Living in a city provides a constant stream of interesting sights. A thirty-something white woman walks down the street wearing only an oversized t-shirt and a pair of Converse high tops. A possibly biracial teenager on a skateboard rolls past me and I hear him say (in a rather joyous tone) “fuck you” to whomever he’s talking to on his phone. At my gym, an African American man works out every morning by himself in khaki pants and work boots. An elderly white woman orders a coffee and a muffin and then spends the next hour reading a hardback copy of Stephen King’s “Misery” An Asian man in a cowboy hat stands at the bar drinking an IPA at the local pub. Two white girls (hair and make-up nearly identical in style and application) stride effortlessly down the sidewalk in their platform heeled sandals while they both stare directly at their phones.
I have a writing friend / accountability partner / bitch session buddy that thrives on sights like these. She sees them as a this kind of inspiration. I often find myself wishing that I saw the world more like her. In my mind, her perspective on the world is how a “real” writer looks at things. I know that most fiction writers see these random sightings as more than just “hey look at that” moments. They’ll take note in their mental (or actual) writing notebooks because they know these glimpses can be used as a muse on which to build characters and/or stories. I envy those writers and their ability to mine reality for fiction’s sake. In my prior life, I was a history professor and a writer of history. Historians don’t make stuff up. I’m still a writer and for some of my work, truth still reigns—personal essays and biographical sketches, for example. But I have also started writing fiction. So for the first time in my writing career, I’m grappling with the notion of seeing a person as a character in my story, rather than their own.
More than once, this struggle has led me to doubt whether I can make that leap from nonfiction to fiction. Some days it feels too far. As an historian, I see the woman in the t-shirt or the black man in the gym and my first thought is to understand their context. How did they get here? What events and experiences led them to this place and this moment? What role does their race, their class, and their gender play in how their story unfolded? How do they represent themselves as individuals while also serving to illuminate something bigger? In short, I want to understand THEIR story. Which is why I became an historian. I wanted to tell other people’s stories.
But now? Now, I also want to tell my own stories. But, can I be an authentic fiction writer if I don’t see people as potential fuel for MY stories. To succeed, does my perspective have to change? Must I extract the person from their own experience to serve mine? Must I look at that old woman in the coffee shop and see her impeccable style and horror-story tastes only as a perfect character in my latest manuscript? If the answer is yes, then I need to find a kaleidoscope in my mind. Just a little twist and I’ll see things differently. I will be able to separate a bit of fact for the sake of fiction. I’ll observe that old woman in the coffee shop and take what I want for my story. I won’t need to understand her story. I’ll have my own. Just a little twist.
But I’m still waiting.
I write, but I also wait. Wait for the kaleidoscope to twist. Wait for my brain to quit doubting. Waiting to quit wanting to understand.
Other days, I write but I also worry. Am I failing? Failing to think like a fiction writer? Failing as a fiction writer? Failing myself by concocting a clever procrastination ruse? Failing as an historian by making stuff up? Am I failing?
Maybe someday, I’ll quit waiting and worrying and just write?!