I enjoy reading both fiction and narrative non-fiction, but I tend to write fiction almost exclusively.
I’ve been asking myself why that is. I’m sitting at my desk and I’m meant to be writing, but instead I’m procrastinating, burning time, staring distractedly at my screen.
Right now, as I type, this is the background of my computer desktop:
This is a still from a 1990s Japanese animated television show called Cowboy Bebop. If you’ve never seen it, trust me: it’s one of the all-time classics. The image shows a space ship re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
You might be wondering what this has to do with writing.
This shot, which was probably only on-screen for half a second in the episode in which it appeared, makes me think about the thousands of small decisions—conscious and otherwise—that the artist made.
Look at the positioning of the ship, low and off-centre in the frame. Notice the size of the ship in relation to the size of the Earth. Our planet is so vast that we can only see a small part of it here. Still, most of the frame shows black, empty space. Why aren’t there any stars visible? And the air rushing over the ship, buffeting it, dragging it down inexorably into Earth’s gravity well: does that hint at how the ship’s crew feel about arriving?
That shot could have been composed in a hundred other ways. The shot isn’t even necessary: as viewers, we would have understood that the ship had landed on Earth when its occupants walked out onto grass, under a blue sky, in the next scene.
Writing fiction is the same. As creator, you are responsible for everything shown and not shown in the your universe. That’s thrilling. It’s also an awesome responsibility. There is the knowledge that there will always be some way to improve the scene you’ve assembled, to make your story more profound, more resonant. As fiction writers we can never achieve perfection, and that’s liberating.
Non-fiction writers are making these same choices, too, of course. How to re-tell a scene: which details are important; how to describe the way a person moves, the tone they use when they speak. Every moment, real and imagined, contains an infinity of detail for a writer to draw from.
But as a non-fiction writer you are constrained, more or less, by what actually happened. If a true story you write isn’t as engaging as you’d hoped, you can throw up your hands and say, “But that’s the way it went down.” I don’t want that option. I want my work to stand or fall based on whether it’s good, not whether it’s accurate. A good story will ring true, even if it’s fabricated.
Carmel Bird says that she is “interested in the play between fact and fiction, interested in the moment when the metamorphosis takes place, when the grub of fact becomes the butterfly of fiction.” I think that’s a great way of putting it. Writing fiction, you get to make the butterfly. And if, after you’ve finished, the thing is still grub-like, well: that’s what re-writes are for.
There’s another reason I prefer to write fiction. At the launch of The Worry Front, Andrea Goldsmith said that author H.C. Gildfind “embraces the fiction writer’s imagination. Don’t bother searching for her in these stories—you’ll not find her.”
Many of my own experiences and thoughts make it into my work. I’ve written stories that might have stood on their own as narrative non-fiction, but I’ve altered and embellished them. I’ve warped crucial details to protect the guilty and libel the innocent.
I know where I am in my stories—I know which of my characters’ actions and feelings are inspired by my own—but I hope that for my readers, it’s a bit more opaque! I don’t want to be found so easily.
Andrew Roff is a writer based in Adelaide. His work has appeared in Overland and Antithesis Journal, among others, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. In March 2018 he undertook a residential fellowship at Varuna House to work on a short story collection. He tweets at @roffwrites and you can read more of his work at www.roffwrites.com.