Responding To That Insidious Lie People Still Tell About Fiction

I keep meeting people who believe this. You probably meet them too. What to say, what to remember, when someone tells you fiction doesn't matter. |

So, HERE'S some good news. The more I throw myself into reading these novels, the more I want to keep reading. 

It's that lovely truth: You can re-develop a taste for good things. It happens to me when I start drinking more water, eating more veggies, exercising steadily, or, for the past couple of weeks, falling headlong into one marvelous story after another. 

So, if like me, you've been away from fiction for a while, I hope this is encouraging!

The more I practice giving myself permission, and the more that I start my day with reading, the easier it gets to keep going. 


I'm a good two-thirds the way through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Oh, I love a good fairytale retelling!

There's always that delight of seeing how your expectations are handled—which events feel familiar, which ones are stood on their heads, or fleshed out in completely unusual ways... Mmmm.

It also reminds me of my struggles with the first novel that I seriously tried to write. For five years, I beat my head against an ever-expanding saga that I invented around the story of—brace yourself—The Princess and the Pea. 

More specifically, it reminds me of how hard it was to talk about the fact that I was writing a fairytale retelling.

All those conversations with the skeptical people who asked, "So what are you writing about?"

And I would perform whatever linguistic contortions I could to avoid saying, "Uh, there's a princess and a curse and an impossible test and the threat of madness and a huge journey and interactive memories and definitely a love interest and a fair amount of violence? Can we talk about something else?" 

I'm having better luck now, talking about my current work-in-progress. In part because I've learned my lesson, and I'm making sure that I love what I'm writing about

But also, I believe even more in the power of fiction. 

Any kind of fiction.

So "even though" I'm writing about an eleven-year-old girl going on an incredible, fantastical adventure in another world, with a crazy cast of characters and daunting challenges and mysterious spiders and possibly telepathic lizards and brain washing and aristocratic assassins...

I'm much more certain of its importance.

This book matters. I'm sure of it.

But some people don't really get how valuable fiction is.

Have you noticed this? Have you run into these people before?

The ones who will state—loudly and with a kind of bravado—"Oh, I don't READ FICTION."

Not in the contrite, confessional, okay I'm burnt out and what do I do about that kind of way. Or even the, I just can't seem to get to it lately way. Or the ones who say, I haven't found an author that really grips me yet. 

I get all that. That's totally fine with me.

I'm talking about the people who are essentially saying, "I don't need such fantasies to survive, thank you very much." 

It's smug. There's this belittling tone. As if they could say, "You poor children and your silly stories." 

In other words: Fiction is worthless.

When confronted with this attitude, I used to scramble for a response, feeling vaguely ashamed of myself, trying to find the scraps of my dignity.

As if I'd just invited someone to watch my homemade puppet show, only to receive a scathing response.

Or as if I'd just made a public announcement that I was, in fact, an idiot. 

Now I see it very differently.

And I've settled on a new reply.

So the last time someone told me, with a very superior grin, "Oh, I don't READ fiction. I've NEVER read a novel," I just took a deep breath, looked at him with all the pity I could muster, and said,

"I am so, so sorry to hear that."

As if he just announced that he'd had an amputation.

Because that's how I feel about it.

People who cheerfully choose to avoid all novels are literally cutting themselves off from a certain kind of understanding. Of a way to see other people, a way to connect.

Novels get to a place that movies and most non-fiction can't quite reachBecause there's an intimacy in fiction, an immediateness.

You see the characters' minds plainly, you hear their motivations, you're right up close to their struggles.

I think that what this man wanted me to say was: "Oh, wow, so you're not as frivolous as the rest of us, we who fill our heads with dumb lies. Good job, you superior person, you!"

Instead, I saw someone who was brittle and maybe even a bit scared.

Someone who didn't want to risk all the emotions and connections that happen when we put ourselves into the flow of stories, into novels. 

Someone who has no idea what he's missing. Or who he might be, if he let a stellar novel get under his skin.

I've mentioned a few times that I've been reading Brené Brown's amazing work. If you're familiar with her at all, you know how much she talks about the power of empathy.

Empathy—the statement that you are not alone

She's totally opened my eyes to how we need connection to other people. How we need to treat ourselves with compassion. How we need courage to live a Wholehearted life.

Guess what.

When we read novels, we get a sense of how other people share our struggles.

Have you had that incredibly powerful feeling, when you're reading a novel, and the main character experiences something similar to what you've gone through?

