you create. You can basically do whatever you want with the game. You can have lots of control over their lives, or very little. (You want to have some control, though–they have a nasty habit of not getting to the bathroom in a timely manner.) Sims can have well-matched personalities and live in harmony, or you can create them to be in constant conflict. There are also cheat codes that allow you to make their lives easier or harder.
Guess which I do? I provide them unlimited money so they can have the best of everything and so that they invest zero time in a career, focussing solely on relationships and hobbies. And those relationships? Pure bliss.
In The Sims, I create a perfect, conflict-free utopia. It reflects the way my imagination works–the same imagination that ends up on paper whenever I write fiction. And conflict is necessary to motivate the action in a story.
I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I created the utopias in my mind precisely to buffer the harsher realities I’ve had to face in life–and those realities have given me plenty to write about in the form of nonfiction. On the flipside, my utopias stem from my ideals, and my ideals in turn show up in my nonfiction.
The only thing I have lost is the ability to invite others into the paradises in my head. I wish I could–they’re quite lovely.
*In writing, to “workshop”means to work with a group of writers in order to gain constructive critique of specific pieces of their writing.