I’ve done a lot of reading in the past couple days. I should be writing, because deadlines and words piling up in my head, waiting for me to let them out. But I’m also holed up at home with bronchitis, a hacking cough, and two cats with rumbly, scratchy purrs who would rather sit by me than do just about anything else. With codeine on the brain and breathing through my nose still an intermittent struggle, I’ve turned to books.
I surround myself with books. They are kind of the safety fort I build in my room because they insulate me against so many things. I look at one and am transported back to high school, to slow dancing with a boy I didn’t think I had a crush on until he put his arms around me and swayed to No Doubt’s Don’t Speak. Another is from my first summer in Montana, alone and friendless, in a land of rolling hills and mountains and a sky that seemed to go all the way around even though the horizon tried to stop it.
And today I was thinking, because I’ve read two and a half books since yesterday evening. The first one was an old friend, full of familiarity and fierceness at once. (Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, if you’re curious.) The second one was by a popular author, and, 268 pages in, I texted Kristin that it’d taken me that long to have A Feel. (Not naming that one, if you’re curious.) The third was also a new book to me, and it reached out and took my hand and pulled me into its pages. I realized, not for the first time, that the best fiction is true. The second book I had to read almost all the way to the end to find anything true in it. The other two start with truth and keep with truth, and that’s why they don’t let you go.
When I write, I try to make sure there are things that are true in my fiction. I really try. Sometimes true things sneak in without my knowledge; other times they are in intentional. I wrote a character who is a painter in THE MASKED SONGBIRD. I remember with distinct clarity why I made him a painter. It’s not just that through all my life, I seem to know painters. They’re in my family, my circle of friends. They’re sort of omnipresent in my life. I wanted this character to be creative, but I didn’t want him to be a musician or a writer or an actor. I remembered my uncle’s house, way back when I visited as a child. I remembered the workshop where he and my aunt worked on restoring carousel horses, the smell of sawdust and the fine-milled silt from sanding the wood. I remembered the smell of paint and the beauty that came out of hands and wood and oil and gold leaf and rhinestones. I liked seeing paint in the creases of hands. That image has always stuck with me.
All art, I think, is tossing out a net to try and catch some truth.
I’ve always admired people who can work in a visual medium, who can pull images from deep within them and manifest them on paper or canvas or even dilapidated carousel horses. It holds a special kind of wonder for me. Makes me sappy. *runs fingers down your face*
As I was reading the third book in my list today (Rainbow Rowell’s Landline, if you’re curious…you are SO curious. I like that about you.), I was sitting at the table in my kitchen with a giant bowl of Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup (thank you, Monica!) and a glass of V8 when something triggered in my brain. It was a little fizzy spark that took hold of some carefully crafted tinder from previous weeks and made what had been a nebulous idea something more cogent and tangible. Inspiration. It wasn’t that I thought, “I need to go out and write a book just like this!” Quite to the contrary; there was a little slice of truth that I’d just read, taken into myself and savored. It was a point of knowledge, of understanding, and it was one that came from me connecting with this book, these words, this author — probably in a way no one else would. Everyone else finds their own connections, forges pathways to truths in their own ways. But for me, I had found my portion of truth for that chapter, and I couldn’t let it go.
That’s a beautiful thing about art. Stephen Blackmoore gave me some very good advice when my book came out, and that was that he treats his books’ releases like exactly that: releasing them from being his property to being the property of others. It starts out mine. It becomes YOURS. And that is the fundamental beauty of art. While you can sit and try to force someone to see what you put there and why, ultimately the beauty lies in how others uniquely connect with your art. Where they find their truth reflected.
The creation of it is like tossing out a net. It’s part skill and part luck, and you can get better at knowing where to throw the net and how to position it to catch elusive truths. You can catch some truth and some flotsam and jetsam with it. In every early sketch or first novel, there might be more flotsam and jetsam than truth, but as you grow and experience and learn, maybe you find more and more truth tangled in your nets. At least that’s the hope.
All art is fiction, but the best fiction is true.
Make good art.*
*Neil Gaiman said that, and I can’t take credit for it.
**I stand by the “all art is fiction.” See: C’est n’est pas une pipe.