Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Different Way of Thinking Things Out

I was hanging out over at Image's "Good Letters" blog, and I was struck by the similarity of this post to some of the narrative theory I've been reading so much of lately--that is, talking about the link between fiction and its impact on lived reality. I was also glad to hear the affirmation of fiction, though I'd like to add a few thoughts and extensions to the thoughts expressed in the blog and the comments it got in response.

First, it is true narrative prose, particularly fiction, can do things academic prose can't (and that's why I write both and particularly revel in the fiction-writing task), but I'd like to also call out something both of them have in common: they both present a nuanced view of reality. One of the reasons that I both went back to school and started writing novels, after spending several years working on squishing large ideas into small words on web navigation bars, was to address questions in ways that allowed me to see the nuances of them again.

I enjoyed writing my MA in English thesis tremendously for this reason, and I hope it didn't try to explain away the creative works I was looking at, but instead helped people to have a deeper context of and experience of them. I know I was able to get a profoundly deeper experience of them while I was writing those hundred pages. I would in fact say that it's just as difficult to reduce my thesis to a journal article--both my supervisor and I tried before he suggested I send it as-is to a monograph series to see whether they'd like to take a look at it--than it would be to reduce Four Quartets' and Walden's deeply expressive ways of describing life to my thesis.

That is to say, I think that some things are simply irreducible to a few pages, and I'm thankful to live in a world where that is so.

But, to move on to my second point, I also think fiction--and poetry and creative non-fiction too, for that matter--have profoundly important roles in showing us the concrete expressions of what may happen, as well as appealing to us on levels other than the intellect. I think both these roles are profoundly important, and may act rhetorically to help us to see new possibilities.

Then again, this post is not supposed to be my dissertation, so I'll not ramble on too far in that direction, just pause and bring this back to its relevance to me as a writer and academic. The point is this: as an academic, I tend to live in my head too much--by the end of a semester's worth of classes I can feel that my feet are floating somewhere above the earth in a cloud of abstraction. Writing fiction, specifically, brings my feet back to earth (all the better that it's an imaginary earth, I say), giving me a way to think through the connection between theory and lived reality before applying anything to actual lived reality.

My fiction is of course not all, as Santiago Ramos says in the post, the equivalent of an "essay or philosophical discourse"--I'm also just playing and enjoying being artistically expressive and getting to know my characters. Still, when I write fiction, often I take a series of questions I have about the world and clothe them with an imagined reality to see what would happen. When I'm doing this, I love the fact that it helps me to test my thoughts by seeing their emotional and spiritual impacts on imaginary characters before applying them to the real world.

Yup, considering this ethical dimension of fiction, one wishes chemists and bioengineers were required to test out their theories in fictional form, trying them out sincerely on imaginary characters to see what the impacts might be, before trying them out in the real world.

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