Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Truth Hurts

The Nonfictioneer's Dilemma

Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

~ Franz Kafka

Kafka, you haunt me.

Whenever I read these words, I am divided. One half of my heart swells in awe of your insolent wisdom, at your unabashed defense of the artist's impertinence. You forbid us to whitewash, to pretty-up the ugly corners of life. Do not tread lightly on reality, you insist, but delve deep, and without apology. Show life with all of its thorns, no matter who objects. Where inspiration leads, the writer should follow with frenzied passion.

The other half of me spits at you.

I don't believe my heart was made for fiction. It goes against everything that has made me a writer -- a love for daily life, a quiet belief that every "normal" person, including myself, has a story. The little struggles we encounter each day say much more about our humanity, I think, than some grand, fictional misadventure. The truth is, I long for nonfiction. I long for its contemplative nature, its ability to find meaning in the mundane. Most of all, I long for its potential to highlight reality, and say, "There's no need for fiction. Life is dramatic enough on its own."

But I need fiction, Kafka. I need it terribly.

With nonfiction, there comes a risk. There are many things in our lives that contain all the elements of a good story -- a mother's coldness, an uncle's cancer, a best friend battling alcoholism. If we stop to look around, we realize that the people we interact with everyday have tales begging to be told. But this fascination with the trials of others is dangerous. It requires us to investigate and speculate about people's private lives. The nonfiction writer must intrude -- often without permission -- upon someone's darkest, most intimate secrets.

What is wrong with us, Kafka? Why is it the darkness in people's lives, that which makes them most vulnerable, that inspires us most? We are sadists and parasites. Our work thrives upon the draining of others for our own gain. We delight in their shame, their injury, their deformities, exposing them for general entertainment and "the sake of art." We cannot see someone's wound, and leave it be. In our sick fascination, we pick at the scar, peek beneath its stitches, until it bleeds. Because as a writer, as an artist, we must know what’s inside.

You did well to choose the word "mercilessly," my dear Kafka. To write directly from reality, we have to adopt a kind of indifference. We can't care too much about our subjects; otherwise, we'd always feel guilty, and never write anything for fear of violating their privacy and soiling their reputation.

This is why I write fiction. It was never because my life was uninteresting. My family life has been rocked by death and mental illnesses. My friends have been torn by scandal and abuse. There are always things to write about. But my conscience is my weakness. I don't have the stomach for trespassing onto others' lives, for being an invader. For you see, the greatest danger of being a writer is not the lack of things to write about. It is the risk of someone getting hurt.

Did you ever love anyone, Kafka? Or did not loving give you the freedom to write?


  1. Awesome post! I find your writing to be interesting and love to read it.
    Everyday life is anything but mundane if one chooses to open their eyes and see this amazing world in front of them!

  2. Your words are poetic prose; they're beautiful to read. Haunting.