I’m convinced that every story is always partially true. There’s always enough mixed in to make it fiction, but reality is always lurking just behind. Even in fiction, we can see an author’s own life in the cracks of a story — why, for example, we can sense Hemingway’s own wrestlings behind his characters’ troubles. In many places, the line between character and author blurs
This is true of my own newest story (mentioned in last week’s column), which takes place in a world of “second chances unmissed.” And as my main characters wander a maze of alternate realities, I find myself questioning my own choices. How different everything would look in a strange house; or a new career, or even with a different wife. Entire lives rise and fall on a single decision.
So the same existential questions that keep me up at night — who am I? What am I meant to be? — correspondingly keep my character up, and reality flows into fiction. I find my own life seeping into the story, as problems and concerns that have filled my own brain fill my characters. This is what it means to write: to take an ordinary life, and change it into something totally different through fiction. There’s a veneer of “otherness” that keeps the story separate from my life, obviously, but all the same I see hints and echoes of myself in my character, and vice versa.
This is why I love literature: because reading allows us to live a hundred different lives without leaving our living room couch. I suppose writing is also like this. I see a mirror life, a possibility, in my character: one that I myself will never live. Sometimes I’m tempted to sit down and write out an ideal life for myself, as if I were writing my own character and the very words on the page would make life turn out that way. But somehow, I always choose the real: God, it turns out, is a much better author than I am.
But that is the job of a writer: to paint a picture that ever so slightly shifts reality, yet is so vivid that for a few minutes the reader finds himself thrust into a different life. Different loves, different choices, and a different world. Explore a few twists in the maze, and from that return to real life, filled with hope. What are writers but hope-givers, wrapping joy up in imaginary packages for others to find?