Novelists often speak of their characters as real people. They are people who have lives that existed before the moment the novel begins and outside its frame, and who reveal their full selves over time, as the writer writes. They apparently say things the author didn’t expect, and demand their own turns in a story.
I’ve never dared fiction, and doubt I ever will. My head doesn’t work that way, and I have never been disappointed by that journalistic tenet: “You can’t make this s**t up.” But I am a lifetime reader (devourer?) of fiction, and fall into its pages with a combination of reverence and lust. I’ve always been fascinated by the seeming tension between a fiction writer’s control of the story — they get to make s**t up! — and their universal claim that, at some point, they lose control, especially of their characters.
Journalist friends who have dared to cross the river into fiction echo that mysterious reality: They find the craft harder than they expected, and they find themselves unable to predict the personality and demands of their main characters.
I’m not yet far into Siri Hustvedt‘s latest novel, “Memories of the Future.” I’m intrigued by the title, and the endorsement by Nobel winner J. M. Coetzee. For all that, the friend who passed it along to me said she struggled with it. (Reality to writers: Not everything you write works for everyone.)
But on the first page, I was stopped, and enchanted, by this sentence:
“As I wrote, I was also being written.”
Hustvedt’s story is about a young, aspiring novelist who moves to New York to write her novel, stumbles and, years later, looks back to realize what she was learning about herself during the journey of her life. I’m not there yet in the book, but I am expecting that the main character in Hustvedt’s novel looks at herself the way authors look at the main character in their fiction — quirky, stubborn, unique people they can’t fully control.
What does this have to do with nonfiction? Two things:
- We don’t ever fully know the story subjects we try to render in our stories. We can do our best to immerse ourselves in their lives and listen to them closely, but they are, if we let them be, both a mystery and a surprise. They are no more predictable or controllable than a fictional character. That challenges our journalism — how do we know that what we are saying is the right thing to say? But it can also be one of the great joys of the job.
- As the sentence goes, we are writing ourselves as we write our stories. Every story we do is a chance to learn, and to shape our understanding of the world and our role in recording it. I am challenged, transformed, and expanded by the stories I report and write.