Divination with Fiction

Whether by choice or circumstance, we spend time doing things, and that expense changes us in predictable ways.

I first decided to write a blog in middle school. It was called Will’s Word on the World and it lasted two posts.

My next try at writing for pleasure didn’t come about until early in my undergraduate career at UNC. Sometime in 2014, my sister Lucia encouraged me to start blogging again. I convinced Michael to join me on the venture. Together, we incorporated MAWWAB.

I wrote fiction (a short story right here on this blog) for the first time in July 2015. December of 2016 saw my first attempt at longer-form fiction. I wouldn’t finish what I started then until the summer of this year, when I self-published Trees.

Now, I’m a writer. I’m a mediocre writer, but I write.

What’s remarkable about this story (as with any other story) is that the events in it are somewhat predictable. A logical thread runs through it: someone gets started doing something, and before long he or she is hooked on it. My addiction, kacoesesscrimbi, is to writing, but a similar story could be told about almost anyone and any activity from swimming, to knitting, to doing drugs. The hobby or addiction funnels the development of the individual who partakes of it toward a singular archetype: the writer becomes an intellectual, the swimmer an athlete, the dabbler a junkie, and so on. The hobbyist gains a skill or experience, the hobby gains–and shapes–a disciple.

The biggest discipline for me in my initiation to the cult of the keyboard was in developing a philosophical justification for fiction. I grew up a voracious consumer of fantasy, sci-fi, and other genres, but that dropped off in college. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were fluff stuff, I decided: cotton candy when I needed non-fiction’s meat-and-potatoes if I was going to learn how the world worked. Romantic trials in those years of college played a big part in turning me against fiction. I blamed my unrealistic expectations of what the pursuit of love would be like on my previously less virtuous information diet.

Ironically, those same romantic trials also moved me to write fiction (the novella that would eventually become Trees). I felt that the impulse was a cowardly one, but I started in anyway, guiltily, promising myself that once I was braver I would write exclusively the truth. Someday, I wouldn’t lead people astray with the slightest taint of fantasy. I’d give them only the knowledge they need.

That awkward state of dissonance between composing and loathing fiction didn’t last long. I soon hit upon a way to justify the literary liberties I was taking in my writing and enjoying in the novels I read. Here it is:

Fiction is valuable because it allows for wide-ranging exploration of the predictable. It’s about using imagination to simulate, and perhaps alter, the future.

A true story can only take us through what happened. This can be useful if there are similarities between the world of the non-fiction story and the world of our lives. The not-uncommon overlap between those two spheres girds the injunction to study history in order to avoid repeating it.

The simulative advantages and disadvantages of fiction are inverse to those in non-fiction. An untrue story is unlimited. It can take us through what might happen. Fiction can include environments and dynamics that may exist in the future (e.g. Star Trek) or in an alternate universe (e.g. Harry Potter). Fiction’s main simulative disadvantage is that its settings may hold little validity for our real lives: the similarities between the world and rules of a fictional story and the actual world’s dynamics may be so few that the whole tale carries little practical simulation value. I think many romantic comedies fit this description. Contrary to the natural law of the rom-com genre, non-fictional women don’t generally pick the awkward guy with the heart of gold. They pick the charismatic guy with the heart of gold. Or the handsome guy with the heart of gold. Or the powerful guy with the heart of gold. To be honest, the gold heart dollar is pretty well inflated in real life. You need a wheelbarrow’s worth of the damn things to get yourself a loaf of bread.

But back to the Theme of the Blog Post: I know that fiction serves many other purposes beside simulation.¬† Stories help bind people together in a common culture, provide reassuring answers to existential questions, convey social values, and more. I focus here on the power of fiction as a way to simulate things because that strikes me as fiction’s most unsung and tantalizing trait. Here is the way fiction can help us explore the world from the safety of our homes. Here is how it can help us learn truths beyond the bounds of history. Here is how it can help us borrow imagination. I think fiction is a key to greater power to predict and shape our futures. Yet, the closest to this idea I’ve encountered in the public sphere is the relatively anodyne claim (backed up by some research) that¬†fiction promotes empathy.

Partly because of this quiet, I think we–and I know I–often march forward with our eyes needlessly closed. I didn’t ponder when I was applying to UNC’s medical school how quickly enrollment would change me from a fiercely individualistic heretic into someone who uses first-person plural when I refer to the medical establishment (I now catch myself telling anyone who will listen that “we don’t find any compelling evidence vaccinations cause autism”–as if I was closely involved with the effort to debunk that myth). And I didn’t envision, before I joined the Daily Tar Heel editorial board, that I would become good friends with someone whose preferred pronouns are gender neutral.

I could have predicted these things. I could have guessed well at what the future would hold given what I knew about educational acculturation, and the social composition of my now-beloved paper, but I didn’t. The fact that I only blush at the first outcome and awkwardly embrace the second, is beside the point. The fact of my erstwhile blindness isn’t. My imagination wasn’t active enough. It wasn’t well trained enough.

I hadn’t read enough fiction.

 

 

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