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The Writing Life: Voices of Experience
Renie Garlick : Why Fiction Now? Part I

Why Fiction Now?

By Renie Garlick

I read recently that during the present economic uncertainty, people are reading more books and most of these books are fiction titles. This surprises me. I assumed that many people would be voraciously investigating ways to survive these difficult times; that most everyone wanted to know exactly where and when they could reclaim the safety and security they previously enjoyed. In other words, I thought most people would be eager to get at the hard facts that (might) help them recapture control of their situation. So I ask — why fiction? Why fiction now?

What immediately leaps to mind is the need to escape. When times are tough, too tough for some, people seek to lessen their pain by losing themselves and their accompanying worries in another/fantasy world.

This may seem answer enough, but I'm curious — if the only purpose of fiction is to give us a vacation from our troubles, is that really helpful? Don't we just wind up postponing the hard work we must do to improve the situation? Don't fiction readers and writers appear to be rather weak-minded, or, silly, or, just plain lazy (especially to those raised on a Puritan work-ethic)?

How can fiction defend itself as valuable to culture if it is solely daydreaming run amok?

What I'm really interested in is the survival value of fiction. How does it contribute to our development — cultural, spiritual, mental, physical? As an avid fiction reader and a devout fiction writer, I feel compelled to take a stab at this — the future of my livelihood may depend on it.

It's frequently pointed out that everyone loves a story. Seems no matter how busy or stressed one is, we will stop what we're doing when we hear these simple words: "Let me tell you a story." Joe Vitale stresses the power of story on his marketing students, strongly suggesting that they tell the story of their product, not just its features, options and physical components. Arielle Ford advocates this as well, urging authors to share the story behind the story to generate interest among their target audiences. Recovery programs and those undergoing healing share their stories with one another as an important part of their successful treatment. Who hasn't been incessantly required by some child to "Read me a story!" at bedtime? In his book "A Whole New Mind" Daniel Pink goes a long way towards making the point that what makes us human is our ability to share stories. We're not merely "featherless bipeds" (a la Aristotle) or "rational animals" (see St. Thomas, et al) but separated from all other beings by our story-telling-story-making.

So, knowing something about the value of stories in our lives can provide us some insight about who/what we are…

Let's look again at the idea that fiction is an important means of escaping the pain of our non-fictional circumstances. What good is escape? Or taking a vacation?

Think in terms of how you benefit when you take a week or weekend off:

  • You're refreshed in mind, body, spirit
  • You return with renewed enthusiasm for the work ahead
  • You resurface with a new perspective, new ideas, new solutions

All this suggests to me that your vacation provides an opportunity to change much of what is within your power to change about your current situation, namely, yourself and your behavior. By taking a break, you've broken with your old ways and patterns that had ceased to work for you.

How does this translate to understanding the powerful value of fiction?

Basically, like a week at the beach, fiction provides a safe place where we can experiment at our leisure with new ideas and different approaches. Fiction lets us think "outside the box" (where box = non-fiction), as a playful, warm-up exercise for the imagination. I'd go so far as to say Fiction creates a flexibility of mind we need to solve the problems of non-fictional existence. Fiction is really an essential problem-solving skill. And a very unusual one at that.

Reading and writing fiction has a feel to it that separates it from the sort of processes we see other animals go through in their attempts to achieve their goals (i.e. solve problems); for example, to get the delicious insects out of their nest by using a long straw or reed of grass. For one thing, the success or failure of fiction is not completely dependent upon whether or not we get at the insects and eat them. Our stories aren't meant to simply feed our bodies, but our minds/souls as well. In other words, our stories are judged on how well they provide meaning to/for our lives. Even if it's just a small bit of meaning and value — e.g. our lives feel more meaningful when we acknowledge we are not alone in this (fictional) world; the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion journey with us — knowing this feeds our inner selves in a way that empowers us to go on in spite of the restrictions of our non-fictional environment (as in the case where we've actually been separated from our tribe.) And, ideally, we are energized to keep on going, imagining new and improved solutions to our all-too-real problems.

How does Fiction do this? How does it inspire us to go on? What in us does Fiction speak to or speak about that fuels persistence?

We'll investigate next. Continue to Part 2 »