Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Defense of Fiction

Something has happened. Somewhere along the line, imagination has become a bad word. Reading stories that are not "true" has become a waste of time, something one does while waiting for a root canal, or because one is in a literature class being force-fed novels. There are so many "true" books out there, why read fiction?

I hear this from my students (keep in mind, these are students who want to be writers). The gifts of a story, a piece of fiction, have gotten lost in the labyrinth of information and data and statistics that have become the ways in which we measure the success of our lives. I simply cannot tell you how this breaks my heart. Data never makes me cry (well, maybe in frustration). Information may tell me which train to take and what corner to stand on to catch that next bus, but it won't make meaning of my journey. The meaning comes from the filters. From the point of view, from the characters, from the false starts, the connections, the disconnections, the revisioning, and most important of all, the reflection.

The characters from my childhood fictions (Ramona the Pest, Harriet the Spy, Betsey, Tacy and Tibb, Paddington the Bear, the Velveteen Rabbit) are as much a part of my family as my literal family. Toni Morrison's stunning character Beloved, Shug Avery in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, John Grimes from James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain, Rosa in Alma Luz Villanueva's The Ultraviolet Sky -- these characters, these people, (and thousands more) showed me something about myself. They showed me something of the world, of a different way of living, of unexamined possibilities.

Data did not tell me I could be a writer (though my childhood test scores showed that.) Harriet the Spy told me that. Data did not tell me I could move out of Phoenix, but Rose in The Ultraviolet Sky did. I don't know how to show my students how much fiction matters. The obsession with 'truth' in world filled, at best, with 'truthiness', is puzzling to me.

I fear that we are losing the people underneath all our knowledge.

I fear that we are losing empathy in our desire to be right.

I fear that we are losing compassion in a rush to be first.

What if we stopped dividing into true/not true and just told stories? What if, by "just" telling stories, we learned to listen rather than argue? And what if, in the middle of all of that, we heard one another rather than distilled each other's words down to the lowest common denominator?

Even I cringe at the Pollyanna-ish nature of that paragraph. (But Pollyanna, of course, was a fiction). But I am going to continue to shout it out because I cannot bear the thought of a world without stories. I cannot imagine who I would have been without them.

Read them. Write them. Tell them. Nurture them. Buy them. Make up characters and dance with them. Create storylines and inhabit them. It is imagination that will free us. It is imagination that will open doors.

This image below is from Phillip Toledano's website Days With My Father. The website is a gorgeous photo essay of the final days of his father's life. His dad had Alzheimer's and died at 99 years old. The photo essay opens with the death of Phillip's mother, Helene. His father doesn't understand where Helene has gone, and it's tearing both of them apart for Phillip to keep saying day after day, "She died, dad. Mom died."  So, Phillip told him that she had gone to Paris, which seemed to help them both. A fiction. A truth. Please go take a look at Phillip's website. It ends with this note that his father had written to Helene (who had already died, of course, but was, to him, happily in Paris).

Now tell me again why fiction doesn't matter. Why only the literal truth (whatever that is) will save us. Tell me again why we communicate best in zeros, ones, and pie charts.

Tell me again, but please, tell it to me in story, the language of my heart, the only language of love.


Anonymous said...

Laraine, thank you. I wish I could find the reference to a book I heard about recently that talks about how it's so much more important to teach kids to read nonfiction than fiction. Something about how nonfiction shows us better how to cope in the "real world." I know there's more context to that book (and that argument) that I'm missing, but it makes me really sad, too, to think about how much imagination is lacking in the initial thought of devaluing fiction.

Truth is fine, but fiction can be finer!

Alma Luz Villanueva said...

"Stories are medicine. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything- we need only listen (write, pass it The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained within stories...Modern storytellers are the descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards, griots, cantadoras, cantors, traveling poets, bums, hags, and crazy people...The nurture for telling (writing) stories comes from those who have gone before." 'Women Who Run Con Los Lobos,' Dr. Clarissa Estes GRACIAS, Laraine aka Gata, for bringing me to these words...tu amiga, Almaluz xoxo

Peg said...

Your words in this post touch my heart. I ache to write "fiction". I yearn to tell a story...many stories...running wild in my mind...wanting so badly to get out. I somehow stray away and then I read your post and I am once again renewed and know what my purpose in life is...what will make me the most happy and content...writing...fiction!

Salesteacher said...

I'm a prolific reader of both fiction and nonfiction. Looking back I realize that I have gained more insight into life from fiction than nonfiction. I think that's because we can crawl into another person's mind in stories. In nonfiction we merely experience the knowledge of another. Knowledge is not synonymous with truth. But a person's mind can hold truth that can't come out in the form of knowledge.

lynncroghan said...

Love the post!
Now I know why my grand daughter loves for me to make up bedtime stories for her. She loves to read the old favorites and begs for new ones....
I hope you had a chance to rest and re-energize. I love reading your books. Have a great New Year...looking forward to more reading:)