Last First Day and a Fixation on Fiction

Yesterday was a last. It was my last first day of school. I think. I’m not really sure. I never really am. But assuming that I choose not to teach when I finish in May and assuming that I don’t take a staff position with a college or university or other educational institution and assuming that I don’t bear children who are ripe and ready to hop into kindergarten, then yesterday was my last first day of school. At least for the foreseeable future.

Yesterday was also a first. It was my first day of taking a fiction class. Ever. When I started seriously writing at the tender age of eight (my previous scribblings having been mere juvenile work), I had a penchant for poetry, a fascination with rhythms and patterns and a knack for making them work. I wrote some of the best greeting cards I’ve read to date, singsongy stanzas about birthdays and families. I enjoyed reading fiction and wrote short stories for English classes, but on my own time I wrote poems. I wrote diaries and journals.

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My imagination sort of dried up by the time I hit my teens. (Except of course for the times that I fantasized about my own life.) I was more interested in the drama of what was really happening and began writing journalism and narrative pieces. By the time I reached college, the idea of generating fiction was intimidating. Pulling characters from the air, crafting worlds that didn’t exist, building infrastructure and landscapes and conflict and climax. It was all too much freedom. Too much responsibility. Too much creation. I preferred sticking to the truth. To writing life as it happened and making meaning of reality.

In the past year I have learned lessons in the art of the personal essay. I have characterized my parents and siblings, college friends, classmates and the men that I’ve dated. I’ve written about the ocean and Target and traveling and France, of cooking and casseroles, coming of age, falling into depression, establishing identity and connecting with God. I have woven narratives and stretched analogies, sprinkled symbolism and offered exposition and explanation. And I have grown tired of trying to make sense of the facts of my own life.

I am tired of writing and re-writing and attempting with everything in me to bring meaning to misery and purpose to pain. To make joy more explicable and payoff more rewarding. But when you’re writing non-fiction you can’t re-write the past. Can’t edit out what happened or write in what didn’t. I can’t take back what was said that night they were sitting in on a blanket on the beach. Can’t make the man stay. Can’t will the child to live. Can’t force the woman to change her mind when her foot is on the pedal and the snow begins sticking to the windshield of her escape. Those are the rules we abide by, the confines in which we live.

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But in fiction…In fiction I get to play God, something that sounds both blasphemous and beautiful even as I write it. It is a freedom I’ve rarely hoped for, to be in charge of a whole world. I sometimes have a hard time trusting God, believing that He can really balance all of the characters and plot lines and conflict running through the storyline of time. I fear that I am no more than a forgotten minor character, an unresolved story with an unwritten future. And though writing fiction will not change that, it might just change me.

In addition to reflecting and rehashing and making sense of what happened (which is often what I do in much of what I write), this semester I get to make something happen. To put the words in his mouth and the thoughts in her head. I get to bring her back from Boston and send them on a train to Portland. Give her the job. Write him the letter. Send them the e-mail that will change their lives. I get to make it work. I get to redeem and restore and bring wholeness and healing. Joy to despair. Light into darkness.

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As I read all of this—all of these goals that I have to use my fiction power for good—I realize that this is really the reason I write anything at all. That this is why I live and move and exist in the world—to bring wholeness and healing and joy and light. But I’ve never gotten to do it on my own terms. I’ve never had the power to orchestrate the giving and receiving of love and forgiveness, the breaking and the mending, the conflict and resolution. And I’ve never interacted with characters of my own creating. Have never wanted things for them or done things to them.

I sense that fiction writers everywhere will see the hubris in my writing, the bright greenness, the naiveté of my notion of what it means to make a world. They might tell me that my characters have minds of their own. That good stories need conflict. That the narrative doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, not even when you are the one directing it. But I will learn all of these things. And I am sure I will learn many more. And maybe, just maybe, when I finish all of this learning, I will give up my throne of power and go back to writing essays. I will go back to letting God be God and realizing that I cannot control a world I did not create.

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