A Gossiper of the Imaginary

Gossip“When you’re a novelist, you’re a gossiper of the imaginary.” -Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

It’s been awhile since I’ve written any fiction. Sometimes I think I’m too analytical to do a good job of it. I am, after all, a philosopher by training, and philosophy requires thinking very systematically, and favoring rigor and orderliness over creativity. I used to write fiction. As a kid, I wrote all sorts of stories: sci-fi, spy novels, survival epics. As a teenager, I wrote screenplays for romantic comedies. I stopped writing for awhile in graduate school, but then after a few years I rediscovered my love through writing a novel–one of those that are a perpetual joy to write because the story and its characters just carry you away. It was beautiful. Cathartic. Empowering.

Somewhere along the way I think I may have lost some of that delight. I do love writing memoir. And essays. I’ve learned an enormous amount by writing them, and a large part of me is still very philosophical and needs that sort of explicit, earnest soapbox. But. I think I miss the flights of fancy allowed by the creation of fiction. I miss the opportunity to assume someone else’s skin. I miss not having to think about what secrets I can prudently and ethically divulge about my characters. A memoirist has to think about this. A novelist does not. A novelist, to build on Jane Smiley’s comment, can be the worst sort of gossiper. She can live without scruples about revealing the most damning information about her subjects and, when the information she has isn’t scintillating or titillating enough, she can make something up–and feel no guilt whatsoever.

While I love the work I’ve been doing recently–the patient, rational craft of the essay–I feel the steady growth within my chest of the need for something else. Something with fewer rules. Fewer straight lines. A tad more abandon. I love the way Jane Smiley continues the line of thought quoted above. These comments of hers come from her chapter of Meredith Maran’s book Why We Write, and after saying that, as a novelist, you’re a gossiper of the imaginary, she says, “You can take people you know who don’t know each other and make them fall in love. The fun part is seeing what happens.” The novelist is gossip, matchmaker, and God. It’s an irresistible triumvirate, in my opinion. Maybe I’m too left-brained to make a great novelist, or maybe years of philosophical writing have left my creative, emotive side irreversibly handicapped. But at this point I don’t care. I need to write some more fiction. Create some more juicy gossip. If for no one’s pleasure but my own.

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7 thoughts on “A Gossiper of the Imaginary

  1. I can definitely relate to your sentiment that “I don’t care — I’m going to write fiction.” About two years ago, I decided to succumb to my aching desire to write songs, as the annoyance associated with not fulfilling that desire simply outweighed my concern that I would be wasting my time or that my material wouldn’t be good enough. For that reason, although I am putting my work “out there,” I don’t find myself broken up over how many people listen to it or like it.

    • There seems to be something magical about doing what you really desire that makes you not worry about other people’s opinions. It’s as if, once you have your own approval, there’s no longer a need for anyone else’s. But it can still be hard to take that first step and succumb to the “aching desire.” Glad you did!

  2. Oh, I love this. You somehow just reached down in me and poked at something I’ve been ignoring for a while. My first love is most definitely fiction but I have found it much easier (perhaps not the best choice of word… much more natural perhaps?) to write memoir or narrative non-fiction over the last several years. I do miss that feeling of wonder though, where you’re equal parts in control of it all but also waiting to see what may happen next. *sigh*

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