I write fiction. And I used to think that admission had to come couched in an apology. A typical conversation with a new acquaintance:
“So, what do you do?”
“I… um… I write.” Sheepish, because I know how wrong this conversation can go. Have you read #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter? ‘Nuff said.
“Oh.” Pregnant pause while increasingly-less-likely-to-be new friend imagines and discards a dozen inappropriate things to ask. (Like: Does somebody actually pay you to write? Or do you sit around in your pajamas all day and pretend you have a real job?) He/she settles, somewhat wisely, on: “So, what do you write?”
“What kind of books?”
With a sparkle in his/her eye and a half-smile of smug understanding: “Gotcha. I don’t read that stuff.” Or, “I don’t read that genre,” assuming that I write romance or chick lit (which are brilliant and amazing and so worth everyone’s time and attention—but that’s another story).
No matter how the conversation goes, against my will, I feel the need to apologize.
Why? Because fiction is lesser-than, the bastard sister of memoir or biography or historical/theological/scientific tomes? Because journalism matters but coming-of-age stories don’t? Because I haven’t cranked out the next great American novel and my grandchildren will likely not be forced to read my magnum opus in their tenth grade English class? Sometimes, if I admit that I write upmarket women’s fiction, a debate ensues about the value of fiction in general. I’ve heard that the publishing industry is going to hell in a hand basket and that the classics are dead. That writing is a lost art. That there is no fiction of value being produced at all today. Full stop.
Wrong. Full stop.
Fiction matters. It is a slow transformation, a sloughing off of self, a soul-deep connection that allows us to become–if only for a couple of hours or days–another person. To see the world through someone else’s eyes. To taste the beauty and the longing and the depravity and mundanity of another life. And these moments, these interludes of understanding, are the very building blocks of our humanity. They are lessons in compassion and tolerance, in forgiveness and understanding. In love. We cannot experience another person’s reality and remain unchanged, for even my four-year-old son must be a monkey after reading Curious George. Etchings on rock and so much mischief, this good little monkey who is always very curious. His soul has been tattooed by experience, and though the story is not his own, he owns it.
I write fiction. It’s powerful. My stories matter. My words matter. So do yours. And maybe most of all, our readers matter–and I hope that after they hear one of our stories (in conversation or in books, blog posts, articles, poems, screenplays, graphic novels…) they walk away just a little bit changed. My challenge for you today? Share your story in a small—or significant—way. You have no idea whose life you may impact.
Nicole Baart is the mother of five children from four different countries. The cofounder of a non-profit organization, One Body One Hope, she lives in a small town in Iowa. She is the author of seven novels, including, most recently, Little Broken Things.