We all know that reading can change us. A fine book can illuminate a dark corner of the heart, spur us to action, or open us to ideas hitherto ignored.
Does writing change the writer?
Nonfiction has always been easy and enjoyable for me. I love to interview and do the research. Stirring up the assimilated material until a perfect lede bubbles to the top is a delight.
Plus, I get paid to learn.
Earlier this week, I tromped around a scruffy acre of organic farmland. It stood as an oasis of wildlife in the middle of a semi-rural neighborhood. With pen in hand, I scribbled notes and followed a young man who has spent the last three years trying to make a living with the crops he grows in this small space.
The interview was for a column called, "Food for thought," a regular feature in a monthly publication distributed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This is the second time I’ve written the column. Last month’s topic was New Mexico’s apple industry and its relationship to the rest of the world.
In accepting these assignments, I didn’t anticipate the effect they would have on my world view. Suddenly, I’m beginning to think about where and how people get their food, about the cost of that "organic" tomato from Chile, or how many of our tax dollars (and dubious labor practices) subsidize a cheap potato.
If my nonfiction writing affected me this way, was it possible that my fiction did too?
Sure, on a professional level, I’ve changed. I’m more adept at editing myself, more disciplined about writing. I think about story arcs, plotting, finding just the right words.
I’ve abandoned the romance of inspiration. Faced with zero ideas, I’ll now force myself through hours of slogging to get a good sentence or two.
But this is probably true of any nonfiction author with more than one book under her belt.
Is there anything special about fiction that can change a writer — in a different way?
I think, for me, the answer is "yes."
I’ve been forced to stick with characters and people I don’t like far longer than in a short story. I’ve had to commit. Writing book-length fiction has taught me to fantasize with purpose, to push through dilettantism.
Above my computer now hangs a quotation from Shunryu Suzuki: "You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper."
Yep, that’s me.
The biggest change I’ve noticed is, somehow, I’ve developed a philosophy. This wasn’t intentional. It simply happened.
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine who writes literary fiction told me she writes to change the world. Frankly, I thought that was audacious.
Then, I felt guilty because all I really wanted to do was entertain. Where was the nobility in that?
Now, after finishing my third saleable manuscript (it’s my fifth completed one), I still want to entertain. But, I also want to do more.
To use the word mission sounds a bit too heavy-handed, off-putting, bang-the-reader-over-the head. However, I’ve realized lately that I do have underlying goals that have evolved specifically because of my fiction.
Here’s what I’ve added to that initial objective.
I want to
1. introduce my New Mexico to readers.
2. dispel stereotypes about NM.
3. explore important themes in such a way that those that want to find them, can. And those who don’t want to see them, don’t have to. (CLOVIS = family dysfunction/bad communication BELEN = religiosity vs. spirituality SOCORRO = the reality of how we relate to each other since 9/11).
4. um . . . to change the world.
I didn’t know I wanted to do any of these things when I originally started writing novels. All I knew then was that I liked Sasha and wanted to see where she’d go. I prayed that readers would enjoy her and want to take the journey, too.
It amazes me that in the process of telling her stories I’ve begun to realize there’s so much more to mine.