This is gonna piss off the nonfiction writers


These days, post-stroke, I cannot write fiction. I can only read about 5-10 pages/day of fiction. There’s something I find challenging about imagination and construction of said imagination these days. (Once, btw, I thought about writing a story where the main character lost all ability to imagine…boy, I never thought I’d be living that life).

But nonfiction? That’s a different story–I’m able to write nonfiction, to report what is going on in my life and mull it over, in words here (and in my journal). I can more easily read most nonfiction, too–newspapers, blogs, and magazines are all easy bites. No, I have not tried reading a memoir, in case you’re going to ask.

I am not sure why nonfiction is easier to digest than fiction–is it because I can absorb it in small morsels, that it COMES in small morsels? Is it because the narration is usually linear? Another friend of mine who also has had a brain injury (but not a stroke) says she too can read nonfiction more easily than fiction.  And nevermind, as a TA in school, how many undergrads I ran into who preferred to read the nonfiction books on the class’s reading list. Oh!  And nevermind how nonfiction SELLS more than fiction (sad but true).

Or perhaps the fiction/imagination center is in the thalamus, where my stroke was centered (like earthquakes, stroke talk focuses around “what part of the brain it hit” (like an epicenter) and “how big it was” (magnitude)).

Or ahem, maybe fiction is harder…? Maybe there’s a cognitive leap we must take to read and understand fiction? Yes, my fiction snobbery is showing.



Filed under Reading, The Stroke

9 responses to “This is gonna piss off the nonfiction writers

  1. And what a cognitive leap! I’ve just finished reading The Inheritance of Loss and the more I think about it, the more I realised how beautifully layered and exquisitely crafted it is. So many narrative threads all being guided along simultaneously.

  2. Jade! I must say, I’m a little disappointed — and suprised — at the way you’ve lumped all nonfiction writing together. Newspapers, most magazines, and blogs are written to be digested in small bites, and some are even written to be understood by as many people as possible (i.e. daily newspapers), thus the simplicity in the writing. But what about Capote’s “In Cold Blood” — a nonfiction book written in the style of a novel? Or Bill Buford’s “Heat,” or Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” (or any of his books, really) or Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight…” I could go on and on. These books, and others like them, are complex narratives, in many cases expertly and meticulously researched, and in all, precisely executed in terms of the quality of the writing, the organization of the material, the character development and so on. Yes, the reading experience for fiction and nonfiction is different. But to say that one is easier than the other, or better, is a little unfair.

  3. Elizabeth–I was hoping you would engage in this discussion! I knew you would have something wise and literate to point out and heighten the debate (I am not kidding, I really do respect what you have to say about writing, particularly writing nonfiction).

    I just wonder, really, if nonfiction engages a different part of the brain and if it utilizes different cognitive abilities. For the most part, nonfiction is very linear (all of your examples–except I haven’t read Kidder–are very linear narratives, even if complex). Correct me if I’m wrong! (Maybe “The Orchid Thief” defies this?)

    Yes, it was unfair of me to say one is easier than the other–they are both difficult to WRITE (and for different reasons), but I do wonder if one is easier to read/comprehend?

    I can’t deny that my head allows me to read nonfiction more readily than fiction, and that students at school prefer nonfiction, and a friend with brain damage also says nonfiction is more readily comprehended.

    I’m trying to find an explanation for the above, why is it “easier?” And I apologize for saying that means it was easier to write.

    Now I wonder if there are people who write both fiction and nonfiction and what they have to say about this topic? I’d like to be enlightened.

  4. mel

    I actually feel a lot of freedom when writing non-fiction; like the beauty or wonder of the stories is all there, it’s just about doing it justice. With fiction, i feel pressure to convey things as I imagine them. Kind of like banging steel or something (fyi, i got a blacksmith image in my head – see? i mistake readers for mindreaders!). So, it may seem “easier” only in that it’s more joyful for me, and usually less frustrating. I’m a lot more apt to just write rather than worry about where I’m going, tweaking, language, etc.

  5. I’m actually glad you brought this up…the whole fiction/nonfiction debate is something I think about a lot…I went back thru my blog and realized I hadn’t posted about it as much as I should, or would like. So I think I will. I’ve been thinking about it all day!
    It’s interesting that nonfiction seems easier to read. I actually find fiction easier to read (in general… there are always exceptions) and usually am able to read fiction faster. I wonder if there is something about our training as writers that makes us approach these genres differently, i.e. that we are reading for the technical aspects of the genres in which we tend to write. I also find writing fiction to be freeing… When writing nonfiction you’ve got to stick to the facts, the order in which things happened…when writing fiction, you can decide, for example, when you want your character to have some kind of epiphanic moment…in nonfiction (as in life) you don’t get to decide. That can feel like a constraint when you are writing a nonfiction piece.

  6. Elizabeth–VERY interesting! I look forward to your post–and I’m now glad I brought this up so that we can now have windows into each other’s worlds!

  7. I have always found nonfiction so much easier to write–and I’m someone who up until recently focused mostly on nonfiction. I already have all the material I need! In terms of reading…. I guess it depends on the type of nonfic, as Elizabeth pointed out. I’ve always gobbled up memoirs, but I’ve been reading MFK Fisher and it’s taken me awhile, maybe because it’s in short snippets.

  8. I have to agree with Elizabeth that not all nonfiction writing is the same, and that how difficult it is to read/write fiction/nonfiction is highly subjective. I often find nonfiction reading very tedious and fiction reading a lot of fun, but that also depends on the book. There is a lot of tedious fiction out there, too! As for writing, again, I think it’s subjective. Nonfiction (particularly memoirs) doesn’t have to be linear, and modern memoirs are often written with all of the characteristics of a novel and yet with the constraints of having to tell the truth. I have written very little fiction, but I find it easier to make things up than to have to stick to the truth, and I know other people find it more difficult to make things up than to relate what happened.

  9. As a person who writes a lot of nonfiction (it’s my day job, for one thing) and only a little bit of fiction, I’m probably not qualified to have much of an opinion, but I’m at a loss to see a huge difference, as far as accounting for feeling differently about them after a stroke (not that I’m qualified to say anything about strokes, either, except that they embody many of my worst fears).

    I wonder if there will be so great a difference when you move to the next step, editing. Fiction and nonfiction have wildly different starting points, but after that, you’re shaping, structuring, and finally wordsmithing.

    Yes, nonfiction usually has a chronology, but it’s easy to feel bound by it and often nothing could be more boring. As you decide the order of presentation, the differences between fiction and nonfiction melt away. As you figure out what your story is really about, and pare away the inessentials, the differences melt further away.

    I think it’s only in the beginning, filling the empty mirror of a blank page, that nonfiction may be easier.

    Dialog is hard in nonfiction, if you honestly rely on memory. It can be hard to find the drama in small victories and defeats, and it can be hard to get character to leap off the page, especially in memoir, especially one’s own. These are not easy things to do in fiction either.

    Nonfiction has some built-in limitations, and limitations can be good, in the beginnings of things.
    After that, nonfiction may well be harder – I gather you’re not up to the stage where that would be evident. Let’s just see how it goes.

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