Monday, September 12, 2016

Writing fiction vs. writing nonfiction

The earliest career I can remember intending to pursue was that of a writer. My first stories were typed on my dad's DOS computer before was even able to write by hand. My first "novel", Cyclesta was written when I was 8 or 9. Around age 10, I wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings; I still remember the feeling of power when I discovered how plot works, that I, as the author, could make bad things happen to my characters. I could *gasp* inconvenience them! It was marvelous. As a teenager, I wrote copious amounts of terrible poetry (and one or two things that I still thing are good). At university, I was on the editorial board of the undergraduate literary magazine and the actual real literary mag, The Madison Review. I started off as an English major, which very quickly became a double major with philosophy, which very quickly became an "I'm only going to do the bare minimum required for the English degree and ALL THE LOGIC"; I learned that while I like reading and writing, I didn't actually like the analysis part of being an English major. And then I graduated, age 20, and started grad school three months later, and for most of the next decade, I didn't write -- fiction and poetry, that is.

Why not? Being a writer had been such an important part of my identity that even I was surprised at how easy it was for "being a logician" to usurp that space. Partly I didn't write because it felt frivolous, that I should be spending my time doing serious work, as befit a serious graduate student who hoped to become a serious researcher, and get a serious job. (I have since learned that seriousness doesn't work for me...). But as I got deeper into the dissertation writing process, the more I realized just how creative a process writing a well-crafted piece of research is, and this comes at many levels. It comes at the level of voice: Who is the narrator? Is it personal or is it impersonal? Is it abstract, or is it a person directed at another person? I, like many other philosophy students, started off trying to write like the papers I was reading. The results were, predictably, pretty awful to read. The voice that is most natural to me is much more informal, and when I use that voice for writing papers, the results are much better. It comes at the level of construction: How do the parts of your research hang together? What is the story? What is the final resolution you want to bring the reader to? A few years ago I reviewed Luca Castagnoli's book on self-refutation arguments, and one of the things I really enjoyed about it was that it read like a mystery story, where you keep being given clues as to what self-refutation arguments are, and are not, but you aren't given the final story until right at the end. It was an incredibly well put together piece of research. And it comes at the level of doing the research itself: Identifying interesting results and figuring out how to prove them is an immensely creative activity.

When I realized this, that I hadn't really given up my identity as a writer, I'd just changed genre, it suddenly became possible to see myself writing fiction again (probably not ever poetry, though. My tolerance for poetry in general has plummeted since high school, and I doubt I will ever meet my exacting standards). Bits and pieces got scribbled down, never more than a few pages at a time, until just over two years ago, I decided to capitalize on the fact that I am often motivated by arbitrary restrictions: I set myself a challenge of writing 400 words a day, exactly, on whatever topic I wanted, without any regard to whether it made sense or was "good" or any of those external measures of quality. If I missed a day, the words would roll over to the next day, so then I'd have to write 800. I made it 79 days before I fell behind never to catch up again, and in the end, it took me 742 days to write 200 days worth of 400 words/day. I may have "failed" in the challenge, but I also completed succeeded: In just over two years, I wrote an 80,000 word novel, and I was reminded of why writing fiction can be so useful.

As a logician, argument and evidence matter a lot. I sometimes struggle in the early stages of writing papers because there are things I want to say that I don't yet have an argument or a citation for, and without that I do not feel allowed to assert them. In fiction, there are no such constraints. I can assert things without having to justify them. I can lie. I can change the way the world is just to see what the consequences are. I used many of those 80,000 words to investigate philosophical ideas that are nascent enough to still be being merely entertained, not argued for. There is a lot more freedom for exploration in speculative fiction than there is in academic philosophy. You don't need a bibliography (but you can have one if you want!)

