Fiction vs. Non-Fiction: A Fading Distinction
Until I replied to a question in a recent author interview, I considered my process of writing fiction with that of writing non-fiction as wholly different, residing on different planets, even universes. Non-fiction, I stated frequently, is far easier writing than is a novel. But after responding to a recent author interview question, “What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?”, my opinion has changed. And radically so. Now I see fiction and non-fiction as two sides of the same coin: Superficially, they appear very different but substantially are identical.
There are three primary reasons I no longer see the distinction I once did. But first, some background about my life-long love of writing.
Like many ambitious career-minded doctors, lawyers, business people, I published extensively in my field. Although not expected in my job, the lengthy list of publications augmented my credibility within the institution as well as the minds of recruiters searching for new senior executives. Consequently, writing became a way of life. Back in my all-consuming career in academic medicine, all of it was done on weekends and vacations.
Why would anyone choose to spend precious ‘off’ time writing instead of relaxing and ‘enjoying life?” A chief, admittedly uncomplimentary, reason was that I liked seeing my name in print magazines, books, and other professional trade publications. But more than that, I learned that the best way for me to know what I think about a complex or controversial subject was to write and publish my thoughts. While it is one thing expressing an ad-lib opinion about a knotty subject verbally, it is quite another to tackle it and write a printed piece on the matter. During the process of pondering and researching the thing, one might find that she has changed her mind. Wholly.
Which brings me to the three significant divergences between non-fiction and fiction as I formerly viewed them. Each of which has blurred, even disappeared, as I reflect once again on them.
- Non-fiction is safer than fiction.
Since the author is objectively exploring the known facts about his subject, his point of view is formed by what study and evidence demonstrate as factual about the person, event or the topic. Necessarily, the non-fiction writer reveals only information about her subject, remaining almost anonymous in the eyes of the reader.
When my first novel was released, more than a few people believed that the protagonist was me. Even now, after the release of the fourth in the medical mystery series, good friends insist that Lindsey McCall is an alter ego.
While writing that first book, my sense of exposure was immense. Not because I wrote about myself─the Lindsey McCall character is so entirely different from the way I see myself that it’s laughable. The exposure instead was a curious sense of vulnerability, exhibition. One I had never experienced in my previous writing.
I did not write about people I knew; each of the characters was fictional. And yet the story line emerged from my own experiences and seemed to take flight without much direction. I felt shockingly exposed but at the same time, the writing was incredibly exciting, like white- water rafting.
Looking back, I now regard these feelings as the usual ‘jitters’ of novices. This fiction stuff of writing dialogue, creating not just believable characters but people who could be perceived was brand new to me. And yet, for years, I had published numerous pieces about some reasonably controversial issues like the ethics of suffering, withdrawal from life support, and later, my conversion to Catholicism, and had thought nothing of it. In many of these chapters and articles, I was a long way from anonymous- or objective. But it felt comfortable…normal.
- Non-fiction is, by definition, orderly and organized.
I love outlines. Most likely for the reasons each of us does: Those Roman numerals and alphabetized sub-categories invoke necessary comfort and consolation when approaching a huge project. Like a dissertation or textbook. I think neither would have been possible for me without that linear, traditional approach.
That imposed order is the only way to approach any complex idea, event or even a person, isn’t it? Because we learn- or should- through publishing many articles, books about a thing that we can get close to the essence of it. But only close. Because the truth of it remains just outside our reach. In the end, we accept our view is bounded by multiple factors outside of our control: Language, preconceptions, the bias of sources are only a few of a very long list. But we get hooked on the attempt to add something unique to the list.
Because I believed that an outline was an essential first step to fiction, I wasted months while I tried- and failed- to outline the plot. Beginning that first story without the requisite outline felt like a high dive into deep waters.
I know fiction writers who do use outlines for their novels, but I am unable to do so. I am, in the words of a writer friend, ‘a seat of the pants’ writer. And have finally learned to cede control of my novels to the characters.
- Non-fiction writing is grounded in extensive research and therefore is an intellectual, non- emotive, type of prose.
Of course, we research what we write non-fiction; it’s axiomatic. The first step is finding, then collecting as many sources on our topic as possible. Then sorting through the daunting pile to reveal the nuggets that support our point of view. Because we have one, right? Or we’d not spend the energy and time to laboriously create a piece that is grounded in what is already known, yet uniquely augments the topic. An article that expresses our thoughts coherently enough to fling it out into cyberspace.
Only when I reflected and replied to that question that began this article, “What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?”, did I realize that equal amounts of research are required for each of my novels. Next week, I’ll begin to read and study between ten to fifteen books as I start my next book.
There was another question in that author interview that contributes to this newly perceived marriage of fiction and non-fiction: “Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?”
Without that fire burning in the gut to get out that story, none of us gets past the blinking cursor on our laptop. Whether the piece is non-fiction or not, in truth, all of our writing lacks objectivity. In the end, it is merely his (or her)─story.