The writing prompts and lectures Andre Dubus III gave us during workshops at UMass Lowell were always provocative, whether we were told to “describe a place using only one sense that isn’t sight” or “write a scene in which two people have sex for the first time.” Regardless of the topic, he challenged us to try new things and get out of our comfort zones. One particular concept he introduced made a strong impression on me: “Good fiction is true.”
I already understood the importance of an honest narrative. No matter how realistic or fantastic, whether one was writing about sentient snails fighting for their lives on a distant planet, wizard children coming of age, or an immigrant trying to make a living in America, if the story wasn’t true on some emotional level, the readers would never truly suspend their disbelief.
What was harder for my twenty-year-old mind to grasp was how research fit into this breed of true writing.
Andre’s anecdotal lectures about inquiry reminded me of method acting. He bragged about hanging out in strip clubs while researching The Garden of Last Days, immersing himself in the types of settings he planned to write about.
He also shared stories about other writers. He spoke about a historical fiction author who began researching an actual event, but got so caught up in the story that she wrote a whole draft without completing her investigation. When she finished that draft, she returned to her research only to realize that her first draft, based on minimal, fractured evidence, was in fact accurate.
In some ways, this incident contradicted my beliefs about the writing process, especially those influenced by Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she belittles a writer who “is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God.” Yet, it was exactly this supernatural, prophetic writing Andre’s anecdotes highlighted. I began thinking of writing as Galadriel’s mirror showing “things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass.”
Spiritual, naïve, and searching for ways to blur the line between reality and fantasy, I latched on to the idea that honest writing wasn’t just about making a story, but reaching for higher truth, playing the closest role contemporary society offered to that of prophet. I continued the first draft of a YA fantasy novel, whose protagonist happened to dream the future; I let the characters take me where I wanted to go, sometimes writing late into night. Maybe I didn’t save the world from a demon apocalypse like my protagonist, but through this writing, I did eventually figure out that it was anxiety fueling my short temper.
Like most youthful passions, this one was also short lived. I didn’t believe fiction would support me financially and I didn’t want to live as an impoverished, rejected seer. I wanted a graduate degree, a job, a husband, and my own house; I went on to get a Masters in Literature, marry an amazing man, teach composition at community colleges, and buy a little house on a lake.
Ideas about novels and prophetic fiction were quickly buried beneath mountains of reading and seminar papers. Creative Writing became something I did on summer break. It was fragmented stories jotted down in my notebooks, delirious rants at 3 a.m., and poems scribbled on my syllabus’ margins. Research and truth were restricted to the realm of academic writing. Did I support my argument? Quote the right experts? Present sufficient evidence?
It wasn’t until after I’d been teaching for a few years that I truly wrote again. Once I started, I became obsessed, writing every day no matter how busy I was.
Seven years after Andre’s lecture, “The Cell,” a story about my claustrophobia, morphed into a story about a female veteran with PTSD that won 2nd place in Women on Writing’s Flash Fiction contest. In my acceptance letter, I learned the judges had close family members who were veterans and felt my story rang true. I have anxiety, but I’ve never been in anything more traumatic than a car crash. I’ve never experienced war. However, in this case, the “truth” of the story wasn’t restricted to war or PTSD — it was about invisible disabilities and the obstacles they create.
Six months later, I had a similar experience.
My story “Melanoma Americana” was published as part of the anthology It’s all Trumped Up. During the second presidential debate, the editors tweeted a quote from my piece: “Blue Wall Insurance is running a special today. You can upgrade for just $599.” They were responding to Trump’s assertion that health care would be better with less regulation, more competition, and plans that are “tailored.”
An unregulated, competitive market is just the kind of place I could imagine our current system evolving into, something like the one in “Melanoma Americana,” where everyone has insurance but not all insurance is equal.
The funny thing was that I didn’t do any research before I wrote the first draft. It was inspired by the question: “What would healthcare be like if it was unregulated and completely profit driven?” It’s All Trumped Up had motivated me to finally explore this idea through fiction. After the first fast, shitty draft was done, I did my research and realized that the opinions I assumed Trump had were spot on.
In spite of the efforts many writers (and others) made to convince the public Trump was dangerous, he was elected. He, along with the GOP, are trying to revoke the ACA — they are also pursuing a number of health-related initiatives that worry many Americans. So far, the scariest dystopian stories haven’t come to pass, and I really hope they don’t.
Writing, I have come to realize, is like dreaming: the magic happens unconsciously. We can work through things while dreaming that our minds can’t make sense of while we are awake, and the same happens with writing. When we let go of our inner critics, truly become our characters, and write honestly, we let our unconscious minds take control of that first draft.
As Anne Lamott observes, we need to pursue the “child’s draft” — an uncensored first version where we set our subconscious free knowing no one will ever see what we’ve written. Through this process, we can begin to make sense of the world’s most terrifying and complex issues. Unlike dreams, writing can and should be shared — but only after we’ve confirmed our “prophecy” with real research and revised a dozen times.
Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
Sara Codair lives in a world of words, writing fiction in every free moment, teaching writing at a community college, and binge-reading fantasy novels. When not lost in words, Sara can often be found hiking, swimming, or gardening. Find Sara’s words in Helios Quarterly, Secrets of the Goat People, The Centropic Oracle, at saracodair.com and @shatteredsmooth.fictionwritersguest postresearchgrad school
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