Lately, I’ve been settling into another kind of place: made-up landscapes pieced together in my head and put on the page. I just finished a short story that unravels around and in an abandoned house perched beside a big lake. I grew up on the north shore of Lake Huron, where the horizon line is empty of anything but the slender, shimmering shapes of distant islands. That’s where the house is, a structure based on a few old farmhouses found and wandered through when I was a kid, but mostly made up.
The story I’ve gone on to involves a small town in New Mexico and a couple’s eye-opening journey across the canyon lands. It is very new and only just emerging, so that’s all I can say.
As I spend time in fictional places, I’ve been thinking a lot about travel writing and the process of reporting on actual locales. In this realm, there is the writing that offers a service, that more-or-less sells the location and offers ideas of what visitors can do while they’re there. But then there’s that other kind of travel writing. Creative non-fiction. Prose that brings to life landscape and the people that live there, that paints a picture, that draws a story-like description of some place that actually exists in some corner of the globe. The line is precarious. What is the difference, really, between fiction and fictionalizing?
A book I recently took out of the library – Fred Stenson’s Things Feigned and Imagined: The Craft in Fiction – says the difference is in the intent of the work. A colourful essay about a fascinating trip to Tahiti is true if it says it is. So are those tabloids claiming that twin aliens were born to some farmer’s 64-year-old wife. True, because they say they are.
This is interesting to me because it gets right at the root of story. Often we hear of taboos and cultural myths that hold incredible power in small villages disconnected from the modern world. They are true, for the people who live with them. And we all used to be like that. In fact, we all are like that, each of us carrying our own false beliefs. But these days if a writer uses fictional techniques to create a more engaging, more interesting myth, to draw his readers more deeply inside his truth, he faces public humiliation on international television. Strange.
I love tales of place and personal story told well. That’s one reason I read Worldhum more than any travel site that simply offers blow-by-blow accounts of we-went-there, we-did-this or go-there, do-this. It’s also why I’m moving over to writing fiction right now. As the outside world loses its colour and texture to one bland palate of white, I’m drawn inside to a rediscovery of all the places I’ve been. Some of the details are blurry, though. To fill in the gaps, I’m making stuff up.