T h e G O D o f F I C T I O N
You don’t know me but I used to be God. I liked being God, too. It brought out the best in me. I was a benevolent God whose characters never got hurt, certainly never killed. But I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was merely a lesser god of fiction and that there was really one and only one real God of Fiction who had simply not bothered to appear to me…yet.
That miracle occurred in 1989. I was taking a fiction writing workshop with a leader who was brilliant but just a little crazy. He was the first person to introduce me to something called “story structure” and I kind of thought maybe he was making it all up. After all, how could I continue to be the God of Fiction if this mere mortal could impose all these rules on me?
I soon learned that my quirky instructor had not made any of it up after all. It seemed there was, in fact, a greater God of Fiction than me. And even worse, all the “fiction” I thought I had written over the years barely qualified. “There’s no conflict,” my instructor would say. Or, “No one wants anything badly enough.”
“Who cares about what people want?” I would argue. “They’re interesting people. Besides, conflict is mere contrivance.”
He was unconvinced and continued to throw stories at me, hoping I would eventually learn by example. It didn’t work. Firstly, I didn’t like the stories he felt were “successful.” And, secondly, I couldn’t see how the ones I did like were significantly different from my own. This is a special kind of blindness only writers are smitten with. The God of Fiction can be a cruel God, but only when you disobey the commandments, of which, it turns out, there are only two:
I Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Boring Character To Live
II Thy Stories Shall Have Plots
Not to brag, but I’ve been obeying the First Commandment like crazy for many years. It’s the second one I have violated over and over, though not willfully. It’s just that personally I don’t really care what happens and why. I just enjoy listening to people interact with each other whether in books or in real life. “That’s okay in real life, but not in fiction,” thunders the God of Fiction. “In fiction things have to happen,” The God of Fiction demands. “Characters who sit around talking about things happening don’t cut it,” the voice from above admonishes.
A few years after that miraculous workshop, I was accepted to the MFA program at Brooklyn College. I had had my encounter with The God of Fiction but had not yet accepted Its ways. And the MFA program was the perfect place for a non-believer like me. During the next two years we never discussed story structure, plot or conflict. Each piece was evaluated on its own terms. It was the fiction equivalent of moral relativism and it was exhilarating…for awhile. But eventually I grew tired of my personal, first-person “pieces” and wanted to start telling real stories about fake people. And now The God of Fiction had to be appeased.
“It is true you have abided by my First Commandment and have not suffered a boring character to live. And yet, you have not abided by my Second Commandment. You have even refused to make an outline! But the God of Fiction does not hold grudges. I will bestow upon you the Knowledge of Plot so that you may go forth and bring meaning to the existence of the interesting characters you have created. In return, I demand that you instruct others in my teachings. If you fail to do this, your Knowledge of the Laws of Plot will diminish until you are back where you started so many years ago. Now go forth and write and teach and remember my admonition!”
I just finished teaching my first fiction writing workshop. Most of my students had never written fiction before and so I reviewed conflict and plot and commiserated with them when they complained. I even admitted I was still wrestling with this God and most likely always would.
What I didn’t share with them was the fact that even when you do try to appease this God, there are no guarantees. (The God of Fiction, it turns out, has absolutely no pull at The New Yorker.) And, even worse, being a humble servant doesn’t bring with it peace of mind or even the ability to read other people’s published fiction without wanting to tear your own head off.
Not knowing this, one of my students recently asked if I had read a story in the latest edition of The New Yorker. I don’t subscribe to The New Yorker but I reassured her that I do read it periodically. What I didn’t explain was that for me to subscribe to it would be very bad for my mental health. Several years ago I was so distraught at my pile of rejections that whenever the The New Yorker commercial was on television (“Yes, The New Yorker.”) I became hysterical and screamed, “Don’t you mean: No! The New Yorker?“
I’m not such a delicate flower that I don’t read other people’s fiction at all. In fact, I subscribe to several literary magazines that publish quarterly or biannually. On a quarterly basis I can afford an all out teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, running-around-in-circles-until-I-drop-with-exhaustion-fit. I can doubt my sanity, my talent, my fragile understanding of this thing called Plot, and my even more fragile understanding of the semicolon. But I won’t do it weekly. I‘m just not made of that kind of stuff.
Life as a lesser god is, I admit, not as much fun as before. When I am being benevolent and understanding I know I am probably doing it all wrong. When my creations sit around being kind and clever for no particular reason, I am positive I am doing it all wrong. Still, there is hope. I am smiting left and right these days. I am trying to find the bad in every character I create. And yesterday, when I finally figured out what it was my hero wanted more than anything else in the whole wide world…I made him suffer for it.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine