Friday, 5 October 2012

Everything is Fiction

I came across this really interesting article in The New Yorker recently, from a writer who makes the point that all of life is fiction. Of which all of us partake in, not just readers and writers. Life as a series of stories that we all tell ourselves. And it is indeed true. We do! 

We writers see fictional possibilities in everything: people passing us on the street, an overheard conversation, a newspaper story, a stranger's face, a stray dog, a tone of voice, a change in the weather. We also use our own life as fuel for the fiction furnace that burns within us. We see plot in problems, characters in friends, conflict in real-life dramas, poetry in love affairs. But not only that, we, like other non-reading, non-writing people invent stories to tell ourselves. Stories that explain the strangeness of the world to us, stories that soothe and enlighten and entertain and keep us attuned to our lives.

In other words, our lives are narratives we continually tell ourselves and others as a means of validation and recognition, but mostly, understanding and belonging. 

Here's an excerpt from the article by Keith Ridgway:
'And I mean that - everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events.  Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones - they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor - please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience - with our senses and our nerves - is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.
So I love hearing from people who have no time  for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the trivality of fiction, the trivality of making things up. As if that wasn't what all of us do, all day long, all life long. Fiction gives us everything. It gives us our memories, our understanding, our insight, our lives. We use it to invent ourselves and others. We use it to feel change and sadness and hope and love and to tell each other about oursleves. And we all, it turns out, know how to do it.' (Read the full article here)

We all know how to do it, we do. And those of us who profess we have no interest in reading or writing fiction are still partaking in fiction on a daily basis! Who doesn't lie in bed at night and go over the contents of their day, editing and re-reading it at will? And who doesn't go about their day without some concept of a bigger plot unfolding? Ready to welcome and be hooked by the adventures and pitfalls that may or may not occur, the advancement of some idea, some storyline arc that has sprung up - be it a love story, suspense story, or new drama. And we all hang on for the resolutions. And when they come and go, yet another story begins. 

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is the title of a book by writer Joan Didion which explores this idea.  Of course we do. Life would be random and meaningless chaos without story to gather and define its significance. Stories help us. Didion's book exploring and explaining her grief over her husband's sudden death - The Year of Magical Thinking - went on to become a bestseller and a profound favourite with readers everywhere. Not only was it cathartic for her, but found resonance with millions of people. She  is a person who has come to know the true value of story. In this excerpt from her essay We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, she briefly outlines this idea:

'We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy; will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be 'interesting' to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be - the Aristophanic view - snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.' 

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images... It is this 'narrative line' that thus shapes our world, that makes it unique and engaging, and can even at times, prove as tough as a rope, a precious golden thread to hang onto when all else is unravelling. Just as bedtime stories have soothed children since Time began, self-recounted tales about one's own life can be curative and comforting. 

You just need glimpse the blurb for Booker winning novel of some years ago Life of Pi by Yann Martel, to see this powerful aspect of fiction at play. The novel is essentially about the redemptive power of fiction to transform our world and make hardships bearable. * Spoiler alert* -The story revolves around a young shipwrecked boy set adrift in the Pacific ocean with only his fictional animal companions - namely a tiger - for company and as we will see, sanity and survival against all the odds. It ends with the revelation that Pi's adventure was a story he told himself in order to survive, but confronts the reader with the idea that life is just a story too: 'Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?... The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?'
Lots of fiction writers have explored this personal reflex to fictionalize in their work, most recently Julian Barnes in his novel The Sense of an Ending: 'How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make small cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly to ourselves.' Life is a story. And even more interesting, our life is not our life, but merely the story we have told about it - to others and ourselves. We are all the writers (and readers) of our own lives.

This is an idea that also intrigues one of my favourite writers Jeanette Winterson: 'We mostly understand ourselves through an endless  series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever reality we have chosen to believe in...It may be that to understand ourselves as fictions, is to understand ourselves as fully as we can. ' (From Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery)

To understand ourselves as fully as we can - we use fiction. Fiction is a modus of self comprehending. We may read for pleasure, but it is also for understanding. Same with writing. Same, with our own personal fictional sagas. 

So the next time you're accused of living in a fantasy world (a common affront thrown at writers!) - take no offence - for we all are, to a degree. We are all living in a world of our own making, our own telling. The more 'fictions' we spin from reality, the more entertaining, enlightening and redemptive our lives will be.

And whenever you hear someone dismiss fiction as frivolous and irrelevant - pah! -you may gleefully interrupt them by pointing out their own personal fictions. For everyone has their stories - love stories, coming-of-age stories, career stories, scary stories, fairytale stories and day-to-day guts-of-a-novel stories - they tell to themselves. Aware of it or not, we live in a world where everything is fiction and we are all storytellers extraordinaire. And writers by extension - are merely those who choose to record theirs in ink rather than air. 

~ Siobhán


  1. bonsoir à vous: c'est l'entrée en matière de mon blog :-) : " AVERTISSEMENT:
    toute ressemblance avec des personnages ou des images, vivants ou morts, ainsi qu'avec des paysages, serait une pure coïncidence, seule la fiction est réelle."
    suis-je peut-être hors sujet?
    Bonne soirée. Thibault

    1. Bonsoir Thige, et merci de votre commentaire.
      Non - vous n' etes pas hors sujet! C'est tellement vrai - 'la fiction est réelle' - bien sur! C'est un bon 'avertissement'! Parce que "l'art imitate la vie et la vie imitate l'art." :)

  2. This is such a good subject to discuss. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives determines the chapters we have! So many writers used their own personal stories as the backdrop and inspiration that sometimes people are confused when a writer doesn't use his/her life as the foundation of a story. Unfortunately using your life story as the source for your writing can be done in a negative way (Sylvia Plath comes to mind). But it can be a good thing--use it to make meaning, use it to find resolution and resolve, use your story as a springboard to creating an outcome you'd like to have had or hope to have! Well done, Siobhan!

    1. Thank you Mary! Yes, I don't know if I like the idea of relying too much on 'autobiography' as fiction fodder, but, every writer does it to some degree... It's a given. But poetry is different I think - much more personal, based on personal experiences - it must contain autobiographical truth of experience to be authentic.
      Yes, I like that idea about using 'our story' (and stories) to find resolution and resolve, and to make meaning, above all else. Of course.


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