I felt I needed some objective advice, so I made a date to have dinner with my writing buddy Stacy McPherson. She worked as a financial analyst, whatever that is, a job she hated but felt trapped by, because it gave her the income to support a lifestyle she despised but felt addicted to. Once, when I asked her what a financial analyst did, she told me it was muddy now that money had mostly become numbers but in Elizabethan times, financial analysts were the people who “bit coins and said, yup, that’s gold.” She said that’s when she would rather have lived.
Stacy was a gazelle of a girl with long athletic legs and a belly flattened by regular aerobics classes. Every time she smiled, her perfect white teeth celebrated a middle class suburban childhood and its unlimited access to orthodontry. Her high cheekbones hinted at a Native American ancestor or two, but her nose was long and lean and Sandinavian. She was the only person who didn’t realize she was stunningly beautiful, which added to her appeal.
She was chipping away at a big novel too, like all the rest of us, a novel about a girl who drops out of college and moves to New York, and becomes a stripper, interwoven with a family saga rooted in the Potato Famine that runs from Kilkenny to California through generations of abusive males and feisty females, culminating in a main character who is constantly visited by three wraiths who are wrapped in bedsheets soaked in blood and carrying a dead baby; three of her ancestor’s ancestors apparently, Irish sisters who died in simultaneous childbirth.
We got together for dinner at a Greek restaurant on Polk Street and I placed my problem before her. “I don’t know what to write next.”
“Weren’t you going to finish that thriller you were working on?”
“It doesn’t seem necesarry anymore. Does the world need another thriller? I think I want to write something more literary, but I don’t know.”
“Well, you always told me to write whatever I like to read, so I’ll throw that advice right back at you, beecause I think it’s so true. You know Donny? The fat guy, from Kansas? He’s so pretentious! And then he says he’ll stoop and write a romance novel just to make some money. I’ll bet you anything it will be crap and he won’t be able to publish it! Not that I read romance novels but still. You can’t write something you don’t get a bang out of yourself, you know? That’s where you should start. What do you read these days? Because me? I just have to write fantasy fiction. I’m not saying it’s better than anything else, it’s just what I like, so I feel at home writing it. What kinds of novels do you read for fun?”
“That’s the trouble. I want to write a novel, but I hardly ever read novels anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love your novel, the wraiths and what-not. But most novels, when I’m browsing at a bookstore…I open them and I immediately feel weary, like I don’t have the time for this. Because you do have to put so much time into a book, any book, not to mention the energy and the concentration. You have to get quiet and become unaware of your environment and let the book rise all around you. Well, if you’re reading history, or a piece of journalism, or even the yellow pages for God’s sake, okay, there’s some point to it. But with a novel? You know? You’re working hard, trying to get it fixed in your mind, how this fellow gets to work, and what the streets look like in his ‘hood, and why he’s having trouble with his mother, and what his rabbi saw three years ago, and how he’s related to the woman in the white dress—and for what? They don’t even exist! Why devote brain cells to filing information that will be worthless the moment you shut the book? I know it’s a perverse point of view, but what can I do? It’s how I feel.”
“So you don’t read at all anymore?”
“I read, but only nonfiction for the most part. I read magazines, I read the newspaper. I read a lot of history. I read books to find out things, any kind of information. That guy McPhee—you ever read him?”
“John McPhee. I think so. He wrote about oranges, didn’t he? In the New Yorker.”
“Right! And it was fascinating—because oranges are real, you know. Any day you might encounter one in real life. So anything you learn about an orange could be useful. That’s my problem with fiction, I guess. It’s stuff that didn’t happen. So why learn about it.”
“Learn about it! Fiction isn’t about learning something,” Stacy protested. “It’s about having an experience. When I read a good novel, I live a life.”
“But I’m already living a life.”
“Your own life, yes, but fiction gives you a chance to live other lives.”
“I’m not arguing that fiction is worthless. I used to devour it. I don’t criticize my childhood self for what I used to read. I’m just saying, anymore, only nonfiction seems to hold my attention. I tried to read Madame Bovary, the other day and okay: you get the flavor of middle class provincial life in France 200 years ago, sort of. But the fiction part is just mud you have to scrape away to get at the real information. Why not just read a social history of 19th century France?”
“That is so crass!” Stacy exlaimed, shocked.
“I don’t deny it,” I moaned. “I wish I didn’t have such opinions. I wish I did still get something out of literature, at least great literature.”
“The crass part,” she said, “is wanting to write novels, if that’s how you feel about the novels other people write. It feels like it isn’t ethical, somehow, expecting other people to read your stories if you’re not willing to read anyone else’s.”
“But is that really a contract you enter into when you decide to write? It’s only in the writer’s group that we trade manuscripts. In the real world, most people don’t have a novel they want you to read. The fact of the matter is, some people write, some read. I’m not sure I should feel guilty about wanting to write novels even if I don’t read any.”
“It’s the karma,” she said. “On some cosmic level it feels like you’re piling up bad karma. If you put out, you should also take in. That just seems to me like a law or something. I can’t explain, but I think it’s bad for your soul.”
“Well, according to your principles, then I should tackle a nonfiction project.”
She acted like I had insulted myself, or like she thought I thought she had insulted me. “That’s not what I said! Of course you should write a novel! You know how much I like your writing! I never said you should just write nonfiction.”
“ ‘Just nonfiction.’ Why do you say that? Where does that come from? I mean, I have that reaction too. I admit, but why? Is there something inherently more noble about a novel than about a nonfiction book?”
“Yes,” said Stacy confidently. “We all want to write novels. If all you’ve written are nonfiction books, you’re not really a contender.”
“A contender for what? What do you mean?”
She picked at her salad. Her neck rose out of her T-shirt, long and beautiful. Her curiously mobile mouth made a succession of odd fleeting shapes as she pondered how to put this thought. “A nonfiction book is topical,” she said at last. “All topics fade away over time. Other topics arise. Nonfiction is of the moment. Just inherently, it isn’t going to last. Inherently. Once the topic is no longer part of the public conversation, nobody is going to want to read the book anymore. Look at Homer. We’re still reading the Illiad—well, I’m not, but you’re always talking about it. And where’s all the great nonfiction that was written about the Trojan war back then? What happened to, like, the battle analyses? Where are the human interest features about how Princess Helen wasn’t just a spoiled fashion plate like people think and how she was laboring thanklessly to alleviate the plight of Trojan orphans because she cared? Interesting at the time maybe, but now that Trojans are just condoms, who really cares? Fiction, though! Fiction is about themes, and those are eternal. Fiction is about love and death and the meaning of life and whether there is a God and how to transcend despair. If you write a great piece of fiction it can live forever.”
I nodded and ate my salad and didn’t bring up Thucydides. Or Herodotus. But I’m thinking about that conversation. I’m still thinking about it. Because I am working on a novel now. As well as a history. As well as a how-to book. And a memoir. I can’t tell if one of them is more real than the others. They all have their hooks in me. I’m writing them and I can’t stop till they’re done.