For a few years after graduating from university and coming to Asia I didn't write much of any kind of fiction at all, because the life I was living (and am living), both in Japan and Cambodia, made the appeal of constructing fantastic realms blending imaginative fantasy and emotional resonance feel somewhat, well, redundant.
Fiction's job is to take us to places we've never been, or show us the hidden depths of the places we (think we) know so well, but the places I was in and the depth I was experiencing in my everday life made the printed page's equivalent somewhat, sort of, in a way, I don't know, kind of, a little bit, basic.
And yet, it is all basic, fiction is, as my old Creative Writing teacher Richard Teleky used to say: "A story is either about these two things: A stranger comes to town, or somebody goes on a trip." Upon hearing these words, after much careful, analytic, university-honed thought, pehaps five seconds, total, I decided that I absolutely agreed, and still agree; stories are either a) about the intrusion of the known into an unknown scenario, or b) the intrusion of the unknown into a known scenario. Don't take my word for it -- think of your favorite book or movie and see if it fits into my teacher's dictum.
(And I was the type of guy, and still am, to a certain degree, that is distrustful of what anybody proclaiming to be a 'teacher' tells me, so for me to go ahead and agree with Mr.Teleky is a big deal, and my initial adolescent vow of never becoming a teacher was put to the test severely, as the first real job I got after university was as, um, a teacher, for, um, five years, so if I'm quoting the guy, you know his word is bond. If you can trust a guy like me who so willingly abandoned his admittedly-not-very-well-thought-out principles.)
For years I tried to write stories that deconstructed the small-town environs that shaped me and made me; confronted by Asia, practically assaulted by Asia, by its people and food and weather and streets, I didn't feel the need to do that for awhile. I still read fiction, yes, but I didn't write it; didn't crave constructing my own imaginative extrapolation of my current surroundings because the real, uncanny world around me was imaginative enough. Why delve into the fantasy when the reality is even more interesting and evocative?
The interesting thing about writing fiction (or trying to) is that it requires you to simultaneously retreat into yourself and remove yourself from the world while also observing, interacting and engaging with the real, concrete people and places around you to a degree that is distracting, if not unhealthy.
In order to write fiction, you have to have read a lot of fiction, yes, but knowing the shapes and countours and crevices of the art form itself does not mean that you, too, can practice it. (Although it certainly helps -- never reading fiction while trying to write fiction is kind of like a musician never listening to music, or a painter never looking at art.) Writing fiction requires a deeper, stranger embrace of life; it forces you to look at all the casual and random events that seek to rob us of our dignity and our stature, forces you to deny the intrinsic randomness of things. What are stories, after all, but a series of interconnected events that gradually, hopefully cumulatively gain meaning? Gain resonance?
In fiction, every scene has a purpose; every line of a dialogue has a reason and a rhythm. In life, we rarely, if ever, begin and end every single conversation with a definitiveness purpose in mind. When we do, such conversations are usually cold and clinical, like phoning your dentist to book an appointment, or else our best-laid conversational plans inevitably end up veering off into divergent, more horrific directions -- the get-well phone call that ends in a break-up, or the I-haven't-seen-you-in-a-long-while embrace that ends up with oh-and-now-I-understand-why-that-is headlock.
Fiction writers look at life and plot and connive and construct. They map out characters that will speak to us of truths we had always known and suspected but never had confirmed. The older I get, the more unreal fiction -- both literary and cinematic -- sees to become. By 'unreal' I mean unrealistic, disconnected from life, more of a stylized form of life.
Which is why we go enter into those realms. Kids embrace fiction because it shows them a new and magic world, or else it shows their own everyday life rocked and distorted with innovative glee. (Hence the appeal of Stephen King and Harry Potter to adolescent minds.) In other words, preteens and teenagers are all too often bored and suspicious of the schools and houses that dot the landscape of their lives, and fiction gives them a larger, more vivid world to connect to. Eventually, many young readers and would-be writers start to see that within those very same schools and houses that used to alienate them so much dwell the secret sources of the stories that in fact speak to our deepest, darkest truths.
The world around us can be, if not explained by fiction, at least translated to a more manageable form, a world of paper that we can hold in our hands, and that our hearts and minds can recognize to be true. That's where the best stories arise from -- that desire to find the mythic truth in everyday encounters.
So, maybe it's time. Maybe it's time I took a stab at fiction again. Time once again to have a stranger come to town, and time to take a trip.
Both of the above possibilities seem, at this moment, wonderfully inviting.