Whether it's an event, or a subtle feeling, or even a line of dialogue that you've said before: There's that shock of recognition, right?

Like you've suddenly caught your face's reflection in an unexpected mirror.

You are not alone.

Whew! That is powerful.

Novels have a unique ability to get in close to us, to wait until our guard is down, and then to say those life-giving words:

You're not alone. Someone else has been there. This writer gets it.

And then—there's a chance for a conversation. Maybe with the writer. Maybe with other people who have read it.

Suddenly there's connection, there's courage, and there's hope.

Maybe something that was shameful is now brought into the light where it can heal. And maybe there's some good self-compassion, as you realize that you're not the only one struggling. As you accept who you are and where you've been.

Dang it, I get all excited just thinking about this!! 

And as a writer, this is incredibly motivating to me.

I want to be honest in the story I'm writing.

I don't want to shrink from telling the truth about what it feels like: to risk big, to worry about your family, to face danger. To hope for change, to face day after day when you don't know what will happen, to heal broken relationships.

Besides. I owe fiction a debt. 

As an incredibly lonely kid, I saw people like me in books, even when I couldn't find them at my church or my school.

That sustained me during some really hard years. It helped me trust that there were other kids who felt like me, who understood me, who had been where I was.

Who survived

Like I said, that's powerful.

It makes me wonder, what is fiction about, anyway, if not connection? 

And are any of us actually above the need to be connected to one another? Above the need to belong?

Spoiler alert: Nope. Brené Brown is a very smart woman, and she says that the data says that we all need these things.

No one is exempt from this stuff. From these needs.

Which is why I'm convinced that to intentionally snub fiction is a sad, sad thing. An emotional amputation.

Let's not make the mistake of undervaluing the incredible novels that we read and write.

Instead, let's celebrate how they connect us, challenge us, and empathize with us. 

And if you're spending your time writing such things, good for you. It is a vital gift to other people. 

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't let the smug fiction-abstainers get you down.

Keep going.

Who knows who you might be giving courage to with your words? 

What about you? Have you seen yourself in fiction before? Have you had that shock of recognition, that sense of being understood? 

And have you run into people that don't seem to understand the value of fiction? What do you say to them?

How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter (or, Writing What Scares You)

Everyone's always saying to do what scares you... But what does that *actually* mean? How do we write like that? |

We're told over and over to do what scares us.

You've heard that too? As writers, as artists, as creatives, but also just as human beings: do what scares you. 

Write what scares you, do something that scares you every day, take risks.

Honestly, I do find this very exciting. I get all up in arms about it.

Rah rah rah! Yes! Do what scares you!

And then I calm down and think: 1) What the heck does that even mean?

2) And also, actually, no thank you.

Since "doing what scares me," applied literally, would involve a lot of stepping into traffic, leaping off cliffs, and working in a chemistry lab, I'm guessing that all these risky artists are talking about something else.

Besides. I'd like to have a decent life span. And fill it with daring books.

So what does it mean, to write what scares us? What does that look like?

For starters, here's what I don't think it means: 

I don't think anyone needs to share the brutally tragic stuff of their past before they feel ready to. 

I don't think it means writing anything self-abusive. 

Pretty sure some people would disagree with me on that, but I don't care. I just don't believe writing should be about impaling ourselves on our pens.

Okay. So what does it mean, then, to be risky, to do the scary thing? I think it boils down to three things.

First, there's a sense of risk anytime you start something new (What if I fail?).

And second, there's the risk of doing something in a new way, the risk of being original (But no one's done it like this before!), which is kind of an echo of the first risk--what if I fail?

But this idea of what scares you sounds like it lies closer to home.

And actually, I think that the answer isn't so much about asking "what scares you?"

Instead, let's look in the opposite direction: 

What grabs your heart?

What do you care about? Specifically, what do you care about so much that you would fight for it, tooth and nail? 

If all the stuff of your life were stripped away for some reason, if you lost everything, but you could keep three things, what three things would they be? 

Home, family, faith, pursuits, friends, land, health, abilities, memories, possessions?

At the core, what do you love?

... Do you have a general idea? A specific idea? Awesome. Me too.

Next question. (And this is where it gets really good.)

Who in your story loves what you love, to the same degree that you love it? 

Which characters are passionate about what you value? And not in a vague, of-course-they-do kind of way. But in a specific, definite, extremely-clear-to-the-reader way.

Do we get to see them fight for it? Scratching and kicking?

Do you ever strip everything else in their lives away, boiling it down, till their life is about fighting for this one thing?

