What's more fun? Writing a novel or writing a biography?

June 17, 2018

 

Someone recently asked me which was more enjoyable--writing fiction or nonfiction. First, I had to narrow the terms for myself. I think of fiction as a short story or a novel in the genre of literary fiction. That's what I've written, anyway. And I think of nonfiction as a narrative that reveals a true story, such as a biography. That story is discovered through research. The research is synthesized to produce a narrative that reads in such a way that the story is enjoyable to a reader.

 

When I write fiction, I plan and outline and diagram and ponder. I write character descriptions that later I might decide to send to the trash pile if they don't work as characters or if I decide I don't need that character. I might follow my design through or I might decide it's not happening--it doesn't feel right, doesn't click, isn't honest, or maybe is just a dud of a story.

 

When I write nonfiction, I don't know what the sources will reveal about a subject, but let's take biography. I want to describe the times, the cultural setting, the challenges a person faced at various stages. A life outlines itself. I pursue lines of inquiry that seem promising and pore through sources, taking copious notes and filling notebooks or tablets. Then, I discover I'm spending too much time on one direction, that there's more interesting topics to pursue. Maybe I won't throw away those notes, but they'll go into an ever-growing pile that quite possibly will be dispensed with by some estate sale lady one day.

 

What's good about this kind of work? What's good is when fiction clicks and I'm writing something that makes me laugh or cry and when a character lives in my head so that I almost forget he's not real and almost tell a friend over coffee about the latest development in his life, as if he's a neighbor. When nonfiction clicks, I can't wait to get back online or to the library or back to piecing the manuscript together or adapting it to some new source material I've found. The time period becomes real, the people become real, and I almost tell a friend over coffee. . . .

 

Both genres involve telling a good story. Both involve research and getting details accurate and consistent. Both take over my imagination and become a beautiful obsession with characters and what happens. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I would argue there's more involved than "bleeding." And it's a lot more fun, especially when I'm letting the story or the discoveries plot my course and don't force something out. But then, I'm far from being a  

Hemingway. Writing in any genre can be a lonely, painful journey full of feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. And then I make myself laugh. Or cry. Or a reader tells me they thought about Charley Bristow, the main character in The Lark, and I'm in heaven. 

 

 

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