2/1/14 – I CAN’T KEEP FICTION WRITING IN THE CORNER
When I open my laptop to write fiction, I have the odd sensation that the screen is something of a mirror — a magical, looking glass through which I stepinto another world. First, I can see a shadowy version of myself on the screen. A few seconds later a stronger light begins to shine, my shadow disappears, and the magic takes over.
My first novel is set in a small town in Indiana. It’s a coming-of-age story and was magical from its inception. I could invent activities, rename characters, scramble information, and even remove people. Poof. I was engulfed by the story — it could overpower me with feelings ranging from angst to joy. All of that came about as I stared at a screen.
When I open my laptop to write non-fiction, however, nothing like that happens. Nada. The screen is flat and I am acutely aware of the horizontal march of lines and the surrounding frame of command icons. I never giggle or feel a rush of anxiety about the next page and what it will reveal. The anxiety I feel is about the critical eye measuring the exactness of my outline, logic, and accuracy.
Fiction writing makes me feel full, powerful, and gratified. Non-fiction writing makes me flat. It does not take me through an arc of experience. Instead, it forces me to sort through a maze only to end up at a concluding, summarizing sentence. Period.
What to do? My professional life is tied up in writing non-fiction. I write about concepts such as leadership, change, and management. They are valuable and they matter to people. But the process of writing about them does not give a spring to my step.
Over time I’ve come up with a couple counter-punches. First, when I write non-fiction, I am unapologetic in using metaphors and telling stories. I use them to open up a vein of argument or to reinforce a point. If I can’t have a delicious and gripping plot and characters, I can at least have the occasional coffee break from cold logic.
Second, I try to move beyond the usual vocabulary that I find narrow and stifling. Jargon, acronyms, four-syllable words for processes (transformation, collaboration, innovation, investigation…), and the chronic use of the verb “to be” are some of the enemies. I spend a lot of time on Google looking for good synonyms.
Third, I write first drafts for myself. In them I include overstatement, emotional words, and poetry. Sometimes I add commentary as if an elf is also at the keyboard noting the overtones — such as irony or sarcasm. Ultimately, I edit (scrub) to find more “appropriate and acceptable” language. I believe traces of the zest remain, however, and I often find my arguments are sharper and more explicit as a result of the drafting and rewriting.
Fourth, I am discovering the power of interviews. I am currently researching a particular idea and as I record people’s comments and responses to my questions, I am startled by their richness and humanity. Even if boxed in the margins, interview quotes add a vivid reality to an argument.
I am one person, with one laptop and one screen, who produces both fiction and non-fiction. For me, writing fiction fosters sensibilities that I want to experience and reflect as I write non-fiction. I am sure that for other writers, the relationship is different and our writing styles reflect that. Whatever our process for writing and our unique human disciplines and character, the ultimate referee of the joust is the reader.
Executive turned writer Martha Johnson is the author of the novel In Our Midst, a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition, and On My Watch, a bestselling book that chronicles her experiences in the Obama Administration. She blogs regularly on her website, marthajohnson.com.