Here's my confession: I've written characters who cared about stuff I just don't care about. Or, they shared my values, but in a general yeah-whatever way.

I tried to make those books work, but, um, nope. I couldn't really believe in the characters. I clearly wasn't invested in it.  

This trilogy I'm writing, though... At its core, it's about truth and family. 

Stuff I care about. In a tooth-and-nail way.

There's a scene, midway through the third book, where the aunt says a line of dialogue to her oldest niece--and writing that line just about destroyed me. I had to put my notebook down and bawl for a moment.

What?! Why?? My writing process doesn't normally involve snot, so what's up with that?

I'd somehow put everything I feel about being an aunt--all the crazy, insane love I feel for my nieces and nephew--into that one line. 

Especially how it was delivered, in the context of that moment. After everything desperate that had already happened. With everything climactic still to come.

The wording isn't fancy. The setting is simple. 

But when I wrote it, I put a piece of my core out there on paper.

And yeah, that does feel scary.

I mean, there they are, my guts, in between quotation marks!! 

I do feel a little exposed by that. 

And that's what I think is at the center of all this do-what-scares-you talk. 

If we aren't invested in these stories, why write them? If we aren't bringing our values, our emotions to the book, why bother? 

I'm guessing that you and I, we both want to write books that will grab our readers by the shoulders and not let go. We want to draw characters that will live in their minds and their hearts. 

Who might even inspire them. Maybe even give them courage. 

To do that, we need to dig deep into the things we care about. We've gotta get really personal.

We need to feel the pain of what it would be to lose those things, to have them threatened or taken away. And then put that fight and those feelings into words.

That, to me, is a recipe for a story that will grip. A story someone won't be able to put down.

What does that require of us, though? Being generous. Generous to the point of discomfort. (Maybe even generous to the point of snot.)

It means stretching ourselves: when I'm writing scenes like this, my heart beats faster. Literally. I'm breathing faster as I write. I get a bit anxious. And at the end of the day, I feel like I've been through something. Like I've been crying, or shouting. 

Is that weird? Yes! It feels super weird

But it has also helped me turn out manuscripts that I'm proud of. Stories that are saying what I want to say to the world

So that's what it means to me. It means: you have to dare.

Dare to be utterly honest about the exact kind of human you are.

Show what it means to care so dang much about the things you care about.

It means writing the scenes the way they should be written. Even if you look over the page and see your own guts, laid bare for everyone to see.

It means not racing over those parts in your story that would challenge your characters in the same way you dread being challenged. 

It means not letting clichés fill your pages, but instead, asking yourself how it really feels, what it's really like, and daring to be honest about that. 

It means flinging yourself into your story, no matter what.

How to Talk about Your Writing (Without Throwing Up)

You have to give up trying to justify your writing to the people who ask you about it. |

So you've done the hard work of beginning a writing practice. You're chugging along with some good ideas, forming strong writing habits, and cultivating a pleasant outlook.

Maybe things are going okay. And then someone says, "So... you're a writer? What are you working on?"

And, if you're like me, those simple words can be slightly terrifying.

When I started writing full-time, I responded very earnestly to questions about my work. I described where I was with my current draft, maybe sketched out a little of the plot, and--heaven help us--how I felt about it all. 

My goal in these situations was: to be honest, to try and sound like my work was legitimate, and to not throw up on their shoes out of pure nervousness.

It didn't always go well.

And here's what I've found out: The reason behind talking about my writing was all wrong. Way off.

It's good to be honest. It's good to not barf on someone's shoes. Very healthy goals. Nice job, Lucy.

But that middle one--did you notice that? Answering the "what are you writing" question in a way that would make me feel all warm and special and like my work is valuable... that NEVER went well. 

Never. You have to believe me on this.

Give up justifying yourself to people who ask about your work.

When you're talking about your writing, you'll find you have three types of listeners.

  • Category One: The nice people--friends or benevolent strangers. They tend to say helpful and encouraging things. 
  • Category Two: And then, the jerks. These are the ones who say things that make you feel like you've been chewed up and spit out. 
  • Category Three: These are the people who don't fit neatly into either category. Usually, they mean well (in a vague kind of way), but also manage to convey some serious doubts about the validity of what you're working on.

And if you go into these conversations needing them to crown you as a valid writer, as someone who is genuinely working hard, who has justified her place in the universe--

Then you can get into trouble, no matter who you're talking to.

Category One is obviously the nicest. But if I am fishing around for a certain kind of reaction, it's really easy for me to talk too much. Either I'm venting all my insecurities (NEVER a good move), or I'm spilling my guts about my story.