Writing fiction is also useful because it means that I am writing. I have long believed that writing breeds writing, and that one of the best ways to become a more productive and efficient academic writer is to write more. The problem is, people often think this means "write more academic stuff", but it doesn't. It just means write more. Write blog posts. Write letters. Write short stories. Write novels. Write notes that may or may not become academic papers. Write academic papers. Read books and write reviews of them. I have been incredibly lucky this summer to have had few external obligations, meaning I've had three months where I've done nothing much other than read and write. My 400 words challenge came to a natural ending when I hit 80,000 words, and also when a new writing project hijacked me the final day of the final conference I attended in Melbourne. For this, my challenge is to draft the first draft in long-hand, though every few pages I transcribe it into LaTeX and make emendations along the way. This project feels different from others I've begun; I can see how to get to the end.

Because despite my "ahah" moment about plot that I had as a child, one of the things I've always struggled with was the construction of a story line, of a plot where characters actually do things instead of just think and talk about them. This part of the process always seemed mysterious to me, no matter how many how-to articles on the topic I read in The Writer magazine. In a similar way, when I started off as a grad student, publishing journal articles, etc., seemed mysterious to me. How did people know when they had an idea that was worth publication? How did they write something that looked like a journal paper rather than a seminar paper? I spent three years rather confused and uncertain about these sorts of issues, and wondered how it was that everyone else seemed to know the answers without ever having been explicitly taught them. In my 4th year, I switched programmes, and lucked into a supervisor who did explicitly teach me; academic writing is now much less mysterious to me!

What's interesting is that while it was understanding the creative dimensions of my academic writing that helped me to become a better writer in that dimension, I'm now finding myself taking what I have learned about development, structure, citation, organization, drafting, redrafting, outlining, etc., from academic writing and taking it back to the fiction. I now pay much more attention to the minutiae of how published works are crafted. How long are the paragraphs? How long are the chapters? How does the author segue from one scene to another? How is dialogue handled? How does time pass? How are digressions handled, especially, how does the author get back from them to the original topic of the paragraph? I have also been extremely lucky in the last few years to have had a few friends who made the step from "I want to be a writer" to "I am a writer", who then wrote and published novels and along the way blogged about their processes. One of them, I have had the honor of being a beta-reader for two of her novels, and watching the process of construction while it is happening is incredibly helpful: It's the difference between reading the published version of a proof and watching someone go through it, step by step, on the whiteboard in front of you. You might understand the former without having any idea how you'd do it yourself; but the latter shows you, at each moment of uncertainty, what you can or should do next. I have recently (within the last few weeks!) become beta-reader for two more stories, one that a friend is working on, one by an author whose works I was introduced to by the friend I first beta-read for. It is an immense privilege to get to do this -- not only do I get first crack at a new story before everyone else, but I know how hard it is to let someone else read and judge your words. That amount of trust should not be treated lightly, and in one case, I am repaying that trust by offering my own new project in exchange -- today I will clean up the first few chapters and send them to her!

Last night when I was thinking out all these ideas, I felt I had some sort of point to make, about the contrasts between writing fiction and writing nonfiction, but if anything, I think the point of this post is to minimise those contrasts. They are not nearly as different as they might seem; both can be learned; both can benefit from the approaches/techniques of the others; and one should never feel guilty about doing either.


  1. I, on the other hand, have always insisted that "I am a reader, not a writer". I never wrote poetry, I never wrote stories. I too, considered doing a degree in English, but didn't like the part about needing to write about what I was reading, and turned to science. At first I didn't understand that I would need to write things as a scientist, too, but then I realized that, in science, I didn't need to form (and admit to publicly) an opinion (as one must often do when writing for an English class), but I could simply state what I had done, what the results were, and how they compared to other results obtained by other scientists. That I could do. Even when they started making me take the next step and say something about what the significance of the results were, it wasn't so bad, though there is still some lingering reluctance of the sort I felt for the English papers.

    However, in recent years I have been reading blogs of author friends (I strongly suspect at least one of the ones you mention above), and I, too, find reading about their writing process has really helped me in my writing for science, especially in writing things like grant applications. You are correct, there isn't so much difference in the skills needed for writing fiction and non-fiction.

    1. Yeah, you and I definitely are reading the same blog. I think it helps that she's also a trained scientist and so thinks in that sort of way. Reading about the process of plotting, drafting, revising that she goes through has been SO interesting.