Fiction or Nonfiction? How to Decide

This weekend, in a rather circuitous fashion, I opened up to my spouse about my writing process.

This isn’t something that happens super-often, unless I’ve asked him to help me out with something I’m stuck on and need to talk out, or if he’s giving me unsolicited advice [which he’s learned not to do unless I’m basically on fire].

We were talking about the middle-school aged kids at our church, who are so busy with school and also commit themselves to attending youth group. My spouse said he’d never participated in any at his church growing up, and I confessed to it being a huge part of my life at the time, largely because it was what you were supposed to do if you were growing up Evangelical in the 90s. (His growing up Episcopalian gave him other options.)

I regaled him with stories: the True Love Waits rings, the suggestion that girls wear a t-shirt over their bathing suits at pool parties, revival weeks during which one would attend church 6 times in one week (I told my mother I wouldn’t be going on a Friday, because TGIF would be on and there was no way I was missing Family Matters, not even for church).

I told my spouse that I’ve wanted to write about this rather odd upbringing of mine for a while, but I haven’t known where to start. Would I write fiction or nonfiction?

Nonfiction allows me to explore and make meaning of what happened in the past. I can take this set of occurrences and say, “Well, that was weird, what the hell?” and see how it shaped me in some way, such as getting hit by a car coinciding with the role anger played in my life.

Fiction allows me to be a different person. Growing up, I wanted to be an actress, a fact my spouse did not know about me until I told him this weekend. I was drawn in by the idea of trying on someone else’s skin, in a way. What was it like to be someone who’d had a completely different experience and seen that experience waaaay differently than I would?

Ultimately, it comes down to – and I surprised myself with this – choices, a variation of my word for the year.

I use nonfiction to make meaning of the choices I made: something happened, and I reacted to it – why did I have that reaction and not another?

I use fiction when I want to make a choice I would never make. I would never choose to move to a foreign country to be with a man I hardly know, or make my presence known to a douchey kid, or any of the other things my protagonists have done. I’m not judging their choices (unless I am); I just wouldn’t do them. I’m intrigued by them, so I live them out through my characters.

I think this is much healthier than actually putting on different identities. Which I probably wouldn’t be great at, anyway; I’m a terrible liar (hello, grew up Evangelical in the ‘90s!).

Writing, for me, is a version of honesty with myself. With everything I write, I’m saying, “This is who I am…or who I’m not.”

And in the vain of honesty, I have to confess: the choices I would never make are way more fun to write.

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