If all I do is hash out my writerly anxiety, no amount of their saying "No, you're a great writer!" is gonna stick.

And if I talk too much about my actual story, a really strange thing happens: When I arrive at my desk the next day, my characters are seriously unhappy with me. 

They cross their arms and say, "Why, why, did you tell all our secrets out in the open?" You might not believe me, but I promise: the work does not go well when I overtalk my plot.

Category Two: SO MUCH FUN. (Kidding.)

If you need someone else to validate you, and then open your mouth only to find out that you're talking to a total Anti-Writing Jerk...

Oh. It's just not going to go well. 

It is shocking what people will say. The best reaction I ever got from a Category Two was the woman who told me that she would evict her daughter if she ever did what I was doing. 

(And yes, it was very clear that I was talking about WRITING, and not, say, prostitution.)

It can be very, very hard to face your work after chatting with a jerk.

And then Category Three. The ones who essentially hope things go okay for you... but they also have very serious doubts about what you're doing. And why. And how successful you'll ever be. And basically...

Well, basically they doubt everything.

I have the most trouble with this reaction. Maybe because it's more common than overt jerk-ness, but also because it's too close to my fears about writing.

That I'll never make any money from it. That it isn't a "serious" career (whatever that is). That it is a waste of whatever intelligence I have.

And this is the person I find myself having inner arguments with, whenever I sit down at my desk. The kind of people I try to explain myself to, rising to the challenge of their strained "oh--how nice." 

Justifying why I write. What I write about. How I work. 

It's never a good route.

So I changed my goal.

I've had way too many crappy conversations about what I do. (Seriously. SO MANY.) 

And I've talked to too many honestly nice people, who have nevertheless sucked all the writing energy out of me and left me spinning. (Again: So many times.)

Finally, finally, I've wised up. I changed my goal.

It's not super complicated. My real, main, underlying goal, in any conversation about my work, is this: To be able to write the next day.

To be able to sit down at my desk after having this conversation about what I do, and to do my work.

No drama. No arguments. No wheedling. No justifying. No seeking validation.

I'm a writer. Writers write.

I don't need to find anyone who can give me that title. It doesn't exist somewhere outside of myself. No one hands out "Oh, FINALLY you're a writer now!" certificates. 

I've decided: this is a valid career. This is the thing I'm doing with my life.

Regardless of making absolutely zero money with it, for a long time now. Regardless of how it turns out.

Whether other people think it's worth my time, or whether they very plainly don't.

When you know this--when you know it down to your toes--then these conversations about your work just don't have that kind of power over you anymore.  They don't tie your stomach in knots and then leave you eviscerated.

Which means: You're free to do your work.

You can talk to your friends without sharing too much, without writhing in insecurity. You can be honest and concise, without ticking off your characters.

You can look at the jerks with sympathy. (My guess is, there is something in their lives that they didn't give themselves permission to do. And now they poop on everyone else's parade. Which is ultimately very sad. And it quite literally stinks to be them.) 

If you can't muster up sympathy for the jerks--or even if you can--you can write about them. Congrats, your novel just got a new character.

And the conflicted well-wishers, the kindly nay-sayers... Well, you can shrug them off too.

Your career isn't in their hands. Your ability to practice your writing until you're incredibly good, your time dreaming up characters and storylines... all of that is separate from them. It's only up to you.

So stay strong.

Look. It's gonna happen. You'll have some weird conversations about writing.

You're going to give too much information about your work to some people, and their reactions will haunt you. You'll blurt something out to a sneer-face, and be paralyzed for a week. Or you'll cheerily tell someone about your work, and their indifference or their constant questions will make you exhausted and doubtful.

But it comes down to this: You're a writer. You are facing a white page, a blank screen, and you're filling it with ideas. Words. Vision put to paper.

That is no small thing.

Actually, it's a big freaking deal.

And so there are going to be people out there that try to put the brakes on what you're up to. (Big deals tend to draw this sort of person out.)

Don't let them.

You have to decide, right here, right now, that you're a writer. 

You have to have the goal of writing. No matter what anyone says.

Because these aren't the only critics you'll face, right? So refuse to give anyone the power to stop you from working.

You're a writer. An explorer. You're diving into the unknown, again and again.

You actually do have the guts to do this. Don't let anyone's reactions convince you otherwise.

Wanna keep reading? Check out these posts: Voice Your Astonishment and The End of Excuses.