Nobody ever asked me if computer software mattered. I never asked myself that question, either. Of course it matters: it’s a proper job, and there’s money in it. Case closed.
Whether you believe that or not, being a fiction writer is a very different proposition.
I made the switch a year ago, away from programming and software, and became a full-time writer. Without exception, everyone who’s asked what I do for a living recently has been excited and enthusiastic. It really helped quieten that nagging voice of uncertainty.
The doubter was me, of course. Does fiction matter? I’ve struggled with that question, because I don’t think writers ever entirely get past the fear that they’re being self-indulgent, and childish, and at some point the teacher is going to read their work out in the front of the class, and all the other kids are going to laugh.
I’ve been writing fiction for a while; since I was a teenager. I think most people start when they’re young, then perhaps lapse as education and work take over. Proper things to do. That’s what happened with me. But I started back up again, and I’ve been writing fiction again for a few years now.
Want to know a secret? Of course you do. Silly question. I’ve already published a fair bit of short fiction online, under pseudonyms. I’ve adjusted to having my tales out there. Two or three novels’ worth; about a quarter of a million words. I have over half a million readers in that capacity, which isn’t a bad number at all. A few thousand very positive reviews, too. It’s reassuring.
But does it matter?
It does. It really does. Because we need stories.
There’s art to be found in fiction, for one thing. The writer is performing a kind of magic, using language. Assembling a stranger’s feelings, memories, and imagined scenes into something resembling what they saw themselves as the story took shape. That’s all well and good, but it’s not the part we need.
There’s also escapism, of course. We read fiction to remove ourselves from this world for a while, and sample other ones. To be in the company of heroes and villains, and to explore other scenarios: the miraculous as well as the mundane. We read for pleasure, for pain, as a distraction, and to give flight to our imagination. Those are worthy and noble goals. We’re tale-telling creatures by nature.
Going a little deeper, stories are our cultural currency. They’re not some frivolous, separate thing - just an entertainment medium. Indeed, nothing is just for entertainment. Our stories frame the universe, pulling it into focus, reducing it to something comprehensible, and intensifying the colours until they sizzle. Stories are our best realities, whether they’re real or imaginary.
Here’s the crux of it. Our shared tales define us as people. They become our idioms, our figures of speech, and the lens of our understanding of what’s around us. They’re nothing less than world-models, to be picked up, examined, and experienced. They’re existential tools.
Therein lies the writer’s power, and grave responsibility. One person’s words sneak into others via the subterfuge of fiction, implanting ideas, perspectives, and perhaps even beliefs. We’ve all been changed by a tale that particularly struck us. By a lie that resonated as if it were true.
For me, stories are empathic projections. They reflect and propagate our hopes and fears. They fuel our desires, and sometimes our ambitions. Most importantly of all, they fire our emotions - they let us feel as deeply as we can. We’re emotional creatures, whose acts are guided by passion much more than reason. It’s vital that we know how to feel.
Writing fiction isn’t just a creative act, willing a new universe into existence; it’s another stroke in our continuing struggle to understand ourselves, and to connect with each other in the hidden places where each of us truly lives.
Whatever the author’s intent, the real potential of our stories is to catch the reader’s attention with a bright, new world, so that out of the corner of your eye, our own might come a little more into focus.
That’s what our tales do, and that’s what they’re for. They are profoundly human - and I think there can be no greater legitimacy than that.
Our stories matter.