"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


“But That Couldn’t Happen”: On “Realism” in Contemporary Fiction

September 20th, 2016 by

This has happened more than once. In a fiction writing workshop, I have shared a draft of a story with a group of writers whose perspectives I want to benefit from. They understand how modern fiction works.

And then it happens. “I was following you until page five,” the reader says, “until I got to this place where this character hides doing this. I just don’t think that could happen.”

My story runs up against the question of what is possible in fiction. This question is connected in some unclear way to our sense of what is possible in life. Sometimes the event concerns a circumstance. Sometimes it concerns a procedure that the reader believes works differently than the way I’ve presented it. And sometimes, the related event is something odd that we might want to write off as coincidence.

The interesting part of this workshop experience—the two or three times that it has happened to me—is that the passage the reader pointed to as incredible and unlikely—the quick burial of a relative, or getting a red-eye flight—was the part that actually happened to me in real life. It was the least made-up part of the story.

The Turn to Nonfiction
This is part of what has been behind my motive for turning to what is today called creative nonfiction. With this genre, the attempt to tell what really happened is helped by using techniques of fiction. Scene setting, use of dialogue, characterization, and sense of place are all used to bring a past event or story to life. But the story itself is supposed to be real. When we learn that James Frey, for example, in A Million Little Pieces, not only added questionable dialogue, but made up most of his drug adventures, we feel betrayed. “Save it for a novel,” we say.

But I have turned to nonfiction because I have lived long enough to see strange things happen. I have experienced many so-called coincidences, had uncanny experiences, and seen things happen that cannot be countenanced in modern fiction, unless we are writing in the fantasy or horror genre.

In what we call “real life,” what is probable and possible are the stuff of rhetoric. We speak and act on what our audience finds within the realm of possible. But in fiction, we are much more strict about what we will accept as probable.

One very strange thing that happened to me was behind my thinking about writing nonfiction, an experience that I have been unable to tell about in any work of fiction. In late 1983, three months before my sister was killed in a car accident, I dreamed of her death. For three months, I tried to talk to her about it, and even called her once, but the whole thing seemed preposterous and uncertain, or perhaps, psychological, so I didn’t say anything to her. And then one morning in March, she was gone.

This is not something that will be accepted in “realistic” fiction. But it happened in real life.

Dostoyevski and the Firing Squad
The Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky, as a young socialist, was lined up and blind-folded in front of a firing squad. At the last minute, as rifles were being aimed, a rider appeared on the horizon with a white flag. The death sentence was being commuted by a merciful Czar. Instead, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Siberia.

This story never comes out in his fiction except as a background that happened to someone else. It never concerns the main character.

But it was the author’s experience.

When we talk about what is real and possible and what we will accept, I of course agree that it is never right to end a story or a novel happily on a coincidence or some deep revelation. That is never satisfying. It just seems way too convenient.

But that should never keep us from understanding that life, as they say, is much stranger than fiction.

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Comment by Emily Griesinger on September 20, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Excellent post! It makes me want to sign up for your course in creative non-fiction!

Comment by Tom on September 21, 2016 at 8:16 am

THank you, Emily. I remember conversations with you about spiritual memoir from eight or nine years ago.

Comment by Courtney on September 27, 2016 at 7:46 am

Excellent, Tom! I agree, a fiction workshop is a much different beast. When it comes to Nonfiction, true is true. I’m glad to see your turn to nonfiction, especially with stories that deserve to be told that way. I’m interested in the feeling you had before your sister passed. My mom had this when she was younger, about her friend who was taken and killed by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. I think they are clairvoyant moments. But the thing is, how do you tell the difference between these profound images and normal anxiety? I think writing about your sister would make a good personal essay.

Comment by Tom on September 27, 2016 at 8:51 am

Thanks, Courtney. I’ve actually written a book length manuscript about the experience. Maybe you are right. An essay would be better.

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